Close-Up: Live Issue - Charismatic Clarke brings his client service approach to UK

Will Chris Clarke's charms work within the British ad scene?

Any news of a new-business coup by Chris Clarke's Nitro should be approached with caution.

For the man who is just about to launch in the UK with a pan-European Unilever brief has a history of embellishing his story. Most notably, he got a little ahead of himself when describing Nitro Shanghai's involvement with Telstra in 2003.

He enthusiastically described "winning Australia's biggest advertising account" after supposedly seeing off some serious global opponents to secure the $100 million three-year contract.

It later emerged Nitro had been drafted in to work on a portion of Telstra's business advertising account and a one-off government campaign for the telecommunications giant.

This time round there can be little doubt that the charismatic 36-year-old creative, who recently swiped the US Twix brief from Grey, thoroughly intends to shake up an industry that, in his view, has become over-run by suited account men.

For the no-frills model Clarke is basing Nitro UK on firmly situates the client at the centre of his plans. The idea is to position the agency as a creative and strategic hotshop while stripping away as many middlemen, in particular account handlers, as possible. Clarke believes clients are there to purchase creativity, not to buy account services. The model is more than a little reminiscent of Mother's successful working structure.

So when the doors at Nitro's Clerkenwell office open this week, it will be with a staff of eight, comprising four senior and four junior positions - a planner, account executives, an office manager and production staff.

It has even been suggested that a "Swat" team of Nitro's creatives and planners will ensconce themselves in a client's offices in order to build an understanding of their requirements, while further erasing the dividing lines.

And when clients want to talk ideas, they will deal directly with the Nitro driving forces, either Clarke or Paul Shearer, who has been persuaded to take up the role of partner, chairman and creative director despite having only met his new associate for the first time less than a month ago.

Nevertheless, Shearer says: "I think we're very similar, we both like working with clients in small groups.

"Chris is someone who really genuinely cares about a client's problems and knows that the best way to solve them is to work as closely together as possible."

He describes Clarke as an "entrepreneur" and "maverick character", adding: "For me, it's purely about being able to work with genius clients without having to deal with four or five agency account people and planners.

"The next thing is to go after as many big global clients as we can get. I'm a firm believer that if an idea is great, it should work in any market."

Such an attitude, coupled with a streamlined agency model, has already enabled Nitro to net significant pieces of business.

Like a predator that can instinctively sense weakness, when an agency is ailing on a big product, Clarke has the ability to step in at the right moment with a cheaper option using a captivating business manner.

The UK outfit already poses a threat to McCann Erickson's hold on Unilever's ice-cream brands, while in a major knock to Masterfoods' agency of record, Grey Worldwide, Nitro Asia was enlisted to create a four-commercial campaign for its confectionery brand Twix that broke in the US last month. It has yet to emerge how much Nitro will profit from Masterfoods' decision last week to split with Grey permanently, on a global basis. Clarke pulled out of an interview scheduled for this piece once the Masterfoods announcement was made.

Clarke's connections with Masterfoods are well documented. More than a decade ago, he formed strong and invaluable friendships with several high-flying figures at the food conglomerate who had been dispatched to Asia to cut their teeth, but who went on to become powerful industry figures.

Paul Michaels, the marketing director of Mars' US confectionery company, and Stuart McLean, the former marketing director of Mars Confectionery, are both names that emerge regularly through his potted advertising history.

Clarke, a former promo director, has previously admitted having no intentions of pursuing a career in advertising until Michaels and McLean, impressed by his idea for a new ad in the Mars "cool bear" series, asked him to set up an agency to handle part of its account in Australia.

So Pure Creative was born. It expanded rapidly to add Coca-Cola and Procter & Gamble to its client list.

Within the space of three years, it had forged a link with D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles and went on to seize control of the network's Sydney and Beijing offices before a reverse takeover saw him sell out to D'Arcy in a two-part share buyout in 1999 and 2000.

In 2001, he opened the first Nitro office in China with Mars as a founding client. The agency now handles more than 85 per cent of the business in Asia and has eight outlets, across four continents with global billings of $140 million.

Clarke, who is known for his good looks and charisma, as opposed to his humility, has a remarkable aptitude for developing satellite business partnerships around the world.

However, there is potential for sparks to fly between him and Shearer.

The latter is renown for his unswerving, dogged approach to standing by what he believes, while Clarke has earned a reputation for tailoring his opinions to suit a particular client meeting.

But the real test will be whether Clarke can convince clients that his creative business approach will deliver big brand solutions.

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