Entrepreneurial bug bites Hurrell and Dawson

Neil Dawson and Nick Hurrell's start-up has created widespread interest, despite lacking a founding client.

One has spent the entire duration of his working life in the service of the Saatchi brothers, his loyalty so unswerving that a job for life seemed his natural reward.

The other is a particularly shrewd strategist, whose popularity with clients recently propelled him to the pinnacle of his agency.

So why on earth would Nick Hurrell, M&C Saatchi's European chairman, and Neil Dawson, the chairman of TBWA\London, be ready to put their careers (and their houses) on the line to get their names on the door of a start-up?

Fear of ending up in a managerial backwater may be one reason. Thwarted entrepreneurial ambitions may be another. However, the general consensus is that the pair think the time has arrived when the talents they have honed should be benefiting them personally, rather than the shareholders at either M&C Saatchi or Omnicom.

Interestingly, while last week's announcement of the birth of Hurrell & Dawson struck the industry like a thunderbolt, those a bit closer to the parents were not quite so taken aback.

Hurrell, it is claimed, could sense an oncoming marginalisation in M&C Saatchi as his task of building a European network neared completion. Dawson, according to those who know him, had such professional self-confidence that, at the age of 41, he felt the time was right to do his own thing.

Certainly, the pair can expect to generate a significant amount of initial interest. Not since The Red Brick Road's arrival last year to plunder the £45 million Tesco account from Lowe London has a start-up venture provoked quite so much discussion.

The question, though, is whether or not the combination of Hurrell's entrepreneurial skills, which were sharpened during his time as the leader of M&C Saatchi's European expansion, and Dawson's brain - "I've never met a deeper thinker or a harder worker," a former colleague says - will be sufficiently compelling to clients.

The pair are reluctant to be specific about the kind of agency that they want to create, fearing they might become hostages to fortune. "I've read too many agency launch stories in which people have said things that would make them cringe ten years later," Hurrell smiles.

At the moment, all the pair will say is that this start-up will offer solutions to client problems that do not necessarily involve advertising. They promise not to adopt the classic agency silo structure. Instead, they plan to focus on offerings such as branded entertainment and PR. They also see online, which accounts for around 20 per cent of consumers' media time but just 8 per cent of client spend, as an area that is particularly ripe for exploitation.

Dawson cites the current Marks & Spencer initiative as a prime example of the kind of work with which this new agency would like to be associated. "M&S has become a really successful campaign, but that's down as much to good PR as advertising," he argues. "Consumers don't differentiate between the two, and neither should we."

Nevertheless, Hurrell and Dawson are acutely aware that their credibility will rest squarely on the calibre of the people - particularly the creatives - that they hire. "We need people who know what we don't," Hurrell acknowledges.

For Hurrell, 44, the new venture means forming a new professional partnership to match the one which is now coming to an end with the M&C Saatchi UK group chairman, Moray MacLennan.

This was a pairing which thrived on complementary talents. "Nick is great at presenting and winning business, but not so good at keeping client relationships going," a manager at M&C Saatchi says (no doubt hoping this means Hurrell won't take any clients with him). "Moray is very good at relationships, that's what made them a terrific combination," the source adds

Having added Hurrell's international responsibilities to his own, MacLennan now assumes the central management role, which raises the possibility of a new double act with the agency's chief executive, Tim Duffy. "Tim's influence has certainly stepped up," an agency source says. "The dynamic between him and Moray works very well."

Some suggest Hurrell's decision to go has its roots in the company's flotation two years ago, when his UK-facing role ended and he took on the brief to build the agency's presence in Europe.

Hurrell's job was an important one, but it was isolating. "Nick had always been at the heart of a busy agency, but his new role was a rather solitary one," a senior manager explains.

Moreover, it was clear there were limits to where Hurrell could go with the role once the network began to take shape (offices in France and Germany are up and running, while a Spanish outpost is poised to launch next month).

"It's ironic given what Nick is now doing, in that the agencies he was helping establish are run by highly entrepreneurial people who don't need much managing," an agency source explains. "Nick has been incredibly important to the agency. There is no doubt that he would have been offered a new challenge. The problem was that the challenges were looking less exciting for him."

Bill Muirhead, the founding partner of M&C Saatchi, says: "Although we urged Nick to reconsider his resignation, we sort of expected it. He had more or less finished the work he was doing for us and it really opened his eyes to the spirit of entrepreneurialism."

Dawson's situation was rather different. Sources say that despite a not always comfortable working relationship with Paul Bainsfair, the European president of TBWA, his decision to go was born more of a desire to do it for himself.

"Over the past three years, Neil has become increasingly self-confident about what he contributes," an insider comments. "Now he has decided he would rather be doing it for himself, than on behalf of Omnicom's shareholders."

Others suspect Dawson's decision may not be unconnected with the arrival of more tranquil times at Lowe London, where his long-term partner, Judy Mitchem, the former M&C Saatchi head of new business and mother of his children, is the chief marketing officer.

"The great thing about Neil, apart from the incredible amount of graft he gets through, is that, unlike other planners, he doesn't take sides," Andrew McGuinness, the former TBWA\London chief executive and the founding partner of Beattie McGuinness Bungay, reveals. "What's more, he has a self-effacing demeanour. He doesn't come across as egotistical and clients find that refreshing."

Tony McGrath, the Scottish Courage marketing director, can fairly claim to be the unwitting catalyst for the new agency by bringing Hurrell and Dawson together four years ago to resolve a marketing issue. Both M&C Saatchi and TBWA\London are on the brewer's roster.

However, it was not until the summer of this year that they agreed to go into business together. Hurrell claims it was more about following his entrepreneurial instincts rather than a limiting future at M&C Saatchi. "It wasn't a case of hitting the ceiling," he insists. "We were already talking about what might happen next."

Key to what happens next is getting clients on board. And the big question is whether they are being disingenuous when claiming not to have a founding client in the bag. Sceptics suggest that Hurrell, whose third child is barely three weeks old, would not choose to risk all at this particular juncture unless he and Dawson were on a promise of some kind.

Hurrell invokes an old German saying about hunger being the best cook. "We think the fact that we've put our houses on the line will make us more ambitious and focused," he declares.

"We don't expect to start with a client because we haven't yet fully explained what our offer will be. We're optimistic that clients will be interested. If not, we may be in trouble. Scary, eh?" Perhaps. But he should not have to worry about flogging the Ferrari just yet.