After more than 30 years of handling the Captain Birds Eye fish
fingers account, Lowe Lintas has been stripped of the business, and
there are no prizes for guessing who was waiting in the wings to snap up
the work - HHCL & Partners (Campaign, 28 September).
HHCL has been nibbling away at Lowe's grip on the Birds Eye Wall's
roster for some time. HHCL first picked up the ready meals business in
1998 after working for six months on a consultancy basis.
A year ago, the shift in favour was underlined when Unilever handed
Lowe's £3 million Birds Eye potato account to HHCL without a
There is no secret that the latest HHCL success was triggered by a
creative bust-up between Lowe and Birds Eye.
Birds Eye's business director, Chris Pomfret, admits: "We've proven in
the four years that we have worked with HHCL that we work very well
They seem to understand us and we understand them. We have been very
happy with their work. In this case there was a difference of opinion
(with Lowe) about the creative direction we wanted to go in. We decided
that it would be better to go with HHCL where there wasn't that
difference of opinion. Lowe are aware of this."
"The Captain is without question one of the great advertising properties
that exists in the UK," Pomfret adds. "We are very proud of him and we
want to see him continue to be the spokesperson."
So isn't it a bit harsh to dump Lowe Lintas - Ammirati Puris Lintas held
the account before the Lowe merger in 1999 - after 30 years of service,
and when it had a big part in building that "great advertising
"Lowe had a very clear idea of where they wanted to go and we had a very
clear idea of where we wanted to go - and we disagreed," Pomfret offers
Nick Howarth, the HHCL client services director, says: "Birds Eye's
history was with Lintas - so things probably changed with the (Lowe)
merger. Lowe have had a while to crack the Captain and they haven't done
Lowe's position was further weakened by the decidedly dodgy youthful
reincarnation of the sea dog that it inherited from Lintas. At the
beginning of 1998, out went the white beard and in came the clean-cut,
chiselled jaw of the new and improved Captain. Trouble was, his acting
was as wooden as his gangplank.
Rumours now abound that the client actually insisted on the casting for
the new ads, but Jeremy Bowles, the managing director at Lowe, gallantly
defends his agency's work.
"It was produced by Lintas Italy and, according to results, it succeeded
in attracting an older age range," he comments.
Pomfret, however, was far from chuffed: "We had to change the Captain
three years ago for reasons of the retirement of the old Captain. The
ideas were sound, but executionally they haven't performed as well as we
would have liked them to."
"We wanted the Captain to be younger and more accessible, but it hasn't
worked as well in the marketplace as we might have hoped," he
Pomfret's priority now is to beef up the Captain over the next two
"We are talking about re-establishing the Captain because, due to other
priorities, his presence in the market hasn't been as high as we'd have
liked," he says.
"Because the Captain is such an icon there will unquestionably be a
significant increase in support behind him over the next two to three
years - but this will be dependant on the creative work that we get
being great advertising."
The client is also looking hard at developing the well-known Captain
into a children's brand for foodstuffs other than fish. It was on this
brief that HHCL and Lowe were asked to come up with ideas on the recent
Sources say that Lowe felt that you simply couldn't put Captain Birds
Eye on the TV to flog chicken - the man's an old sea dog for heaven's
Early research seemed to bear this point out. Consumers wanted to know
why their beloved Captain was selling chicken and other meats apart from
fish - it made no sense to them.
Some would argue that just because a brand character is trusted and
liked, it doesn't necessarily mean that he can sell everything. Others
would counter that the job of a top agency is somehow to overcome this
significant hurdle if that's what the client wants.
If you were being tough you could suggest that HHCL may have been more
ready to bend over backwards to get the business after recent news of
imminent redundancies at the agency.
But Howarth simply credits the win to the agency's ability to work
closely with clients.
"The reason we work closely with clients is because we think it will
produce great work - not safe advertising," he says. "But you have to
get clients involved. Selling hard simply doesn't work."
Despite work recently shuttling back and forth between Lowe and HHCL
(Sure for men is another example), Howarth doesn't feel that Unilever is
playing the two agencies off against each other.
"Birds Eye is part of Unilever, but the divisions are very different. I
think it is simply a coincidence. Unilever are more and more making use
of their roster and that's absolutely fine," he says.
"We're encouraging them to use us as a challenger agency," Howarth
"If they have a problem with something, give it to us."