The decision of Patrick Collister to wind down his training agency, Creative Matters, and return to a creative role is set to raise many an eyebrow across adland. For the former creative director and vice-chairman of Ogilvy & Mather has decided not to go back to a traditional ad agency but to join ehs-realtime, the direct response and digital operation borne out of the merger of Havas' Evans Hunt Scott and Real Time a year ago.
'I felt I'd done with ad agencies,' Collister says. 'The creative people at ehsrealtime are being challenged and provoked in a range of different media. Very few people in ad agencies want to think beyond a DPS or TV commercial.'
Collister feels that ehsrealtime is the 'first agency to offer a truly integrated product'. However, the agency chairman, Terry Hunt, one of the three founders of the old Evans Hunt Scott back in 1986, says there is still some way to go before its offering is complete.
'There isn't an agency in this area that isn't still learning,' he says.
'There are areas of technology that we are enhancing, we are improving our project management skills and getting all our creatives up to speed.'
Hunt claims that the merger with Real Time has gone smoothly with no redundancies and no client fallout. However, the changes have clearly been unsettling for some former Real Time staffers. One former director says: 'The creative department has suffered post merger because the agency has become more commercially oriented with no high value on creative product.'
Hunt himself, the creative force behind EHS, has inevitably become distanced from the creative product as he concentrates on building the agency, and the imminent retirement of fellow EHS founder Ken Scott is a further blow for morale. Last September, the creative directors Paul Snoxell and Ray Howard left for sister agency Zinc, leaving yet another gap in the senior creative team. However, Snoxell denies that his departure was in any way linked to negative fallout from the deal. 'The merger was right for Real Time and it went very smoothly,' he says. 'We just wanted a move to focus purely on new media.'
In light of its turbulent history it is impressive that EHS is still around. It was launched in 1986 by founders Hunt, Scott and David Evans. Hunt will soon be the only one of the three remaining.
The early days were hedonistic with the agency closing its doors early every Friday for Champagne sessions at the Groucho. In some ways EHS did much to put direct marketing on the map with an injection of ad agency glamour and for the first time real talent was attracted into direct agencies. However, as one creative director puts it: 'They were the wild boys of direct marketing and really wanted to shake things up with the idea of bringing advertising values to DM. But all they achieved was good advertising for themselves.'
The excess cost EHS dear. As recession hit it collapsed in 1991 with reported debts of pounds 4.5 million, owing money to several hundred creditors. The agency was relaunched after being bought by the Eurocom group and subsequently by Havas. During the 90s, it gradually clawed itself back to profitability and produced some ground-breaking work, most notably the launch of the Tesco Clubcard loyalty scheme.
The merger with Real Time has created an agency with pounds 22 million in income, 300 staff and some blue-chip clients, including British Gas and the AA, that use the agency for cross-media activity. Hunt claims that the arrival of Collister will take things to the next stage. On paper his appointment makes sense. Collister has genuine experience in digital media as well as advertising. 'Patrick was always interesting because he was one of the major advertising creatives interested in what advertising was there for and how it could work with other media,' Rory Sutherland, the executive creative director at OgilvyOne, says. 'He now has a great opportunity to express that.'
Ehsrealtime is one of a number of agencies that has moved out of direct marketing to embrace digital media (OgilvyOne and BHWG Proximity are other prominent examples). In many ways they are better placed to do so than ad agencies. 'We are comfortable on being briefed to generate sales,' he says. 'The fallout from the dotcom bubble is that all advertising has to justify itself and DM is very proficient in that area.'
Martin Brooks, the managing director at the newly launched Omnicom operation Agency Republic, says: 'Advertising agencies think that brands are more important than relationships. But brands are only one component in dealing with the consumer.'
This may be true. However, some believe that complacency may cost direct marketing agencies the digital high-ground.
'Several years ago, direct marketing agencies had an advantage because they understood the rules of customer acquisition,' Simon King, the director of strategy and research at Outrider, says. 'However, if you look at the top agencies in the digital field they are not really the direct marketing agencies. They know all the rules but there has been a failure in imagination in applying these.'
It will be part of Collister's role to ensure that ehsrealtime does not suffer from this failure of imagination.