Newsmaker/Hamish Pringle: Industry veteran is sanguine about K’s downfall

Hamish Pringle is not the type to lose sleep over job titles, Harriet Green writes.

Hamish Pringle is not the type to lose sleep over job titles,

Harriet Green writes.



Hamish Pringle is remarkably perky for a man who’s just lost his agency.

He’s from the old school, very British. He takes his beating, stands up,

dusts himself down and smiles at the prospect of punishments to

come.



For two years as chairman and chief executive, Pringle tried to keep K

Advertising alive. Then, last week, K was absorbed into Saatchi and

Saatchi (Campaign, 21 February). But Pringle is ready for a whole new

conker fight: he’s become Saatchis’ marketing director, reporting to

joint chief executives a decade younger than himself.



’People think I should sit here feeling completely beleaguered, battered

and bewildered,’ Pringle says. ’But I’m not. I don’t get stressed and

worried about these things. I slept like a baby throughout the whole

thing,’ he chuckles, a brave soul in a pin-striped suit.



Pringle spent a year preparing for this, dealing with one upset after

another. (One grisly moment saw Pringle threaten to sue his former media

director, Denise Porter, for allegedly stealing computer files. In

another, the agency’s much-trumpeted merged account planning and media

planning department was abandoned after less than a year.) The final

blow was the resignation of K’s youthful creative director, Keith

Courtney, the overall winner at Campaign’s 1996 Press Awards. Courtney

had outgrown K and both men knew he’d be snapped up by rivals sooner or

later. Two weeks ago, Leagas Shafron Davis made the call.



Pringle scurried immediately to Derek Bowden, Saatchi Europe’s chief

executive, and Alan Bishop, Saatchi London’s chairman - and sealed K’s

fate. Pringle had failed to hire a senior account executive for

Carlsberg following the departure of Glen Fraser last July - finding a

creative director looked impossible. ’We decided that failing to hire a

creative director would be seen as another sign of weakness,’ he

explains. ’We moved quickly because I couldn’t see any point in leaving

the people here in any more uncertainty. It was the end of that

chapter.’



Despite its low profile and poor record for new business, K produced

profits and memorable creative work, notably Courtney’s award-winning

Pentax ’baby’ campaign.



Pringle deserves credit, too, for retaining key accounts such as

Carlsberg, Commercial Union, Alcatel, Cheltenham and Gloucester and

Puma. But he made avoidable mistakes.



Bowing to Cordiant pressure, he moved offices from Charing Cross Road to

Whitfield Street, thus blurring K’s identity and making merger with

Saatchis more likely. At the same time, he got rid of his own backroom

facilities in order to use Saatchis’ instead.



The rejig was handled badly: the agency relaunched amid news of

redundancies.



Pringle’s 24-year career is littered with opportunities that didn’t

quite come off. Would he start an agency with Derek Day (later to found

Butterfield Day Devito Hockney)? Take top job if Chiat Day merged with

BDDP? No, but in 1986 he did set up Madell Wilmot Pringle with John

Madell and Paul Wilmot. It wasn’t a success.



’I had my moment. I didn’t get it right. I got into business with the

wrong people,’ he admits. The problem? ’I couldn’t change Paul Wilmot’s

spots.’ After four years, they sold out to RSCG. Pringle departed with a

sizeable sum (he believes that Madell and Wilmot, who stayed longer,

trousered rather more).



Wilmot calls Pringle the John Major of advertising: ’(He) plays it by

the book. A lot of clients appreciate a steady hand on the tiller. But

Hamish isn’t what you’d call fast on his feet. If you threw him a googly

in a meeting he wouldn’t be able to handle it. He’s not a dynamic

bloke.’



Pringle’s friend, Bruce Haines, then managing director (now chief

executive) of Leagas Delaney, rescued him from Madell Wilmot Pringle.

Then Pringle followed Haines to KHBB. In 1994, Haines went back to

Leagas Delaney and Pringle became chairman of KHBB (or CME KHBB as it

was briefly known).



The following year, Pringle planned a management buyout of the London

agency with the managing director, Graham Arkell, and creative director,

Barbara Nokes. The idea was for Cordiant to retain a minority stake,

with Pringle, Arkell and Nokes taking the bulk of the equity and

distributing the rest among staff. But KHBB’s major client, Alcatel,

which accounted for 20 per cent of the billings, didn’t like the idea.

So Pringle played safe: ’It was the wrong time of life for me to do it.

I had family commitments.’



Anyway, the threesome were ill-suited: after arguments about naming the

new venture, and the shareholding, Arkell and Nokes departed.



But staff and industry friends are hugely loyal. ’Be nice to Hamish,’

they all implore. Haines says: ’He’s a detail man, I relied on him

heavily.



He works incredibly hard, is immeasurably dedicated and a very good

operator.



He is absolutely straight - one of the most honest people in the

business.’ Courtney, too, is indebted to Pringle: ’He was like a

surrogate father.



He took me under his wing and helped me enormously.’



Cordiant prizes Pringle’s client skills. There seems to have been no

doubt he would be asked to stay, whatever happened to K. As he puts it

himself: ’I do seem to have this talent for winning new business.’

Especially large financial clients. At KHBB, for example, he was

responsible for landing the pounds 13 million General Motors GM Card

launch and Cheltenham and Gloucester.



But what about this decline from chairman and chief executive to

marketing director? A blow to the ego? Pringle is remarkably honest

about industry ageism: ’I’m never going to be an advertising

entrepreneur again,’ he explains. ’I’m jolly lucky to have this job.

Once an account man gets over the age of 35 many of us have passed our

sell-by date. Over 40 you are seriously out. I’m 46. I’ve said before

that if I got made redundant, fired, or whatever, I’d stay in a job and

in the business. I won’t stand on ceremony about titles.’ (In fact,

Pringle still chairs two organisations to which he is heavily committed:

the IPA’s effectiveness committee and NABS, the advertising

charity.)



He seems genuinely enthusiastic about his new job, relishing the

prospect of flogging a serious player again. He enthuses: ’Saatchis is

the generic for an ad agency. That has been an unexploited asset for a

while but I don’t see any challengers. The key objective is to be number

one again.



When I beat Dominic Proctor and Stephen Carter (J. Walter Thompson’s

chief executive and managing director respectively) or when Andrew

Robertson (Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO’s managing director) and I come head

to head, it’s going to be fantastic.’



Nevertheless, Saatchis currently languishes at number five in the ACN

MEAL billings league. It needs a massive injection of new business

(pounds 82 million, to be precise) to catch the top shop, AMV. Is

Pringle the man?



Haines thinks so. Pringle, he explains, is a big-agency person who likes

conventional, well-planned client companies: ’The Saatchis position will

fit him to a T.’



Mark Robinson, J. Walter Thompson’s marketing director and a close

friend of Pringle, agrees: ’He’ll come up with hundreds of ideas that

people haven’t thought of before. He is suited to a large, established

agency.



He’s come home to the right job.’



Saatchis’ chairman, Alan Bishop, is clearly delighted to have another

senior player on the team (as well as K’s tasty pounds 30 million in

billings): ’He’s very experienced and knowledgeable about the business.

He’s run his own agency, worked on a wide range of accounts and made a

lot of tough business decisions himself. That is what will make the

difference.’



Even his old antagonist, Wilmot, thinks Pringle has made the right move:

’He’ll be good at Saatchis. He’ll put a bit of stability into it. Hamish

is awfully good at being sensible.’



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