Close-Up: Live Issue - Campbell and Kelly together again at United

James Hamilton asks two veteran admen with little left to prove why they have taken the job of turning round an agency.

Robert Campbell's first contact in two years with Jim Kelly, his former partner at Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R and his new co-managing partner at United London, was an e-mail last autumn to congratulate him on the birth of his first son.

Campbell recalls: "It said: 'By my estimation, by the time you've paid for driving lessons and a university education, you'll be working at McCann Erickson until the year 2025.' No I fucking won't, I thought."

That e-mail, Campbell adds, set him thinking about leaving McCann. But he claims he had no idea that just two months after his surprise departure, he'd be signing one of a pair of contracts for a job at WPP, nor that the name on the second would be Kelly.

Talking to the two of them as they prepare to start work at the agency formerly known as HHCL, it's as if the past two years never happened.

But, while the easy familiarity of two men who spent the best part of a decade working together is still clearly there, is their passion for hard graft present in equal measure? Campbell and Kelly have little left to prove in advertising, and have even less pressure from their bank managers: following the sale of their agency in 1999, they reputedly netted close to £5 million each. Are they really still fired up for the task of turning round an ailing shop such as United London?

"For me, that's part of the attraction," Kelly says. "While I'm not saying that there is a crisis at the agency, it has seen better days and does need fixing." One of the reasons he left RKCR/Y&R, he says, was that once the new management was in place, there was relatively little for him to do there. "I wasn't looking for an easy post," he says. "That's not what gets me out of bed in the morning."

For Campbell, the call came sooner than he'd hoped or expected. His decision to leave McCann hadn't been hard - he was tired of what he describes as the "corporate stuff" and says he spent 90 per cent of his time at the agency "stopping bad things from happening". He left in November 2005 expecting to devote himself to his new family, for a while at least. "I was hoping to take quite a lot of time off, but things happened very quickly," he explains.

Campbell met his friend, the United president and European chief executive, Amanda Walsh, for lunch and revealed he was thinking about launching a non-traditional advertising agency, but also expressed an interest in working for a network that operated along the United lines. Walsh took him at his word and started to draw up an offer with the United global chief executive, Andy Berlin, that, Campbell says, is "as good as a start-up's without a lot of the pain-in-the-arse stuff". She also asked Campbell if he thought he could persuade Kelly to come on board.

"My initial reaction was 'no, if you're looking for an agency manager, I'm not your guy,'" Kelly says. "But then I thought about it, and I said: 'If you can make this interesting from an entrepreneurial position, if there's equity involved ...'" Kelly tails off, presumably lost in a reverie of figures. He and Campbell are rumoured to hold a 24 per cent share between them in United London, stakes they took in exchange for the hefty salaries they were accustomed to. Kelly's not joking when he says Campbell is now on a third of the annual stipend he received from McCann.

With Kelly's interest pricked, Sir Martin Sorrell became heavily involved.

Rumours persist that he'd been so keen to keep Kelly in WPP that he'd offered him any network he liked. Such stories are inaccurate, Kelly says.

"I'd been in touch with Sir Martin ever since I left Rainey Kelly. I'd go to Farm Street and chat with him, but it wasn't a ceaseless campaign to get me in any agency," he says. Sorrell is clearly pleased to have got his men. "We are delighted to be reunited. Jim and Robert represent some of the best account and creative talent in the industry," he says.

For the kind of deal that would attract Campbell and Kelly to happen - one with a significant equity share - United London would have to undergo a change in ownership, and be wholly owned by WPP. Quietly, with trademark speed and remarkably little fuss, a deal was struck over Christmas that saw Sorrell make an initial payment of £2.75 million for Chime Communications' remaining 51 per cent stake in HHCL United to own the agency outright.

It's a measure of HHCL's fall from grace that WPP has paid £6.25 million for an agency for which Chime paid £24 million in 1997. And it's a poor return on its original investment for the stock-market-listed Chime.

Kelly's and Campbell's signings complete the picture as Walsh saw it when the United Network was formed in September last year.

"Even before we launched United, we knew we needed a strong office in London - all of our competitors are strong in the UK," Walsh says. Kelly adds: "Andy (Berlin) is very rigorous about what kind of agencies qualify to be in the United network, and HHCL in its previous form wasn't the most shining example."

This is some understatement. Campbell's and Kelly's challenge is less to beat an agency on its uppers into shape, more to tap into the radical DNA they claim still pervades the agency and rebuild a shop that trades on its talents rather than its former glories. Crucially, they have to make sceptical clients believe in the WPP creative micro-network, something that successive management has failed at in all United's previous guises.

Do this, and they may well be able to break WPP's natural propensity to point JWT at prize pitches.

Kelly hasn't just spent the nine months since leaving RKCR/Y&R holidaying.

He has also done some extensive fact-finding, and spent time in New York with his friend Carl Johnson, the founder of Anomaly. He started at United London this week full of ideas for how to modernise the agency - something he says the chairman, Steve Henry, has been trying to achieve for the past 18 months.

Before he and Campbell can embark on any modernisation programme, there's the considerable matter of the UK client list to sort out. Sky needs some major TLC to prevent a much-predicted review (Campbell and Kelly's previous relationship with Rupert Murdoch when they ran News International at RKCR/Y&R will not be lost on Sorrell here). The pair also know they need to widen the agency's client list - Sky accounts for 70 per cent of the agency's billings - although neither will be able to bring any accounts with them.

Campbell and Kelly believe it's too early to say whether any changes they plan to instigate will mean redundancies, although Campbell does sound a cautionary note: "HHCL believes it's an open-minded culture that's up for change, but I think we might find it quite resistant."

And, while London remains a primary focus, both Campbell and Kelly are keen to get involved in the United network. "Once we've got our feet under the table and have started charting a course, I'm really looking forward to meeting the network," Kelly says. "As Amanda puts it, they're all good huggers. We're looking for a hug."

But will they go the distance? Neither partner thinks they have been brought in as a quick fix. While the contracts have no minimum lock-in period and come with an earn-out mechanism, there is very little chance of either going within at least four years, Campbell says. "We're here for the long term and we want to make it work. We are both hoping that this will be our last agency."

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