Nick Howarth, the new managing director of HHCL & Partners, is
clear about what 2002 has in store for him - getting the agency back to
the glory days that made it Campaign's Agency of the Decade for the
"We've got to get back to basics," Howarth stresses. "Having been here
for six years already, I know what we're capable of, both in winning
accounts, retaining clients and creating great work, and I'm determined
to see that again."
Previously the client services director at HHCL, Howarth could not have
been promoted at a more crucial time. The agency admits most of 2001 was
disastrous, with clients walking away, a poor pitch conversion rate and
unremarkable creative work.
HHCL's chairman, Simon Burridge, to whom Howarth will report, claims he
has been spread too thin since his arrival at HHCL in the summer. This,
teamed with the former managing director Ian Priest's departure on a
year's sabbatical, the chief executive Robin Azis' international project
and the founder Rupert Howell's commitments as the chief executive of
the agency's parent company, Chime, has led to a power vacuum at one of
HHCL's most vulnerable times.
"The arrangements made for senior management were simply not
sufficient," one insider says. "And that came back and bit them on the
Clearly, with Howarth's experience in dealing with and retaining clients
(he launched Go and got HHCL a place on the Mars roster last year) the
focus will begin with them.
"There's no doubt that we've taken our eyes off the ball," Howarth
"My job will be to recreate the classic HHCL understanding, which made
While he is keen to assert that internally the agency operates in a
different way to most and actively builds upon its reputation as an
employee-friendly place to work, he does concede that too much
navel-gazing can mean trouble.
Clients appreciate a "different" approach - witness the rise of Mother
and indeed the heyday of HHCL - but if they think they're being ignored,
they'll look elsewhere. One former agency staffer is more forthright:
"It's been all about the agency people and its profile, rather than all
about the clients."
According to Howell, Howarth's appointment means that those clients will
now be the centre of attention. Yet at the same time Howell rejects
claims that some of the accounts that left last year - Egg, ITV and the
AA - did so because he and other senior colleagues were no longer
working within the agency or directly on advertising.
Howell agrees that Howarth's promotion was much-needed, but claims the
agency will face little pressure from Chime this year.
"Everyone at HHCL knows what needs to be done - they don't need much
motivating, and an extra kicking from Chime isn't on the menu," Howell
What is needed are some new accounts and Howarth will be working closely
with the new-business director, Jon Hadfield, and Burridge to make sure
the client list gets longer this year instead of shorter. He's already
kicked off 2002 by securing the UK account for Bird's Eye fish fingers
across several European territories.
Creatively, Burridge also hints at changes afoot on a senior level, to
be overseen by the creative director, Steve Henry.
Burridge claims that the agency won't be seeking to lose its "radical"
credentials, but will be trying out more subtle, possibly even sober,
However, Howarth's new-year resolve is unflinching: "This place is full
of great people and we're crystal clear of the job we need to do. I
can't wait to get stuck in."