CLOSE-UP: NEWSMAKER/CHRIS HUNTON - Ex-teacher to give McCann a lesson in creativity. It is time for Chris Hunton to make his own mark on the agency

If we all had a fiver for every time a new leader at McCann-Erickson pledged to improve its creative reputation, we could retire to the West Indies right away.

If we all had a fiver for every time a new leader at McCann-Erickson pledged to improve its creative reputation, we could retire to the West Indies right away.

So why should anybody take Chris Hunton's declared intention to make creativity a top priority as the agency's new deputy chief executive with anything less than a cellar-full of salt?

Maybe because Hunton's standing as 'the nicest man in British advertising' confirms the sincerity of what he says. Perhaps also because a reputation for boundless energy which earned him the nickname of 'Billy The Whizz' will give him the tenacity to see his promise through.

Paul Hutson, a former McCann development director turned headhunter, cites the huge improvement in the agency's showreel over the past decade as evidence that the creative battle is being won. But there's no doubt that in past times, McCann has allowed its reputation as a creative wasteland to lay heavily on its shoulders.

'The agency was obsessed about awards, probably because it never won any,' Malcolm Green, the former McCann joint creative director, recalls. 'It had a real inferiority complex.'

Hunton, likely to become the public face of the London agency as Ben Langdon, the chief executive, pursues a broader role within the group, intends to change this. But he knows his focus will never be just on the agency's domestic reputation. McCann London's international role has grown with Langdon's influence within Interpublic.

However, it sits within a London ad culture demanding the creative output of a Soho hotshop.

'We're very much aware of our role within the network,' Hunton says.

'We are the hub for a lot of international accounts but we're playing in the most vibrant ad market in the world so we've got to focus on that as well. It's about retaining the right balance.'

Neither will his focus be purely above the line. McCann's reputation for integrated campaigns, through 'corridor companies' such as McCann Relationship Marketing and the internet arm Entropy, is one of its strongest assets. In this area, Hunton believes the agency is already pushing creative boundaries. 'Everyone says they're integrated but it's no longer about all communication being in the same colour and type,' he says. 'Today it's about leaving the same footprint or impression in people's minds regardless of the activity.'

Hunton believes that the McCann UK and Ireland Group, developed by Langdon to tie the corridor companies closer to London, could also prove a potent new-business tool this year. 'There are opportunities with companies that already work with part of the group,' he says. 'Within our client base, there's also a fantastic list of brands we don't work on. With genuinely better work, we can grow our portfolio that way.'

Those who know Hunton say Langdon's decision to make him deputy chief executive officer shows a desire for an inclusive approach at McCann. Garry Lace, TBWA/London's joint managing director and a friend from Hunton's Y&R days, says: 'You never come away from a meeting with Chris on a downer.'

Some believe Hunton's management style is a legacy of his early working life as a teacher. 'He's very good at explaining things to people,' Mike Widdis, a senior manager at Bates UK and a long-time friend, says.

Whether or not Hunton can make his own mark on an agency for so long identified with Langdon remains to be seen. Langdon has a reputed reluctance, deserved or otherwise, to devolving responsibility. However, the chief executive's consistent promotion of his deputy since Hunton's arrival in 1999 suggests a marriage of styles that ticks over surprisingly effectively. 'We have a mutual respect,' Hunton says. 'Ben is very bright and very good with clients and I've learned a lot since I got here. Ours is a relationship that's got better as we've gone along.'

The other debate is whether Hunton, who has built his career as a successful account man rather than a new-business go-getter, can make the transition from an 'engine room' role as a joint managing director to the bridge where he must take a more strategic view.

'Chris has the energy and he knows the task ahead,' Justin Cernis, a former McCann new-business director and a contemporary of Hunton at Y&R, says. 'It's a question of whether he will be given a free rein.'

In his favour is the fact that his affability is tempered with ambition. When Jerry Judge, now the Lowe Lintas global president, was drafted in to help clear up the mess at Y&R in 1992, he spotted Hunton as one of the agency's true talents.

So much so that Judge came back to hire him after his subsequent move to Lowe Howard-Spink.

Frustrated about promotion prospects at Lowe, Hunton concluded that his fortunes lay elsewhere although his chosen exit route amazed colleagues.

'Going from a place where the emphasis was on the quality of the work to somewhere with no creative ethic surprised us,' one colleague said.

Will Hunton, the unpretentious motivator, have the last laugh? Perhaps.

Just as long as he is allowed to be his own man - and doesn't allow the agency to stray from what it does best. As another ex-senior manager puts it: 'McCann is great at strategy - but it's never going to be Mother.'