CLOSE-UP: NEWSMAKER/RUPERT HOWELL - Former Chime chief plans return to the 'coalface'. It didn't work out at Chime but Rupert Howell has not given up, John Tylee writes

A glass of red wine in his hand, Rupert Howell is sitting in a basement restaurant off London's Park Lane happily breaking his self-imposed rule banning lunchtime drinking on working days. But today is different. A few hours earlier Chime Communications had announced his resignation as joint chief executive and Howell is like a man fresh out of jail and enjoying the first euphoria of freedom.

Will Lord Bell, Chime's chairman, sign his lunch expenses, he asks with mock anguish. And he warns that, as the latest addition to the unemployment figures, somebody else will have to pick up the tabs from now on.

The trademark twinkle in the eye and the impish grin belie the words.

Having been one of the five founders of HHCL & Partners who sold the agency to the publicly listed Chime for £24 million five years ago, Howell can't be said to be desperately in need of work.

Nevertheless, it's clear his hunger for the business and ambition within it is undiminished. The time he has spent at Chime may have been a learning experience but it has only convinced him that he's really an "operational adman" at heart. Others have simply had their belief confirmed that running a public company isn't his forte and that his successor, Chris Satterthwaite, is better equipped to run the company.

Howell, whose departure was first reported on Campaign's front page last month, traces the source of his current restlessness to the 45th birthday he celebrated in February. He describes it as the "half-time whistle" being blown on his life, forcing him to re-evaluate it.

At Chime, his role was being reduced with the imminent move of HHCL to WPP's Red Cell network under a cross-shareholding arrangement and with Chime's acquisition programme scaled back because of the recession. There were also reports of a destructive power struggle between Howell and Chime's other joint chief executive, Piers Pottinger.

Howell's explanation is that he was caught in a dilemma. "At Chime I learned lots of new things such as building City relationships and how to talk to bankers and analysts. And there's nobody better than Tim Bell to teach you about PR," he says. "But I really missed the coalface work with clients. I began questioning corporate life and asking myself if I really wanted to do it for the next ten years."

Bell's decision to stay at the helm has influenced him, though Howell is philosophical about it and claims to hold no grudge against his boss.

"If Tim had retired it might have made a difference and I probably would have stayed," he admits. "But he didn't and I'm not flouncing out because Tim wouldn't bugger off and leave me the train set."

The deal involving HHCL and Red Cell also seems to have helped crystallise his thoughts. Some claim Howell opposed the move. He denies this, despite having turned down overtures from the then Conquest network when he was HHCL's chairman.

Since then, Red Cell's acquisition of the Paris and New York-based hotshops Les Ouvriers Du Paradis and Berlin Cameron have boosted its international credibility, he says. So much so that he wondered if the chairmanship of the Red Cell network might be a possibility.

However, he recognised there was no place for two such opinionated and forthright characters as himself and Red Cell's chief executive, Lee Daley.

"It's his baby. He's the guy with the vision and he needs the space to realise it."

So if not Red Cell, then what? Well, definitely not another agency start-up. Howell regards HHCL's move into the Red Cell wing as "closure". No other agency so successfully challenged the status quo during the 90s and Howell insists he won't set up something he can't possibly better.

"I couldn't be like Maurice Saatchi who just wants to have fun and make money," he claims. "I'd only do it if I thought I could top what we did at HHCL. But I know I couldn't."

Precisely what he will do isn't yet clear, even to Howell himself. Although he's adamant that his venture won't be "pure advertising". Robin Price, HHCL's former finance director, is rumoured to be linking up with him again and Chime may provide some backing but not a safety net.

"I don't want to do this from within Chime because it feels like cheating. I need to test myself by going unadorned to the market," he says. "I need the scary thrill of doing this myself. I'm hoping Chime will help me financially but I don't want its protection."

The backdrop to Howell's venture is the changing media landscape against which the ad industry is trying to reinvent itself and beleaguered clients calling for more innovative solutions. "It may not be the end of advertising as we know it but we're in a different communications era and that's where the opportunities lie," he says.

But what if there's a niche in the market but no market in the niche and a big agency job beckons? Howell is pragmatic enough not to rule it out. "It's not my intention but it'd be stupid to say I'd never consider it," he says. "I reserve the right to change my mind."

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