Stefano Hatfield On Advertising

Are Kelly and Campbell still hungry as Pot Noodle heads out the door?
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First up, I'd like to thank Cilla Snowball - I think - for filling in last week while I was off searching for my missing testosterone in the Egyptian desert. She was, of course, as nice about everything and everyone as you might expect from the magnanimous boss of Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO.

One of AMV's more illustrious alumni made the big headlines this week. Not long after quitting McCann-Erickson, in a surprise move Robert Campbell was reunited with his former partner, Jim Kelly, to take over the nondescript WPP fourth agency, HHCL United.

In the process, quietly, Lord Bell's Chime Communications sold its remaining 51 per cent stake in the agency to WPP for a paltry £2.75m. Chime had sold the first 49 per cent to WPP for £3.5m only two years ago. It is a desultory return on the £24m Chime paid for the then HHCL & Partners in 1997. Extraordinary to think that with the dropping of the HHCL part of the name, Howell Henry Chaldecott Lury, the iconoclastic London agency of the late Eighties and early Nineties, is no more.

The trouble for Campbell and Kelly, two of the more popular and respected senior admen around, is that neither United nor Red Cell nor Conquest nor Lansdown (the various names the agency has gone by over the years) has ever really meant anything in London at all.

In this respect, while Sir Martin Sorrell's choice of executives is eminently understandable, Kelly and Campbell's decision is a surprise. Given that the duo had decided that they did want to work together again, they could have done pretty much anything they chose to in London. And, at first hearing, their going to United is a slightly underwhelming option.

With Pot Noodle heading out the door, there is really only Sky and a few bits and bobs like Alfa Romeo of any consequence. Far more notable is the HHCL business that had gone over the years: Egg, AA, First Direct, Tango, Ronseal, now Pot Noodle - fine campaigns all. It is a precipitous, inexorable decline.

The question isn't whether the duo can turn it round, because there is nothing significant to turn round. Really, they have the chance to build an agency almost from scratch, with a few clients to keep things ticking over, and a majority stake from Sir Martin keeping the risk from the door.

Given that Campbell and Kelly both walked away from their previous relationship with Sir Martin at Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R, it may seem strange that they are back in the WPP fold. But, given that Sir Martin respects the duo, and Campbell has tasted life under the alternative IPG umbrella at McCann-Erickson, Sir Martin's irresistible force met an easily moveable object. It is a start-up without the risk - although as I write I believe the exact levels of ownership are still being haggled over.

So it is not as exciting to the advertising press as an entirely fresh start-up might have been, and it is probably not going to be as controversial as either the Sir Frank Lowe or Trevor Beattie start-ups. The key questions are: how hungry are the duo for future success; and how much freedom do they have to create an agency in their own likeness?

Sir Martin is surely too wily not to allow them their heads. Why stump up for them in the first place, if not? What's more, what has he got to lose? It's unlike Sir Martin to have spent so much time and effort and still not to have fixed an underperforming company.

The odds are high that the Campbell-Kelly duo will succeed again, but much will depend on their ambition. Sir Martin has already made them rich once. Are they really hungry enough to do it all again? They better be, if not for the sake of their wallets, then for their reputations.

Andy Berlin, the worldwide United chief executive, would like to compare United with Wieden & Kennedy, Fallon and BBH. That's currently entirely fanciful - in the US as much as in the UK. Kelly and Campbell represent United's best chance of making such a fancy real. And they won't be doing it alone. Watch that space for hirings.

COULD SIR Frank Lowe's new start-up be about to make its first mistake? All the good work and PR generated by top names such as Paul Hammersley, Mark Cadman and Ed Morris's arrivals could be at risk. A reality-TV crew (didn't they used to be called plain old "fly on the wall" documentary makers?) has approached the gang about following their first baby steps into the big bad world of advertising. The dithering of several senior British advertising names over whether to join the start-up would doubtless make compelling viewing, but anyone believing that a TV producer sizes up an ad agency with the intention of portraying it as anything other than a group of egotistical, pretentious, overpaid luvvies is dreaming. I remember watching Robin Wight being filmed in a beautiful mews house tying his bow-tie in the morning before jumping into his chauffeur-driven BMW and whizzing off to tell the bemused Rover board they should change the Rover name. Even worse, I can recall the St Luke's documentary. All of it. Oh dear. Just say no, Paul.

DOES ANYONE have a clue what the new Ford Fiesta commercial is about? Sure, I know it's the 353rd spoof of The Graduate to be used in a contemporary ad, but what on earth does the "voice-activated" feature have to do with the bride fleeing the altar? And, so what? It is lame, tired and lazy advertising. Small wonder that the trend towards large car-advertisers appointing smaller, local, more creative agencies shows no sign of abating. This week alone, Clemmow Hornby Inge won yet more of Saatchi & Saatchi's Toyota business. The agency networks only have themselves to blame.

I KNOW that elsewhere in these pages Dave Trott is writing a tribute to the late John Webster, the wonderful creative mind behind many of the finest ad campaigns of the past three decades, but I want to add a small contribution. In an industry where creatives often become famous for, and then live forever off the back of, just one ad, and where the less-talented often make the most noise, John Webster stood out in every way. A shy and modest man, and a master of observation, he always remained astonishingly contemporary, and had a unique gift for beguiling the British public through ads that entertained and engaged. His work was pretension-free and displayed an extraordinary lightness of touch. What's more, he did it year in, year out for decades. In an industry where many creatives think they are geniuses, he was one of a handful worthy of the description.

E-mail if you have a clue what the Ford advert is about