Close-Up: The new team that hopes to reignite the Rapier brand

Will the agency's signing up of big talent enable it to put behind it the Virgin Media loss and the exit of John Townshend? Matt Williams reports.

Six months is a long time in advertising. In December, Rapier was celebrating a well- deserved Campaign Direct Agency of the Decade award, had created some of direct marketing's most iconic campaigns, and in John Townshend and Jonathan Stead had a formidable management duo.

Roll on to July, and Townshend has left, as has one of the agency's biggest clients in Virgin Media.

Recently departed staff refer to it as "a lost and unhappy place", and those that remain desperately crave an injection of enthusiasm.

Rapier has, for the past few years at least, been the "nearly man" of advertising. The agency has been the only traditional DM shop to truly threaten the status quo, by offering strong direct credentials while also seriously making a push for the above-the-line elements of large accounts. But ultimately these expectations have never quite been realised.

Last year, the agency oversaw the advertising for B&Q, and also made noises around taking Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R's portion of the Virgin Media business.

If it had taken both accounts, the current outlook would be very different, but McCann Erickson was eventually awarded the B&Q work, while Virgin Media shifted its entire business - including Rapier's existing DM - into DDB UK.

This left the agency in a precarious place. With Townshend gone, it would have been tempting for Rapier to return to its roots - hire a well-known traditional DM creative director and focus on the discipline in which it made its name.

Instead, chief executive Stead has made a raft of "advertising" hirings, bringing in Ed Morris, the former Lowe executive creative director, as creative partner, and John Shaw, the former worldwide planning director of Ogilvy, as strategy and planning partner.

"All of the developments of Rapier have been driven by the changing way that consumers are behaving and how they are responding to communications - whether it's direct mail, TV or something else," Stead says.

"It's now up to us to ensure that whatever the future holds, we have the best talent possible to navigate it."

In Morris and Shaw, Stead has brought in some highly respected talent. Morris is one of the industry's most decorated creatives, and has been responsible for iconic campaigns including "stunt city" for Sure and "ice-skating priests" for Stella Artois.

Shaw, meanwhile, has enjoyed successful spells at Y&R, Wieden & Kennedy and most recently Ogilvy, where he jointly led the network's global planning operations. "If we tried a few years ago to attract this kind of talent, then we wouldn't have been able to, because there were very few places that talent really thought they could go," Stead explains. "But that seems to have changed - there are now huge opportunities for those prepared to make the investments and changes that need to be made."

But in order to harness this talent, the key for Rapier will be to avoid losing the attitude and entrepreneurial spirit that shot the agency to stardom in the first place.

One former employee says that Stead is "an excellent account man but is very client facing. Townshend was the life of the agency." Will Morris and Shaw - two characters more used to working within large networks - be able (or even willing) to throw themselves into a project like this with the vigour required?

"The possibilities and freedom that Rapier offers was actually what first attracted me to it," Morris asserts.

"I'm not walking into a great dinosaur of an agency that needs to win some awards quickly. We can mould it into whatever we want it to be, and that's very exciting."

The key to a lot of this could be Simon Welsh. The creative head of BBDO Guerrero has joined Rapier as executive creative director - an appointment that seemed to have slipped a little under the radar among the throng of other signings made by the agency. Welsh will take a lot of the day-to-day slack (the agency still has the small matter of the £50 million Lloyds TSB direct marketing account to deal with, for instance), allowing Morris to assert his influence more constructively, for one thing helping Stead push forward with ambitious new-business plans.

"Clients keep talking about wanting a single agency, but at the moment they're not going to prioritise choosing an agency that can do everything over getting what they feel are the agencies that can do the best work for each element of their business," Stead says.

"Our job therefore will be to identify what a client really needs and provide them with an excellent creative and strategic solution that is right for them."

The fundamentals of this approach aren't so different to what Stead has been trying to tackle for a while now. But in October, when Rapier moves into new offices in Paddington and the new signings are expected to join full time, the gloves will come off and a very different agency will come out fighting again.