CLOSE-UP: NEWSMAKER/GILES KEEBLE; Industry butterfly takes a leading role at McBains

Giles Keeble returns to the cut-and-thrust ways of an agency, Richard Cook says

Giles Keeble returns to the cut-and-thrust ways of an agency, Richard

Cook says

There is sometimes an awkwardness about second acts in advertising

lives: something vaguely unsatisfactory about the creative director

settling uncomfortably into a management or a consultancy or an

international position. And at other times it just looks that way.

Giles Keeble returned to a senior agency position last week (Campaign,

26 April) after a year-long hiatus. The former Leo Burnett executive

creative director re-appeared as the first big name creative hiring in

the 24-year history of McBains, the Abbott Mead Vickers group integrated

communications subsidiary. McBains’ chief executive, Chris Noel-Johnson,

anticipated the bemusement of observers when announcing the appointment.

‘This may seem a strange appointment to some people but not to us,’ he

admitted. ‘We are first and foremost a creative business but we also

believe passionately in the process of integration.’

For Keeble, who had been working from his Chiswick home developing ideas

for a project-based company called ‘Or’ and looking into setting up a

sort of cross between a virtual agency and a creative consultancy called

Idees Sans Frontires, the offer represented a more natural progression.

‘Although it maybe looks a little odd - my going to an agency like

McBains - it’s actually like the ideas I’ve been working on since

leaving Burnetts, such as getting rid of much of the advertising

process, being more open-minded about solutions and covering a lot of


And, after all, the first act of Keeble’s advertising life was not

without its drama. When he joined J. Walter Thompson in 1971, it was

from the dole, not as a result of the Cambridge University milk round.

‘I was sort of casting around for things to do and in those days JWT had

a very structured graduate training programme, which involved graduates

being taught for a year before they were let loose on any advertising.

Because I’d missed that, they started me six months later and used me as

a guinea-pig to see if they could get by without the scheme.’

Two years later he must have been doing something right, because he was

hired by Stanley Pollitt to work with Mike Greenlees and David Jones as

an account manager at BMP. So far, so straightforward: but Keeble was

keen to move from account management to the creative side of the agency,

and quickly enlisted John Webster, the executive creative director of

BMP, for support. ‘He came to me wanting to learn the creative ropes,’

Webster remembers, ‘and was at a point in his life when it looked like

he could have done anything. He seemed to be good at everything - he was

brilliant at cricket, good-looking, the girls liked him and he had all

these ideas. If we needed a spare man at dinner parties he was the first

choice. But in a way that was his problem - he had all these different

skills and just wasn’t sure which way to jump.’

He jumped to French Gold Abbott after the requisite two years at BMP,

although the appointment was again an account handling one. In fact,

when he was asked to add another discipline to his account handling

role, it was as a planner. But for Keeble it wasn’t enough, and after a

further two years and endless conversations with Webster and others, he

was re-hired by FGA as a writer, first under David Abbott and then

Terry Lovelock.

‘When you undertake a life change like that it always tends to be

harder before you make the decision,’ Keeble remembers. ‘You look back

at what happened afterwards and think that actually it wasn’t too

difficult an adjustment - except for the money. I can’t remember what I

had been earning, but if it was something like pounds 18,000 it dropped

like a stone to about pounds 6,000. Some sort of consolation I suppose,

was that it had the effect of indicating that I was taking the new role

seriously. The biggest problem was that my background was seen as a bit

of a handicap because I think that this is a business that likes to

pigeon-hole people, but when you’ve done some good work that tends to be

forgotten. After a couple of decent bits of work people eventually stop

asking: ‘Weren’t you an account man?’.’

As FGA dissolved, Keeble found himself as a copywriter at AMV working on

Wella, Volvo and Time Out. Three years later, Keeble was offered jobs by

both Tim Delaney and WCRS. He plumped for the latter and started a

seven-year association with the agency, moving up through the ranks and

serving the last three years as one of the creative directors and as a

board director.

‘He was a very bright, thinking, creative guy who, if you had to

evaluate his talents, was at the strategic end of the creative

spectrum,’ reckons Chris Pinnington, Euro RSCG Wnek Gosper’s managing

director, who worked with Keeble at WCRS on accounts that ranged from

Carling Black Label to Sharwoods. ‘I think he just got an unlucky deal

at Burnetts. The large, locked-in multinational client culture probably

wasn’t the right agency for someone who was clearly prepared to rock the


Ah, yes, Burnetts. Hired as executive creative director in 1988, the

relationship started brightly but never really recovered from the first

couple of years, when Keeble addressed his brief to improve the agency’s

creative reputation with his usual energy.

Hiring Tony Kaye to work on a Daz commercial was not likely to endear

him to what is, with the best will in the world, a conservative client

and agency combination. The ad, what Keeble refers to as ‘one of the

best two or three things I’ve ever done’, wasn’t made and the subtext of

the message he received from Burnetts in Chicago was clear, even if the

text itself wasn’t. ‘Burnetts said: ‘Don’t try to eat the whole

elephant,’’ Keeble remembers.

The agency was profitable and made some modest progress in Campaign’s

league table of creativity. It moved from 17th place in 1992 to 15th in

1994, at which time Keeble was made creative partner only to leave five

months later, complaining of not having enough to do: the word from

Chicago now was that Keeble was ‘not a Burnetter’.

That shouldn’t worry McBains, which is looking for Keeble to add a

little lustre to its creative output. Webster certainly thinks they have

chosen wisely: ‘Giles always had such a plethora of ideas about

anything. Creatively I think he’s done one or two nice things. I

wouldn’t say he was one of the creative greats, but then neither would

he. But he can certainly identify nice work.’

But McBains is likely to tap into all of Keeble’s disparate advertising

skills. The agency covers advertising, design, direct marketing and

sales promotion and houses the state-of-the-art Electronic Studio - an

electronic production facility. Keeble says that the agency will be able

to offer clients a truly integrated approach. ‘Of course, integrated is

one of those jargon words bandied about the industry, but the point is

that you shouldn’t leap to conclusions about what solutions you would

like just because your agency offers posters or TV or whatever.’

Certainly, the culture at McBains will be more conducive to change -

more conducive than Burnetts anyway. But then it will need to be. Both

Noel-Johnson and David Abbott are quite categorical that Keeble’s

appointment is the start of all ambitious transformation at the group.

Exactly what form this will take is less clear. Keeble talks of a

‘solution neutral’ approach leading to any number of different media

executions, but is not yet in a position to see how this will work in


However their partnership evolves, one senses that Keeble’s enthusiasms

will be better served in an agency where it won’t take the two-and-a-

half years it sometimes took to pass work at Burnetts. And that the

different culture will help to ensure that all Keeble misses of his

former creative directorship is the agency house band in which he



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