AGENCY OF THE DECADE: HHCL & PARTNERS - HHCL proved its mettle with a canny combination of business initiatives and daring creative work such as Tango, setting the pace for advertising in the 90s

Howell Henry Chaldecott Lury will not be to everyone’s taste as our agency of the decade. In its 12-year lifespan, it has always polarised the industry. Rupert Howell and his colleagues would not have it any other way.

Howell Henry Chaldecott Lury will not be to everyone’s taste as our

agency of the decade. In its 12-year lifespan, it has always polarised

the industry. Rupert Howell and his colleagues would not have it any

other way.

Nevertheless, HHCL was Campaign’s clear winner. It beat off the

excellent claims of Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, which ends the decade as

Britain’s largest agency by far. BMP DDB was the third contender,

primarily for a consistently excellent level of creativity. St Luke’s

and M&C Saatchi deserve a mention for extraordinary achievements in

particular periods within the decade.

Obviously, both HHCL and AMV enjoyed wonderful business success during

the 90s. The former grew from a boutique start-up in 1987 to the

outskirts of the UK top 20, and a lucrative sale to Tim Bell’s Chime


The latter shrugged off its middle-ranking, middle-class image to forge

a deal with BBDO, land the giant BT account and leap to the number one

position that it retained for the tail end of the decade.

Abbott Mead struck what was to many the deal of the decade (at least

until Bartle Bogle Hegarty sold 49 per cent to Leo Burnett for more than

pounds 20 million) when it sold a minority stake to Omnicom in 1990. It

was evident from day one that BBDO wanted to increase that stake - a

wonderful position for any public company to be in.

Abbott Mead deserves praise - and considerable respect - for almost

single-handedly making the advertising sector credible in the City after

the travails of both Saatchi & Saatchi and WPP in the teeth of the


It used shareholders’ funds wisely, not rushing headlong into the

’acquisition for acquisition’s sake’ trap, then buying blue-chip names

such as Matthew Freud and Barraclough Hall Woolston Gray. The agency

came to be seen as a model owner in addition to its long-held reputation

as a model employer that cared for its staff. This attribute is too

often undervalued in the agency world.

HHCL went about its business differently as befits an agency of such a

vastly different scale and origin. Although it had to endure endless

scurrilous rumours concerning its financial viability in the early days,

it has always led the way in being remunerated by fee and in maintaining

high margins.

Although some of its structural initiatives - from open-plan offices to

hot-desking and no job titles - may be said to have been borrowed from

non-advertising businesses such as Imagination, it was the first British

ad agency to attempt such measures on any real scale.

HHCL was to go a step further in 1994 as the ad industry wrestled with

the rise of direct marketing and sales promotion. The agency eschewed

the acquisition or standalone start-up options and chose to mix in a

dozen or more staffers from IMP with the ad agency staff under one roof

and, crucially, one bottom line.

It proved a heatedly contentious move, with both the above- and

below-the-line communities heaping scorn on the measure as ’yet more

Howell Henry hype’. But, it helped secure the agency the AA account it

still retains, and the initiative is now generally considered to have

been a success.

Tellingly, many HHCL staff have stayed with the agency for most of its

history, either within HHCL or one of the spin-offs (Michaelides &

Bednash, the Brasserie) it has gone on to create. Although the fervent

moonieism of the early days has - thankfully - now diminished (and taken

root at St Luke’s), it is still staffed by enthusiastic advocates of the

HHCL brand.

Chris Satterthwaite, one of the former IMPers, and Robin Azis have been

shaped as Howell’s successors in the way AMV has groomed Andrew

Robertson and Cilla Snowball. Lury’s early retirement was, undoubtedly,

a loss to both the agency and the British ad industry.

Lury, Steve Henry and Axel Chaldecott helped fashion an alternative

style of advertising in HHCL’s early days that has, subsequently, had

enormous influence on British advertising.

However, campaigns such as Fuji, Pepe and First Direct - in particular -

were not universally loved in the way that the Maxell or Mercury

campaigns were. They were the product of a belief that good advertising

could be about more than just a quick pun-based laugh. In some cases,

advertising could even become a force for good; it did not have to rely

on stereotypes and cliched situations.

But it was Tango that proved to be both the agency’s and UK

advertising’s seminal campaign of the decade. The bald, fat orange man

slapping Tango drinkers’ cheeks as they experienced the orange taste

sensation revitalised Tango and Britvic and spawned a host of imitators.

It provided a welcome relief from the prevailing advertising trend of

using ever more fancy post-production techniques that pervaded the

mini-epics that were a hangover from the 80s.

Tango, the AA, First Direct, Molson, Ronseal, Pot Noodle, Mercury,

Blackcurrant Tango and, more recently, Egg and Iceland (to name a few)

have all proved to be at worst interesting and at best outstanding. It

is this combination of impact both on the industry and on its end

output, the work, that gave HHCL the edge over AMV.

True, the excellent AMV gave us The Economist, Sainsbury’s recipe

campaign, Dunlop, Volvo and Guinness among its many great successes, but

Campaign believes HHCL’s iconoclastic attitude both to the work and the

way it does business makes it the most influential agency of the decade.

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