CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE/BIRDS EYE WALL'S - Captain Birds Eye jumps aboard HHCL & Partners. Lowe Lintas no longer has its place on the Birds Eye roster, Jeremy White writes

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

pitch.



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

together.



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

property"?



"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

coldly.



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

so."



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

confesses.



Pomfret's priority now is to beef up the Captain over the next two

years.



"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

pitch.



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

sake.



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

adds.



"If they have a problem with something, give it to us."