The senior creative at TBWA\Chiat\Day New York speaks to Addison Capper about how her ad industry career kicked off with masks of her “resting bitch face”, why it’s so important for her to mentor up-and-coming talent, and the power of gut instinct
Robyn Frost’s mum once found her in the garden as a toddler pouring grass-green paint over the red and black spotted shell of a ladybird. Casting aside our juvenile sadistic tendencies for a minute, there’s certainly an element of creativity to the situation, something that Robyn, who remembers the occasion distinctly, jokingly agrees with me on. “The bug met a sad fate that day but clearly I felt a huge sense of creative vision and abstract inspiration,” she says. “Perhaps it was the start of my art and design career?”
Robyn, currently plying her trade as a creative at TBWA\Chiat\Day New York, grew up in London surrounded by galleries, museums, food and the city’s massive mix of cultures and considers herself lucky that her parents took her and her brother off to do activities all the time. “If I wasn’t staring down the moving model T-rex at the Natural History Museum, I was probably up a tree,” she says. She was a quiet, even “timid”, kid, the exact opposite of how she is now. “I think the structures of education can really stifle children,” Robyn adds. “Particularly those who don’t decide from a young age that they want to be doctors or go to Oxford Uni one day. As I figured out what I was good at, I got louder and voiced my opinions more. Now I’d describe myself as driven and intentional.”
That process of figuring out what she was good at eventually took Robyn to Kingston School of Art to study graphic design, however halfway through she realised and admitted to herself that she didn’t want to be a graphic designer. She took a year out to get her head straight. “I didn’t love my book so I got really good at writing convincing emails and knocking on doors of ad agencies and branding studios, asking people for internships,” she says. “I wrote copy for muesli packaging, designed drinks labels, made posters, wrote scripts for a TV announcer, helped brand a horse racing club, and learnt a whole lot from some brilliant people who were generous with their time and energy. By the time the year was up, I knew advertising was what I wanted to do.”
She emailed a couple of big-name London agencies but got told to go away and come back later once she’d been to ad school. “Pretty antiquated and exclusionary thinking,” she says. But off she went, and applied to School of Communication Arts 2.0 in Brixton, London. The school was in an old church and the studio was previously a nightclub called Mass. “I knew I had to snag a place. I could just feel it,” she says. “The school’s pretty untraditional, especially when you compare it to other places in the country.”
To snag that spot, prospective students had to do a four-minute presentation about themselves for which Robyn made masks of her “resting bitch face”, arguing that having a controlled expression would get her far in the industry, something that is “still extremely helpful in meetings” she jokingly adds. “I pitched up at Wieden+Kennedy and M&C Saatchi London unannounced, and asked everyone from random creatives to the lovely person at the front desk to wear the masks and give them glowing reviews. I made it all into a film and showed it at the school and got in. A conventional yet unconventional foot in the door.”
Prior to moving to the States at the beginning of 2019, Robyn and her partner Henry Foenander spent a year at Poke London, which she believes to be the agency she’s learned the most at so far. “We were given amazing opportunities and were nurtured by a great team of CDs who made us compete against them when coming up with ideas,” she says. “Genuinely brilliant, talented people. I loved it. Moving to America right after felt like starting all over again – the industry is really different here, from style of work to how people present. It’s fun getting to experience the ad industry this side of the pond too, still young in our careers.”
Two projects from that time particularly stick out. The first was a social campaign for Heineken, notable purely because of its “unrelenting speed and never-ending storyboards”. Robyn remembers her and Henry’s creative director calling them up from the shoot to write new scripts and make new storyboards there and then, as stuff changed. “We learnt to work hard and fast,” she says. “We were sent to Paris for a day to shoot some of it, which is an opportunity I’ll always be grateful for.” An extremely important side note from Robyn: “French shoot food is unparalleled, and dogs will always be the most demanding talent.”
The other was a campaign for EE called ‘The World’s First 5G Stylist’. “Fashion is obviously a huge part of any red carpet event, and we wanted to help people find affordable dupes for designer outfits,” Robyn says of the project. They brought a CGI Instagram influencer to life using motion capture and Unreal 4, and put her live on the red carpet at the BAFTAs as a hologram. She took pictures of A-listers’ outfits, used AI to find affordable matches, then shared it all with fans at home via a chatbot.
“There were three creatives on it – me, Henry, and our CD, Chris Townsend,” Robyn says. “Henry and I were given a good chunk of responsibility on the project, from being tasked with coming up with the concept and leading the copy to working with the technologists to ensure everything ran seamlessly. There were so many moving parts that we got to be hands-on across all of them. Working so closely with Chris every day meant we learnt a lot in a short period. Excitingly, the campaign went on to win a bunch of awards (if you’re interested in that sort of thing), and got its own talk on stage at Cannes, which was pretty cool. Most importantly, non-ad people liked it.”
While we’re talking about work, it’s also worth noting that Robyn is also the creator of one of my favourite creative projects to come out of those early days of Covid-19 lockdown back in April 2020. ‘Greetings From Lockdown
’, which Robyn created with former colleague Victoria Rosselli, was a series of vintage inspired postcards aimed at reframing how people saw their homes during lockdown.
“I want a stranger in a pub or a kid walking down the street to be talking about a piece of my work,” Robyn says of what she strives to achieve with each project. “It doesn’t matter whether they love it or hate it, or whether it looks like a conventional ad or otherwise. ‘Whatever It Takes,’ the latest Macmillan spot by AMV BBDO, brought me to tears. Big, heaving sobs. It wasn’t made for ‘ad people,’ it was made for people. I bet a lot of the general public reacted in the same way I did. Achieving a response of that level is a huge achievement, and what we should be aiming for, in my opinion.”
Robyn is also a keen and vocal advocate for the next generation of creatives in the ad industry. She’s been a writer for the 3% Movement’s annual 3% Conference for the past two years, “which has been a brilliant experience”. For the past year she has also been working for the creative industry social media network Fishbowl as a community leader and moderator in the Women in Advertising bowl. “We excitingly held one of our first live chats a few weeks ago and got so into it we ran an hour over time,” she says. Robyn has also been mentoring grads and juniors for the past year or so and was one of the brains behind a recent free mentorship scheme in response to stories of a young strategist being charged by a senior for mentorship
“I always get so excited when I read a junior’s writing in an ad mag, and I’d love to see more of it,” she says. “The more visibility they get, the more they’ll feel valued, and the more we’ll all realise that learning is a two-way street. It’s not just about mutual respect, it has a day-to-day impact too – when we show people they’re valued by listening to them (and paying them fairly, let’s not forget that!) the more brilliant ideas people will feel able to voice in typically hierarchical environments. This also extends to jury opportunities, speaking gigs, and awards. It’s easy to default to the tried and true, but seeing the same faces pop up everywhere isn’t doing much for progression. Depoliticising those opportunities would be a great first step.
“Industry-wide, if we submitted our so-called ‘solutions’ to the industry’s biggest problems to the Effies, and actually measured impact, I wonder how many we’d really win,” she adds. “There’s a huge, well overdue focus on diversity, equity and inclusion – but while everyone is happy to stand and raise a glass to it, what do they do next? From a creative perspective, many of us are looking less at the agencies that push sponsored thought leadership pieces about it in the press, and more at those who are working quickly and quietly to address their issues and learn from their mistakes. Day-to-day we have a responsibility to be authentic in how we speak and act, and this should be extending beyond commercials.”
Outside of work, bouldering - essentially rock climbing stripped down to the bare essentials of chalk, climbing shoes and your own strengths - has helped Robyn decompress since she took it up in 2019. “The walls are shorter than your typical rock faces, but some still go high enough for you to fall and break something,” she says. “It’s the best way to get a break from your mind and force it to stop thinking of ideas for a bit – it’s incredibly strategic, so there isn’t room to lose focus. It’s a cool hobby for creatives, because it’s essentially problem solving but with no clients.”
And the work of interior designer Kelly Wearstler is a particular inspiration at the moment. “She’s a world-class interior designer who plays with space like I’ve never seen before. She creates amazing tension between textures, shapes and materials – Google her living room.” (We did and wholly recommend clicking this link to see if for yourselves
.) “I’m sure you saw the Blue Check Homes
in San Fran a couple of weeks ago,” Robyn adds. “The project was by viral artist Danielle Baskin. I’m a fan of anyone who pranks the internet.”
My and Robyn’s chat ends with a question of what drives and motivates her in life, which, in a way could feel trivial shortly after speaking about issues around mentorship and the like. “Apart from wanting to make things better?” she says. “Gut instinct. I just know I’ve got great work in me that I’m determined to make, have to make, and will make. It's a swirl. Cracking ideas can be a selfish rush, but the moment a client chooses another, better idea over yours, and you come second, you step away knowing you have no choice but to up your game. It’s a fun, frustrating energy.”