Close-Up: Campbell and Lace: comeback kids

Garry Lace and Robert Campbell's new outfit has flexibility as its watchword, John Tylee writes.

Garry Lace offers this prediction of how adlanders will react to news of his forthcoming start-up with Robert Campbell. "Forty per cent of them will say it's great, 40 per cent will say it's interesting and 20 per cent will be hoping it fails."

You might want to argue about the percentages but you suspect the assessment is about right. The colourful and controversial cheeky chappie is back - albeit with a broken arm after falling off his pushbike - and still likely to be polarising opinions as much as he ever did in his headline-grabbing days running the UK outposts of TBWA, Grey and Lowe.

Today, as he and his new business partner prepare to launch Campbell Lace Beta into the teeth of a howling recession, Lace isn't only older but, he asserts, wiser as a result of his rollercoaster agency career.

Love him or not, Lace is getting started on an intriguing initiative that will link one of the industry's few remaining larger-than-life characters with a creative whose pedigree is combined with extensive experience.

The catalyst for the start-up was a phone call between the pair about a year ago when Campbell was looking for some financial advice about launching High Five O, his business aimed at connecting brands with the over-50s market.

According to Lace, the conversations moved on to the advertising industry's current state and the kind of agency that might be best equipped to cope with the changing communications landscape.

"We could have talked about this forever so we set ourselves a deadline of 26 March to decide whether or not we'd do it," Lace says. "When the day arrived, we shook hands."

What's certain is that the agency will begin life lean with few staff. What's likely is that it will open its doors with a blank client list. "We've scheduled discussions with one or two people we're keen to work with," Lace says. "But it would be presumptuous to expect them to join us on day one."

This may be because Lace and Campbell still find it difficult to define what the agency will offer. The pair say it is very much "work in progress" - hence the "beta" - and are reluctant to be dogmatic, instead claiming that the future of marketing communications is too unpredictable to set plans in concrete.

Whether or not this is the result of Lace having learned some humility remains to be seen. For a man who used to be one of the industry's most flamboyant managers, it sounds a bit strange for him now to be declaring that "we don't want to be a start-up that claims it will do lots of things but ends up doing none of them".

He adds: "We're clear about the journey that we are about to embark on. What we're not so sure about is the destination. What we do know is that we're going to have to be flexible."

Campbell insists, however, that not having a founding client may be no bad thing. "It can overdefine you in your first few months if you're not careful," he warns.

The vague idea is that the founders will draw on their connections with a variety of specialists - from web designers, e-commerce and TV production companies to PR, customer relationship marketing and mobile media specialists - to provide bespoke solutions to client communication challenges. Initially, the equity will be split between the founders but they expect to make some available to draw in the right kind of talent.

Interestingly, the agency's logo will be a maypole. Not, Lace hastens to explain, because of its pagan associations with fertility but because "the maypole only works when people work together at the same time".

Nevertheless, he adds: "Our intention is to be as creatively prolific as possible." Sometimes, he explains, this may not be with the intention of answering a specific client problem but to come up with ideas capable of making money. Licensing creative ideas to clients is high on the agenda.

"I don't want us to be a business that produces ideas in a vacuum and which we'd not be able to monetise," Lace explains. Campbell adds: "We may do the executions ourselves or ask another company to do it. But whatever happens, we will remain in control of the creative idea."

The key question is how many clients will be willing to buy what Lace and Campbell are selling? Not least because so many of them are hunkering down as recession rages. Lace believes this can be turned to the agency's advantage "because everybody is looking at finding new ways of doing things".

Campbell says: "We'd like to get to a stage where we're doing a lot of things for a few clients rather than a few things for loads of clients."

He suggests that "new economy" clients, particularly those in the e-commerce and entertainment sectors, will like the agency. And, he believes, he and Lace will need to be picky. "One of our great strengths at Rainey Kelly was knowing who to say no to," he says. "Some clients can be destructive to young and small businesses."

Now, to the not insignificant subject of Lace's career history. We'll call it colourful, though controversial would also suit.

He quit Grey after being implicated in a plot to start an Air Miles-type loyalty scheme with one of the agency's clients and resigned from Lowe after a probe into matters arising from his 13 months in charge, including alleged meetings with Sir Frank Lowe in the run-up to The Red Brick Road acquiring Tesco's £45 million account from Lowe London.

Neither think it a problem, while Campbell emphatically insists that people will see Lace as just a good adman and an entrepreneur. "I like that because I'm a bit of an entrepreneur myself. Also, I enjoy his company hugely."

It's also worth mentioning that they have never worked together before - although their friendship dates back to a 1992 IPA course in which Campbell was a judge and Lace a delegate.

So all of this begs the question of why the pair, neither of them exactly impoverished, would want to do this. Are they simply setting up with the aim of selling out?

"You can never say never to an offer, but we want to concentrate on making the agency as fantastic as possible for us and prospective clients," Lace replies.

"The journey, not the destination, is the most important thing for us."

Age: 50
Born: Wembley
1984: Copywriter, WCRS
1987: Copywriter, Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO
1991: Founding creative, The Banks Partnership
1993: Launches Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe with MT Rainey, Jim Kelly
and Mark Roalfe
1999: Rainey Kelly sold to Young & Rubicam. Campbell named co-executive
creative director of merged agency
2003: Earn-out period expires. Joins McCann-Erickson as its executive
creative director
2006: Reunites with Kelly to run the WPP-owned United London
2007: Resigns ahead of United London's merger with Grey. Becomes
non-executive director of digital agency Steak Media
2008: Teams up with ex-newspaper marketing director Toby Constantine to
launch High Five O, specialising in the over-50s market

Age: 41
Born: York
1990: Saatchi & Saatchi graduate trainee
1993: Joins Young & Rubicam
1994: Joins Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO
1995: Joins Euro RSCG
1996: Promoted to the board
1997: Joins TBWA\London as client services director
2000: Becomes youngest chief executive of a UK agency
2002: Becomes Grey chief executive
2004: Exits Grey six months after an anonymous e-mail claims he is
leaving to set up a loyalty scheme. He denies it
2005: Becomes chief executive of Lowe London
2006: Suspended pending investigation. Later resigns
2007: Appointed chairman of Intelligent Marketing
2008: Named managing director of Admedia, the out-of-home and
experiential marketing specialist