Feature

Close-up: Newsmaker - 'He's the greatest DM creative of this generation'

Steve Harrison's absence will be sorely felt following his decision to part company with Wunderman. Kate Nettleton reports.

The feelings towards Steve Harrison from those inside the industry are mixed. You either love him, hate him or suffer an infuriating mixture of both emotions, according to many of his former colleagues.

And his fellow jurors at Cannes last year will agree. They witnessed Harrison's passion for seeking out creative ideas when he, as the chairman of the Direct Jury, repeatedly knocked on the door of the Promo Jury, judging next door, telling them to keep their deliberations down.

However, the creative's reputation as "the velvet fist in an iron glove" shone through. When one burly Promo juror threatened to strip him naked and throw him out if he continued to complain, Harrison duly ceased his protestations.

This episode perfectly encapsulates Harrison, whose principled attitude and constant desire for perfection have made him a pre-eminent member of the direct marketing industry. He spent part of his career as a teacher, has a PhD behind him, and is considered by some to be one of the biggest brains in the business.

His industry career plays out like the classic postboy-turns-adman story. The young Harrison started out in the mid-80s at Ogilvy as an information manager. Within a year of mentioning that he fancied making it as a copywriter to Drayton Bird, the chairman of Ogilvy Direct London, he had risen to the role of head of copy.

Bird's decision to take him under his wing paid off; Harrison quickly established himself as a remarkable and brilliant talent, taking the role of creative director when Pam Craik and Chris Jones, the joint creative directors, left Ogilvy in 1990 to form Craik Jones.

Rory Sutherland, the Ogilvy Group UK vice-chairman, says: "He really instigated something of a transformation within Ogilvy and further afield, creating a seachange in the direct creative output."

Harrison catalysed this change by seeking talent from outside the pool of DM creative talent: "The industry was producing humourless, charmless work, but he was one of the first to employ people who weren't purist direct marketers," Sutherland continues.

After seven years at Ogilvy, Harrison channelled his affinity for managing and nurturing staff into one of the first direct hotshops to hit adland. He set up HPT Brand Response with Martin Troughton and Tim Patten in 1998. Three years later, Harrison Troughton Wunderman was formed out of the backwards merger between HPT and WPP's Impiric network.

Within a year, Harrison had successfully blended the two contrasting cultures into one, producing excellent creative work across a disparate client base.

The agency went on to secure clients including Microsoft and Vodafone, and has enjoyed numerous awards successes under his directorship. When the Cannes Lions Direct awards launched in 2002, HTW won the Inaugural Lions Direct Grand Prix, for its work on AA, and has gone on to win 13 awards. This success was a result of Harrison's talent for overseeing witty and enthralling creative products for even the driest of clients.

In 2002, his work for M&G overcame the mighty challenge of making ISAs interesting. The acclaimed work combined informative long copy with witty imagery and resulted in a 30 per cent rise in response rates, despite the 35 per cent fall in media spend. Jon Williams, the head of digital (creative) at Beattie McGuinness Bungay and a former colleague, says: "M&G redefined the sector and reinstated the art of long copy to an area of business where you were generally used to identical advertising."

Harrison also transformed Xerox into a showcase account for HTW, using a threadbare carpet square to demonstrate that if the carpet around the office photocopier was similar in appearance, it needed replacing. The work landed the agency numerous awards, including the gold Campaign Direct in 2005.

He also had a maternal attitude towards his employees. Williams explains: "As part of HTW, staff would get an expense allowance to see a play, buy a book and feed their curiosity. People who were curious were celebrated."

However, his unwavering dedication for clarity and cogent argument in his work often causes conflict with his colleagues, and is sometimes at odds with his other passion - winning awards. "That is his inherent contradiction," one former colleague says. "When the prospect of the walk to the podium cropped up, he would at times do self-indulgent work."

In March last year, Harrison was promoted to the position of worldwide creative director of Wunderman, and was charged with raising the creative profile of the network across its flagship offices in New York, Frankfurt and Buenos Aires.

Although Harrison is tight-lipped about the reasons for his exit, colleagues speculate that his promotion and the step away from day-to-day control of the creative output of the agency that bears his name did not sit well with him.

Ultimately, his departure puts the creative integrity of HTW in jeopardy. Martin Troughton, Harrison's former partner, says: "I don't think the work will be anywhere near as good. Some international clients don't want Harrison's quirky, idiosyncratic creative solutions, but customers love them. He'll be a big loss to them."

Williams agrees. "With Harrison leaving, the creativity will follow him out the door, and it will become what every other Wunderman office is," he says.

This is by no means the end for Harrison, but what does the future hold for this creative colossus?

Many foresee a career in literature. "I think he's got a great book in him," Troughton says. Sutherland agrees: "I'd be equally happy seeing him producing a film or writing a novel, and equally terrified to see him doing another start-up."

Whatever Harrison decides to do next, his leaving HTW is sure to send ripples of dismay throughout the international DM community.

WHAT HIS COLLEAGUES HAD TO SAY...

- RORY SUTHERLAND, Vice-chairman, Ogilvy Group UK - "He is the Bill Burnbach of British direct marketing, in that he saw a massive rise in standards, but also a change in the whole nature of the creative output of that time. You can't point to anyone more sensible or significant in the direct marketing industry over the last 15 years. There are quite a few of us, myself included, who owe our careers to his influence. I hope he comes back."

- JOHN GOODMAN, President, Ogilvy Japan - "He's tough, but inspiring. He has very high standards and expects everyone to meet them. But we did great work, won many awards and we always had a strong partnership. He's much nicer than he tries to make people believe. Obviously, he'll be missed, but the Wunderman network is pretty robust, so I'm sure it'll do fine."

- JON WILLIAMS, Head of digital (creative), Beattie McGuinness Bungay - "He's the greatest direct marketing creative director of this generation, and an icon of the business. He's got an amazing talent to see through the crap and get right to the heart of the creative issue. His clarity in style could tend to perturb people around him, but he was right, and I learned a lot about the value of a brief from him."

- MARTIN TROUGHTON, Marketing director, Anglian Home Improvements - "It was very challenging to work with him, because he has exacting standards and doesn't understand the word compromise, which actually produces some wonderful work. It's one of his biggest strengths and one of his biggest weaknesses at times. He's really raised the standards of the DM industry."

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