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
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
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
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.