Modernist Henry embraces challenge of TBWA

Will Steve Henry bring back the creative bravura that TBWA lost following Trevor Beattie's departure, Emma Barns asks.

The news that Steve Henry is joining TBWA\London as its new executive creative director was the talk of the D&AD Awards last Wednesday night.

Tables buzzed with discussion about whether Henry is past it or not, whether he fits the perceived brief at TBWA and whether he can hope to replace Trevor Beattie.

Reactions appear to be mixed. Anticipation has been building for TBWA's solution to its below-par present state and Henry, one of the founders of the much-feted Howell Henry Chaldecott Lury (now United London), undoubtedly has the profile to fit the bill. However, cynics question whether he still has the desire and drive necessary to kick-start TBWA.

Nick Howarth, the group chief executive of Clemmow Hornby Inge, who worked with Henry at United, is quick to jump to his defence. "Steve's not tired of it all," Howarth says. "He's full of restless energy and has a very low boredom threshold. He's going to be a burst of energy at TBWA."

However, over the past few years there has not been much sign of the greatness that in 1987 saw Henry launch HHCL - an agency that has arguably had the most impact on advertising in the UK in the past two decades.

His fans argue this is because he had become disengaged and disillusioned with what, after various rebrandings, is now United. Rupert Howell, the EMEA president and regional director of McCann Erickson, believes Henry has been "wasted at the agency for the past few years" and feels United "got too small for him". Meanwhile, Beattie, TBWA's former creative chief, believes that "uncertainties around him in the United environment meant he was not able to do what he does best". Beattie adds that the culture and environment of TBWA will mean Henry can get back on track.

The suggestion that, after more than 20 years in advertising, Henry might be less pioneering than he once was is also swiftly quashed. "He has more innovation in his fingertips than most 30-year-olds," Howell says. And Howarth adds that Henry has been "banging on about new media and non-traditional advertising for years".

Certainly, Henry's enthusiasm for emerging media platforms seems to be one of his attractions for TBWA. His mantra - that TBWA must embrace a "multidisciplinary approach" - is something that resonates with the agency's recent attempts to integrate its various divisions (Connections, Tequila, Stream and Agency.com).

Despite his age and experience, Henry's attitude is younger than many of his creative peers. His curiosity about the new sets him apart from those creative directors whose default recommendation is a 30-second TV ad.

Henry's appointment can also be viewed as a signal that TBWA still places creativity at the heart of its offering, something that was called into question when Shepherd-Smith unveiled a new client services positioning earlier this year. Today, Shepherd-Smith is keen to point out that TBWA has always stood for creativity. He explains: "We saw that the agency would benefit from a figurehead. Creativity is our DNA, so that figurehead had to be a creative one."

In the past, this role was filled by Beattie. His departure a little more than a year ago left a gaping hole at the agency and the subsequent departure of several of TBWA's domestic clients (including five, McCain and Ask.com) is testament to his magnetism.

Henry admits Beattie will be a hard act to follow, but he denies his exit has had a hugely detrimental effect on the agency. Henry says: "It has slipped a bit, but TBWA is still an agency others envy and one they are scared of. Its problems aren't huge and are in common with every other agency."

However, he does regard new business as an important part of his remit and says it is something the new team will be "cracking into" after he has settled in this summer. Howarth agrees it will be the top priority.

"TBWA needs to win domestic business with some good domestic work. It needs another John Smith's," he says.

And domestic work is something that Henry is credited as being particularly strong at. "His talent is best suited to the UK - he has a very British sense of humour," Howell says. "He can do international work, but he finds the restraints of it frustrating."

Given TBWA's international clients (including Nissan, Masterfoods and Sony PlayStation), this could be an immediate stumbling block for Henry.

Howarth rebuffs the argument, however, and says it would be "lazy" simply to give Henry credit for his work in the UK market. "He's eclectic in what he's good at," he says.

Alongside new business, Henry also sees developing the TBWA "disruption" philosophy as central to his remit. It is something he is very animated about. He explains that TBWA's disruption model (a planning tool that was invented by the network's chief, Jean-Marie Dru) was one of the key factors that tempted him to join TBWA.

"'Disruption' is something I've held to throughout my career. It is the perfect expression of what HHCL was working to. I fundamentally believe in the idea that creativity starts with carefully breaking the rules and standing out," Henry says.

He says his role now is to re-engage the "disruption" philosophy for the new multi-discipline agency TBWA is aiming to become.

Howarth says Henry will also bring great inspiration to TBWA's creative department. "He doesn't settle easily and he will inspire the creatives to work to their best," he says. Beattie adds: "TBWA had gone timid but Steve will bring back its boldness overnight."

Howell describes Henry's style as a creative director as "generous with his time - the type of creative director to give credit to his teams".

He cites the celebrated Tango campaign as an example: Henry gave all the recognition to the team who did the majority of the work - Al Young and Trevor Robinson.

In TBWA's creative department, Henry will now oversee the joint creative directors Tony McTear and Danny Brooke-Taylor. Shepherd-Smith explains: "Danny and Tony will continue to run the department day to day, but we all agreed we needed Steve for the organisation. An extra pair of hands can only be a good thing."

So, after a year in limbo, TBWA has now got its ducks in a row with its top team, comprising Henry, Shepherd-Smith and the agency's chairman, Neil Dawson, in place.

Beattie says: "It looks like a good team, but Steve is the leader. He's an iconic figure and gives the agency and its clients someone to believe in." Howarth is less keen to lay all the responsibility at Henry's door.

"It's never a one-man job - it is all dependent on the team he strikes with the others," he says.

Whichever way you look at it, Henry has a lot to live up to in his new role. His success will hinge on whether his new role re-engages him at the forefront of agency creativity. If it does, it could prove, as Beattie predicts, "the genuine turning point" for TBWA.

THE LOWDOWN
Age: 50
Lives: South Kensington
Family: Divorced, two teenage daughters
Favourite ads: Too many to say
Ad you're most proud of: The launch of First Direct
Describe yourself in three words: Why should I?
Thing you couldn't live without: A sense of humour
Favourite restaurant: I spend far too much time in Starbucks
Most admired agencies: Mother, Wieden & Kennedy, TBWA

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