Close-Up: Live Issue - From historic to history: so long, United London

The closure of the former HHCL has led to questions over WPP's commitment to creative. Jennifer Whitehead reports.

WPP's decision to close United London and fold its few remaining clients into Grey brings to a close the long and painful demise of the once great HHCL.

The United London managing partners, Jim Kelly and Robert Campbell, famously brought in last year to rescue the agency, will leave. The fates of another 30-odd agency staff hang in the balance.

United London's ultimate collapse was widely predicted the moment the agency dropped its iconic HHCL monicker. And while the final nail was the loss of the £75 million Sky account late last year, the rot had set in well before that.

Some in the industry trace the failure to Rupert Howell's decision to quit the agency for a management role at HHCL's then holding company, Chime, in 1998. Others feel the split ownership, after WPP bought 49 per cent of the agency from Chime, put the agency in an impossible situation. And Campbell is not without his critics, who claim he lacked the commitment and the stomach for relaunching United after Sky left.

Whatever the real turning point, United London's failure raises some questions concerning WPP's commitment to creative advertising and about the sustainability of the United network, which now has only eight offices.

On the first count, it is hard to find anyone who feels that there is any notable interest on WPP's part to maintaining a strong creative presence in London.

It's easy to see why: the JWT London executive creative director, Nick Bell, was unceremoniously booted out of the agency in January, having been brought on board with a remit to win awards.

Dave Alberts' position as the top creative at Grey is uncertain, and Ogilvy London, although widely held to have improved its output under Malcolm Poynton, is hardly setting the world alight.

WPP's only creative bright spot in London is Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R - an anomaly in the otherwise average Y&R network. And with micronetworks such as Fallon, Bartle Bogle Hegarty and Wieden & Kennedy making numerous inroads into former WPP agency clients, the need for a creative, flexible offering has never been more urgent.

Historically, the United network's predecessor, Red Cell, was home to a hotchpotch of agencies bought by WPP on its late-90s/early-00s acquisition spree; a network formed out of 55 shops that weren't seen to fit in to any of WPP's existing agency groups.

Red Cell was slimmed down and rebranded as United to answer the micronetwork threat, with Kelly and Campbell brought on board to shore up the London office and get it into a position so that it could survive the loss of Sky when the account inevitably decided to review.

But, shortly after they arrived, Amanda Walsh, the former European chief executive of the Red Cell network and one of the chief architects of the United network, was made redundant. Her departure appeared to signal an end to the WPP chief executive Sir Martin Sorrell's ambitions for the network as a competitor to Fallon, W&K and BBH.

A source close to the agency says Kelly and Campbell were frustrated by what they viewed as a lack of support from Sorrell, highlighting the fact that Grey, not the United network, was put forward to fight the ongoing Nokia pitch.

Campbell will only say, albeit discreetly: "I'm not sure that Martin and I agree on what it takes to build a creative organisation."

Lord Bell, the Chime chairman, doesn't think WPP is at fault in United London's demise, although he does admit Chime was the wrong home for the agency.

"It's a sad day when a great agency disappears, and HHCL was a great agency," Bell says, comparing the former HHCL to 60s supergroups such as Cream and Blind Faith. "They made history; they still sell records and put out some unbelievable creative work, but for some reason they couldn't go on doing it. HHCL was a bit like that."

Laurence Mellman, the United chief operating officer, has been assured that WPP remains committed to keeping the network running. But he admits the lack of a London office will be a problem. "In the long term, we will have to do something in London."

"First things first, we've got to manage the transition to Grey. There are enough angry folk who don't wish us well at the moment," the United network chairman, Andy Berlin, says.

Despite rumours to the contrary, Berlin insists that United remains an interesting proposition for him. He has a vision of who would make the best team to start up again at United. "A small group of people who enjoy each other in a business sense, who are integrated individuals, creative and with a business understanding ... (Mother's) Robert Saville is that kind of person, but he's otherwise employed."

Indeed, the other persistent rumour surrounding Berlin is that he has been trying to lure Mother into the WPP fold; were he to pull that deal off, it would answer the "How do we solve a problem like United London?" question once and for all. Given WPP's history of understanding creativity, that seems unlikely. For now, WPP is burying the agency and dividing up the meagre assets, while adland mourns the passing of one of its brightest lights.

TIMELINE

October 1987: Howell Henry Chaldecott Lury is launched by Rupert Howell, Steve Henry, Axel Chaldecott and Adam Lury. First clients include Danepak and Marie Claire

1989: HHCL's Maxell Tapes campaign wins Cannes Grand Prix

1990: HHCL wins Britvic's Tango (pictured, below) account and introduces the "You know when you've been Tangoed" strapline

1992: Wins AA account

1995: Martini "beautiful people" campaign

December 1995: HHCL named Campaign Agency of the Year

October 1997: Chime Communications buys HHCL & Partners in a deal bankrolled by the WPP Group. The sale price is rumoured to be £24 million

October 1998: Howell becomes the joint chief executive of Chime

May 1999: Founder Lury retires from advertising at the age of 42 to work as a consultant and to write

January 2000: HHCL named Campaign Agency of the Decade for the 90s

December 2001: Lee Daley (pictured, right) is hired by WPP to head the Red Cell network

January 2002: HHCL loses £5 million Tango account, another blow following the previous year's losses of the AA and Egg

October 2002: Howell quits Chime, five years after the sale of HHCL

January 2003: HHCL & Partners is rechristened HHCL/Red Cell as it is merged into WPP's network of creative hotshops. At the same time, founder Chaldecott leaves

January 2004: Red Cell's chief executive, Daley, leaves a week after promoting Henry (pictured, left) to the role of chairman of HHCL/Red Cell

March 2005: Nick Howarth is promoted to chief executive and Sid McGrath is made managing director

September 2005: Howarth quits to join Clemmow Hornby Inge

January 2006: Jim Kelly and Robert Campbell, the founders of Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe, are reunited as managing partners at the agency, which changes its name to United London. Chime sells its remaining 51 per cent stake to WPP

April 2006: McGrath quits for Karmarama

May 2006: Henry is the last founding partner to leave United, taking up the executive creative director role at TBWA\London. Amanda Walsh also leaves after her role as European chief executive of United is diminished

November 2006: United loses the £75 million Sky (pictured, below) account, which made up around 70 per cent of its total billings

April 2007: United London is folded into Grey with numerous job losses and the departure of Kelly and Campbell.

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