CHI & Partners sits astride Campaign's media new-business league. A quirk for a creative agency made possible by last year's deal with WPP that resulted in a tie-up between CHI and Group M.
The agency launched CHI & Partners Media in December last year and has since added more than £40 million in billings after landing the Carphone Warehouse, Tiger Beer and Virgin Money buying accounts. This is smoke and mirrors, the agency's critics argue, because the buying is really done by Group M agencies and the CHI offering amounts to nothing more than a long-established planning operation with WPP buying bolted on.
Not so, Tim Allnutt and Enyi Nwosu, the managing partners of CHI & Partners Media, argue. They claim that CHI has created a new model called "ideas planning" (where creative content is thought about within a media context), which combines with Group M's buying clout to offer "best-in-class research, systems and pricing".
Logistically, buying is handled by a team of 15 based at a Group M office in St Martin's Lane. However, the CHI team argue the service is their own, not least because it is charged to clients on a monthly fee basis rather than commission. Allnutt says this is central to the offer: "How do you build objectivity in as part of your business model? Naked got that bit right and we're not incentivised to buy one form of media rather than another."
CHI also co-ordinates the process with clients from start to finish, but why aren't those buyers based at its office? The CHI founder Johnny Hornby says the answer is simple: "They need to be around other people doing all the deals and to have access to the information and systems that Group M has."
He says that in theory they could all work from CHI (it has buying systems installed) but that the arrangement with Group M allows it to access greater levels of staff according to client demand. "It's a smart, agile way of doing business," Allnutt adds.
Despite pockets of resentment that exist against the agency within the traditional buying community, Hornby says that CHI wants to continue to work in a healthy way with media agencies: "We're not going to war with media agencies. It's not a case of going to every client, we want to have good relationships with media agencies."
Despite the success of the media venture in landing big accounts early on (the capture of Virgin Money raised eyebrows because it was not previously a client of the agency), Allnutt says he and Nwosu are not pursuing a strategy of growth at all costs. More account wins are likely to be announced, but he argues: "The two of us are about delivery - we're not on some wild acquisition treadmill. We want to build credibility and put in place incredible systems and targeting so that we can do the job well."
Since the WPP deal, there has been a big change to the structure of CHI with its various businesses, such as media and its direct operation (Hall Moore CHI), all reporting to the same bottom line.
Hornby argues that this is crucial because it encourages co-operation across disciplines rather than competition at all costs.
It also resulted in the end of CHI's planning venture with Naked, Naked Inside. ("Clients loved it, but it never really made us any money," Hornby says.)
Allnutt, who ran the venture, says: "It was two relatively young, dynamic agency brands so it was a smart thing to put media at the heart of the creative process - the problem was that it was a different profit centre and we were spending ages explaining it to clients."
Allnutt, 39, was joined last year by Nwosu, 37, who had previously been the "media man" at TBWA\London. It was something of a reunion as the two were once colleagues in the media department at Lowe Howard-Spink, where they shared an office for three years working on the Vauxhall business.
Nwosu says he was lured to CHI by its "entrepreneurial and creative environment" and the notion that the agency does not operate in silos after the move to one bottom line.
He says of his relationship with Allnutt: "We both believe there is a better way to approach communications. We have similar experiences in regards to what worked, what didn't and why it didn't. Not just for clients, but for ourselves. We do what we did before - aim to split everything straight down the middle in terms of day-to-day client responsibilities and work together with the rest of the team to develop big ideas."
CHI has since bolstered its media offering with the hiring of the former Profero media planning director Alex Jeffries, and the investment is likely to continue. For now, though, Allnutt and Nwosu are enjoying creating a stir in the market.
"It's about respect but it's not part of our job to keep the media industry happy. If we can disrupt things a bit, then that's good - especially if we're doing something different," Allnutt concludes.
July 2001: CHI & Partners launches with the founders Simon Clemmow, Johnny Hornby and Charles Inge. Its aim is to create "big ideas for ambitious brands".
December 2002: Launches Naked Inside, a joint venture with Naked Communications. Initiative's planning director, Tim Allnutt, joins the following summer to head the venture, which soon lands communications planning duties from the CHI clients Telegraph Group and The Carphone Warehouse.
April 2007: CHI signs a £30 million deal with WPP to sell a 49.9 per cent stake to the holding company. The Naked Inside venture is dropped as CHI announces its intentions to move into "full service" media through a partnership with WPP's Group M.
May 2007: CHI hires Enyi Nwosu from TBWA\Connections as a partner to work alongside Allnutt on its media offering and a planned integration of comms and account planning.
December 2007: Launches CHI & Partners Media with the specific intention of offering media buying alongside its planning services. The Carphone Warehouse, Tiger Beer and Virgin Money accounts follow.