Close-Up: Profile - Howarth rejoins Hornby to take CHI to next level

Is it jobs for the boys or will Nick Howarth bring more edge to Clemmow Hornby Inge's offer? Emma Barns investigates.

Nick Howarth is excited about his imminent departure from HHCL United. Like a cheeky, overgrown schoolboy and brimming with confidence, he talks animatedly about his next job - the newly created position of group chief executive at Clemmow Hornby Inge.

"I'm going to be part of CHI's next stage of growth," he says. "It's a happy co-incidence that it's come up at exactly the right time for me. After ten years at HHCL, I want to do something new."

The move will see him reunited with his former partner-in-crime, the CHI partner Johnny Hornby. The pair started out together as graduate trainees at Ogilvy & Mather more than a decade ago and have been close ever since: it was on a joint family holiday this summer that Hornby approached his friend about the role.

"Nick was always better than me at O&M and, working on the principle that you should employ people cleverer than you, he was the obvious choice," Hornby gushes.

The obvious choice for what, though?

As Sarah Gold, the joint managing director of CHI, puts it: "We've experienced such phenomenal growth, taking on more than £60 million in new billings in the past three months alone. We need another senior suit so our existing clients don't suffer as we grow."

In the years since the two stopped being colleagues, Howarth, 35, has had his head down at HHCL. Joining as an account director in 1995, he rose through the ranks, finding success as the agency's client services director and then as managing director. For the past year, he has been the chief executive.

Howarth's ascension to the HHCL management came at the end of the agency's three-year tailspin, during which it lost key accounts such as Tango and Egg and sold a 49 per cent share of the company to WPP for just £4 million.

Since then, he's done an undeniably good job at shoring up the agency and has forged a strong relationship with its biggest client, BSkyB, worth £70 million. If HHCL isn't exactly well on the road to success, it's at least pointing in the right direction now. And Howarth thinks it's time for a new challenge.

But is the CHI role the kind of position he seems capable of handling?

The CHI group chief executive position is perceived as one in which he'll oversee and grow the agency's integrated group offering, including Hall Moore CHI and Naked Inside. However, confusingly, neither operation reports to Howarth. Some might think that a group role is best suited to an adman on his way out, someone who has already proved their worth and earned their millions - someone with at least ten more years under his belt than Howarth. But Howarth disagrees. "I'm going to be at the centre of the main agency. I wouldn't have been interested in the job otherwise."

The role will have four aspects, he says. He'll look after some of the agency's clients and also work on new business with Hornby. Separately, he will oversee the group and will look at new opportunities for growth such as joint ventures and acquisitions. A new PR venture is a possibility as is a tie-up with a branding consultancy. Howarth will also work to get existing CHI advertising clients to buy its direct marketing or media offers.

So Howarth's role heading the CHI group will be anything but peripheral.

And Hornby is adamant that as TV ads become less important, finding an idea that can be executed across a range of platforms will be key. "To do this, we need to add more communications talents to the group - whether this be design, contract publishing or content. We need someone to develop the group in this direction, so the appointment is for strategic reasons as well as for the simplistic one that we need more senior people in the agency," he says.

The final aspect of Howarth's role is to look at CHI's expansion into new markets. Hornby is frustrated at not getting on to international pitchlists - CHI's progress with British Airways was thwarted by its lack of a network - and he is keen for Howarth to address this.

Howarth is a real man of the people. In some ways similar to Hornby, the pair share a self-deprecating sense of humour and the ability to carry people with them. Howarth shouldn't have any trouble rallying the staff behind him. "He's going to make it fun," Hornby says.

James Murphy, the chief executive of Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R, says Howarth is "very clever and strategic". But his real strength seems to be his ability to forge deep client relationships, which will serve him well with the likes of Royal Bank of Scotland at CHI. His relationship with BSkyB must have added to his appeal.

Howarth is said to be less ambitious than some of his contemporaries, but one source suggests his sideways step to CHI might be better thought out than it first appears.

"He couldn't have made the leap from HHCL (where he runs an agency of 90 staff) to JWT (where there's a staff of 350)," the source says. "But a holding company will eventually buy CHI and, as its group chief executive, Howarth has a good platform to end up as the chief executive of a big agency."

He also suggests that Howarth has made the move at exactly the right time: HHCL is in much better shape than when he joined, but its new business is quite stagnant. And, if anyone knows that Sky has itchy feet, it's Howarth and, without Sky, HHCL's billings would shrink by more than 50 per cent.

For Howarth, however, there is seemingly no such hidden agenda and the fact Hornby is one of his closest friends is one of the biggest draws of the job.

He adds: "The fact the agency is privately owned is important and CHI's view on life chimes with mine. Ideas are the important thing and, unlike the rest of the industry, CHI isn't preoccupied with just a tiny part of the communications mix."

Howarth won't go into any details about his stake in the agency. However, it appears he will have equity and some "chips", the agency's phantom shares.

He is also adamant that his ambitions are bigger than just nudging CHI on and waiting for a sale. "In the history of advertising, few independents have kept their focus and continued to expand. Bartle Bogle Hegarty is different - it's changed advertising and we want to turn CHI into that," he explains.

CHI is as determined in that respect as ever; adding Howarth to the mix is a smart move for both parties. For the rest of the industry, the prospect is perhaps not so agreeable. Hornby is formidable enough competition as it stands. If Howarth's arrival really means CHI now has two Hornbys, as one observer puts it, then the agency looks all the more daunting.

THE LOWDOWN Age: 35 Lives: Clapham Family: Wife, Emma, children, Tilly, three, and Henry, 18 months Favourite ad: Nike "parklife" Describe yourself in three words: Optimistic, inquisitive, neat What's your greatest extravagance? Nice holidays, nice food, nice wine Which agency do you most admire? Bartle Bogle Hegarty Whom do you most admire? Burt Bacharach Where did you last go on holiday? Majorca (with Johnny ...) Motto: Here's a thought ...

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