Close-Up: Burley unfazed by the CHI client/agency bond

CHI & Partners' new executive creative director tells Matt Williams why he won't come in with a 'new broom' approach.

Both Jonathan Burley, the incoming executive creative director at CHI & Partners, and Johnny Hornby, the agency's founding partner, believe that they were destined to one day work together.

Despite Burley spending the ten years since the pair first met causing creative mischief at WCRS, HHCL and Leo Burnett, they have shared a respectful and exuberant friendship that always made them keen to join forces.

A little-known fact is that when Hornby was eyeing up potential partners to launch CHI & Partners, Burley was approached. Charles Inge beat him to the post but when Ewan Paterson, CHI's executive creative director for the past four years, decided to up sticks and take on the challenge that is DDB Chicago, the time was finally right for Burley to move to Rathbone Street.

"Johnny and I have been good friends for a while now, so we both know what wankers each of us can be," Burley jokes, as self-deprecating and foul-mouthed as ever.

"Seriously, though, he's one of the best account men in the industry and has created an agency that gets to work on some fantastic business. As a creative director, that's all you really look for."

Burley, whose sense of humour can be extremely dark and acerbic, is actually a very optimistic and cheerful person. Even more so recently after helping change Burnett from a dull-but-safe network outpost to a creatively potent domestic force.

He has not only overseen a creative transformation on global business such as McDonald's and Kellogg, but eye-catching campaigns for Shelter and the Department for Transport have helped put Burnett on the awards map.

Burley speaks enthusiastically (and often disturbingly) of his relationship with Paul Lawson, the agency's group managing director, with whom he has built a strong personal as well as professional relationship, and observes that while it's a wrench to leave friends, it is the first time he has left an agency "to take on a new challenge rather than wanting to get out".

There have unquestionably been, though, limitations that Burley's had to face at Burnett. Some say there is only so far that a creative director can take a network agency, while one inside source observed Burley's frustrations at not being given the chance to pitch for "more exciting" accounts.

CHI certainly represents a new challenge. Paterson has done a respectable job in running the creative department, creating some standout ads, such as "Brains" for Drench, and pushing its integrated offering. However, he has been unable to shake off the reputation that the agency's creative work is overshadowed by the presence of its account handlers.

One insider says: "Pitches and creative meetings are set up more like client co-creation sessions, which is actually a cute way of saying 'let the client get what they want' at the expense of the creative product."

It's an idea that Burley contests. "I only think this theory came about because account men like Johnny naturally hold a higher profile than the creative personalities at the agency," he says.

And Hornby does stress that Burley, a creative who believes in a creative agenda, will be given his own space to come in and implement new ideas and give the creative department a bit more pizzazz.

"We may not have chosen for Ewan to leave, but the upside of change is that we can bring a new man in with new ideas," Hornby says. "Jonathan's a very modern thinker and, at CHI, he'll have very modern thinkers around him. It'll be healthy for an agency to have a grown-up thinker overseeing the creative department."

A big part of this "grown-up thinking" is how Burley manages to get great creative work out of clients that appear to favour conservative creativity, such as British Gas and Royal Bank of Scotland.

"Jonathan's done very cool, edgy work, such as Pot Noodle, but he's also shown recently that he can take really big brands such as McDonald's and Homebase and succeed with them," Hornby says.

"It's much harder to produce great creative work with a hardware account than it is with a training shoe or fizzy drink."

Burley, who remains humble despite his full-frontal style, attributes this to "enjoying working with clients on an intense level". It's a process that he hopes to continue, and perhaps even enhance, at CHI.

"More than anywhere else, CHI demands that you hold a strong relationship with your clients," Burley says. "And they're able to do it better than anyone else because they have the ability to offer any solution.

"When I first joined Burnett, I had to integrate Arc more closely with the main agency so we could offer clients exactly what's right for them, and it excites me when I hear people suggest that CHI is the one leading the way in terms of offering proper integration."

Much of this approach has been shaped by Thiago de Moraes and Warren Moore, the creative directors at the agency, who offer digital and below-the-line expertise.

However, with this logjam of big names, many believe that managing these people may well be Burley's most difficult task.

"This is not a place for egos, it's a place where people want to do work," Moore adds. "Jonathan will need to inspire and deliver - trying to come in as an old-fashioned creative director just won't work at this agency."

Hornby is not worrying: "Jonathan's got a really clear system that allows other creatives to do their stuff. He likes to empower people to do the work that they want to do and allows creative directors to get on with running their accounts."

It does become clear very quickly just how conscious Burley is of avoiding being "one of those arrogant creative wankers that do everything for themselves".

But at Burnett, the creative department and the agency's direction was set up to revolve around him - something that one industry executive who wishes to remain nameless believes Burley may struggle to come to terms with at CHI if he cannot feel that he is in control of the department.

However, Burley disagrees: "I'm not a 'new broom' creative director. I can't stand those, and we've seen loads of people recently who come in and try and pull up trees to assert some authority. I don't want to be the twat who comes in spouting profound cliches and giving myself the best briefs. They just get hated straight away."

Quite when Burley will be allowed into CHI hasn't been decided yet. Paterson's CHI contract officially runs until February 2011, and while it's expected that he'll move to the US sooner than that, it gives Burley time to try to manage a smooth changeover, as well as allow his former agency time to get his replacement lined up - a process that will begin sooner rather than later.

When the move does finally happen, though, Burley will find himself in an agency surrounded by a wealth of key senior figures, all jostling for position, and a creative department chomping at the bit.

"From the guys I already know, like Johnny and Nick (Howarth, CHI's chief executive), it's an agency full of people that don't take themselves seriously, but take their work very seriously," Burley says. "That's exactly what suits me. It'll make for a fun ride."