CLOSE-UP: Live Issue/HHCL & Partners - HHCL's newly appointed MD is determined to focus on clients

Nick Howarth, the new managing director of HHCL & Partners, is

clear about what 2002 has in store for him - getting the agency back to

the glory days that made it Campaign's Agency of the Decade for the

90s.



"We've got to get back to basics," Howarth stresses. "Having been here

for six years already, I know what we're capable of, both in winning

accounts, retaining clients and creating great work, and I'm determined

to see that again."



Previously the client services director at HHCL, Howarth could not have

been promoted at a more crucial time. The agency admits most of 2001 was

disastrous, with clients walking away, a poor pitch conversion rate and

unremarkable creative work.



HHCL's chairman, Simon Burridge, to whom Howarth will report, claims he

has been spread too thin since his arrival at HHCL in the summer. This,

teamed with the former managing director Ian Priest's departure on a

year's sabbatical, the chief executive Robin Azis' international project

and the founder Rupert Howell's commitments as the chief executive of

the agency's parent company, Chime, has led to a power vacuum at one of

HHCL's most vulnerable times.



"The arrangements made for senior management were simply not

sufficient," one insider says. "And that came back and bit them on the

bum."



Clearly, with Howarth's experience in dealing with and retaining clients

(he launched Go and got HHCL a place on the Mars roster last year) the

focus will begin with them.



"There's no doubt that we've taken our eyes off the ball," Howarth

admits.



"My job will be to recreate the classic HHCL understanding, which made

us great."



While he is keen to assert that internally the agency operates in a

different way to most and actively builds upon its reputation as an

employee-friendly place to work, he does concede that too much

navel-gazing can mean trouble.



Clients appreciate a "different" approach - witness the rise of Mother

and indeed the heyday of HHCL - but if they think they're being ignored,

they'll look elsewhere. One former agency staffer is more forthright:

"It's been all about the agency people and its profile, rather than all

about the clients."



According to Howell, Howarth's appointment means that those clients will

now be the centre of attention. Yet at the same time Howell rejects

claims that some of the accounts that left last year - Egg, ITV and the

AA - did so because he and other senior colleagues were no longer

working within the agency or directly on advertising.



Howell agrees that Howarth's promotion was much-needed, but claims the

agency will face little pressure from Chime this year.



"Everyone at HHCL knows what needs to be done - they don't need much

motivating, and an extra kicking from Chime isn't on the menu," Howell

says.



What is needed are some new accounts and Howarth will be working closely

with the new-business director, Jon Hadfield, and Burridge to make sure

the client list gets longer this year instead of shorter. He's already

kicked off 2002 by securing the UK account for Bird's Eye fish fingers

across several European territories.



Creatively, Burridge also hints at changes afoot on a senior level, to

be overseen by the creative director, Steve Henry.



Burridge claims that the agency won't be seeking to lose its "radical"

credentials, but will be trying out more subtle, possibly even sober,

creative tactics.



However, Howarth's new-year resolve is unflinching: "This place is full

of great people and we're crystal clear of the job we need to do. I

can't wait to get stuck in."



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