EDITORIAL: Agency life brings out best in Howell

One of the wilder theories doing the rounds not so long ago was that Rupert Howell was being groomed as Sir Martin Sorrell's eventual successor at the helm of WPP.

In reality, this was never a likely prospect. Sharp and shrewd Howell most certainly is. What's more, his conservative wardrobe would ensure he wouldn't look out of place in any boardroom. But appearances can deceive.

Howell is an operational adman by instinct and inclination and his resignation last week as the joint chief executive of Lord Bell's Chime Communications was simply a confirmation of what many saw as his mounting frustration with the job.

Howell was never likely to be a long-term comfortable fit at Chime. He has always been at his best as one of the ad industry's most passionate advocates and iconoclasts. At Chime he's tried to nuture City analysts, working on acquisitions and the minutiae of corporate life.

Chime provided an important learning curve but was not the right environment for Howell. This, after all, is a man who was a major driving force behind one of the few truly innovative agencies of the past 20 years. HHCL & Partners was among the earliest to recognise that traditional shops had lost touch with changing consumer reaction to advertising. Without HHCL's often irreverent and sometimes highly controversial work it's debatable whether the founders of Mother and St Luke's would have boldly gone where only HHCL had gone before.

With Bell showing no signs of retiring, HHCL about to join the Red Cell stable and the group's acquisition programme on indefinite hold, Howell fears a lack of the stimulation he thrives on.

Undoubtedly, the agency world will be the better for his return. His mercurial style will always mean that he tilts at too many windmills - witness the almost impossible array of tasks he set himself during his IPA presidency. Yet just listening to his views on a range of issues - from maintaining an ad-free BBC and advertising's lack of effective communication with mature consumers to putting too much emphasis on execution and not enough on strategy - is always a thought-provoking experience.

The industry's insecurity isn't helped by the lack of practitioners who publicly declare pride in what they do. No-one could ever accuse him of that.

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