In search of a 'last hurrah'

What does one of the biggest names in British advertising do when he feels he needs a new challenge? He puts his reputation on the line and turns around a moribund agency, of course. By Raymond Snoddy
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The Independent Online

McCann-Erickson's Rupert Howell may be one of the biggest names in the British advertising industry and a multimillionaire, but he still had to look hard to find his "last hurrah".

McCann-Erickson's Rupert Howell may be one of the biggest names in the British advertising industry and a multimillionaire, but he still had to look hard to find his "last hurrah".

He had helped to found his own agency, HHCL, and seen it win the agency of the decade award, and then ran a public company, Chime, with Baroness Thatcher's legendary spin doctor Lord Bell, as the money continued to pile up in the bank. When Howell suggested Chime should be sold and Lord Bell declined, he started looking for a new challenge as his 50th birthday began to loom.

Howell's plan was to raise around £50m from venture capitalists to found a new breed of communications company - The Growth Business - which would put together a team of the highest quality communications specialists who would in turn draw on the best talent available anywhere. The £50m was there in principle, Howell says, although none of the money was actually in his bank.

One day two years ago Howell was walking through the City with his business partner Robin Price after "our 27th venture capital meeting of the month" when he asked a key question.

"I said to Robin why are we doing this? And Robin said why are we doing this? Didn't we say we don't like all the corporate financial stuff running a small plc. Didn't we say we wanted to get back to the coal face, and didn't we say what we loved doing was being with clients, advising clients," says Howell.

It took just an hour in a Starbucks near London Bridge to decide to pull the plug on the £50m venture that never was.

When word of the decision got into the newspapers everyone from Sir Martin Sorrell, chief executive of WPP, to Maurice Lévy, chairman of the French advertising group Publicis, got in touch with Howell to discuss job possibilities.

But the last hurrah really got under way following the strangest offer of the lot: the chance to take charge of a floundering London agency which had seen much better days - McCann-Erickson.

"In London it had this terrible reputation. I think reputationally there had been a 20-year decline," says Howell, who adds that many of its most important clients had put their accounts up for review; management had come and gone and headhunters scarcely bothered to send their clients to the agency any more.

It was also, he believes, seriously unbalanced with too large a proportion of resources devoted to managing accounts and too little money being spent on the creative output. There was also a geographical imbalance, with 80 per cent of its business global rather than UK based and therefore heavily dependent on decisions taken in New York.

"I discovered that McCann's hadn't won a domestic pitch (for business) for two or three years," Howell says.

Given the scale of the problem, why on earth would Howell choose to go to an agency in such obvious trouble? "Precisely because of that. That's why I did it. I remember thinking what a challenge. What if I could make McCann London as good as the best McCann offices around the world which are very good indeed? If I could restore McCann to the kind of reputation it had when I started in the business 25 years ago, that would be fantastic," he says.

Howell says it was too late to save the business already under review. And clients such as Birds Eye frozen foods, Glenfiddich, Greene King, Somerfield and Norwich Union duly walked.

Howell believes the proof that he wasn't entirely mad started to come when he persuaded other heavy hitters from the industry to join him - people such as Robert Campbell, founder of Rainey, Kenny Campbell Roalfe/Y&R which he sold to WPP, as executive creative director, and Damian O'Malley who had also founded his own agency and then left, as executive head of planning. Frank Lieberman, former head of television at Abbott Mead Vickers, was enticed out of retirement to run TV.

"It would be wrong to say it was a start-up but it is a complete regeneration with a completely new leadership team," says Howell, who is president of McCann in Europe, Middle East and Africa and chairman of the company's UK and Ireland group. The top group at the agency also includes Price as chief operating officer and Stephen Whyte, former chief executive of Leo Burnett, as chief executive of McCann-Erickson London.

One of the first new pitches for business after Campbell arrived was for the UK business of Signet, the US jewellery group that owns H Samuel and Ernest Jones. McCann won the business but the big surprise came when they found out whom they had beaten: HHCL and Rainey Kelly Campbell. "How weird is that," says Howell. "We got fantastically kind notes from our two former agencies. This gave us huge pleasure to say the old boys know what they are doing."

There were redundancies and a churn of more than 150 staff. Some Howell says simply weren't good enough; others had to be let go because the agency was losing money.

The business wins have continued and range from the Carbon Trust and Bendicks to Intel and RHM Foods. New commissions have also come from existing clients such as Johnson & Johnson and MasterCard with the eye-catching "Some Things Money Can't Buy" campaign.

"We have gone from loss to a trading profit, although we are not getting the margin we need to make. But we are making profits and we are winning business and almost without exception our clients are happy," insists Howell.

Despite the high-profile hirings, there is still some way to go. Although McCann-Erickson is the second or third largest network in the UK - boosted by strong offices in Birmingham and Manchester - Howell says it's only about 10th in London, the heart of adland. "All we are are talent brokers for the clients," he explains. "In order to get talent and deploy it effectively you need to have talent magnets like I am to an extent and Robert (Campbell). The copywriters came because Robert was here."

The "talent magnet" becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, although Howell concedes it's a more complicated business moving long-term reputations. But at least the agency now has no problem either attracting talent or getting on short-lists for pitches.

At the beginning the question was asked whether the new McCann line-up would be hungry or passionate enough. "Someone asked this question of Robert. He's made it. He's made millions. I've made millions blah, blah and Robert said because I want to be challenged. But you have also got to understand that what I am putting on the line here is my reputation," Howell says. His first job after a business degree at Warwick was updating a windscreen wipers catalogue at Lucas car components company. Now from his present perch, in an Art Deco former garage off Russell Square, Howell casts an experienced eye over his industry and its obsessions.

Some worry that marketers are no longer as close to the chairman and chief executives of their client firms as they once were.

"I don't have any problem talking to chairmen and chief executives although I am sure some people do," he says. Any decline in the power of advertising is only relative because there are so many other alternatives.

He is equally untroubled about the effect of personal video recorders such as TiVo or Sky Plus which make it much easier for viewers to skip television ads.

"The genius of this business is to get round stuff like that. It demands greater creativity," Howell emphasises.

He also happily takes a poke at an old sparring partner - Sir Martin Sorrell. He thinks Sir Martin may risk undermining his operating companies such as Young & Rubicam and Ogilvy & Mather by using his holding company WPP for worldwide pitches for accounts such as HSBC.

"I respect Martin and get on with him, but I do think what he is doing is potentially dangerous for his operating brands," Howell notes. "The brand is Sorrell not WPP. If Martin got run over by a bus it would not be good for WPP shares."

His aim now is to try to make McCann's the most creative agency in Europe and win an Agency of the Year award for McCann London. "I am looking at this as a 10-year last hurrah really," says Howell, who is 48.

"I would love to say at the end of my career: enfant terrible, built a great agency, tried a great experiment at Chime which was good but wasn't fulfilled in the end, and then took on McCann and made it happen," he says.

If and when John Dooner, chairman and chief executive of McCann-Erickson Worldwide, decides to retire another ambition might some into play.

"I am not sure I would ever want to run it (McCann's) worldwide but I wouldn't mind being asked," he admits.

An alternative is already in his mind. When the keen village cricketer finally hangs up his boots in the advertising business, Rupert Howell plans to follow the England cricket team to Test matches all over the world.