When Rupert Howell and John Dooner met in New York last week to discuss changes to the McCann Erickson regional management, a "frank exchange" of views was likely to be on the cards.
Neither the outgoing president and regional director for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, nor the global McCann chief executive are known for mincing their words, so when Howell disagreed with Doo-ner over the latter's plans for the network's regional structure, an amicable parting was always going to be the only way out for the former HHCL & Partners founder.
Howell's departure is, all parties stress, nothing to do with the level of success McCann has experienced in Europe. Nor is it down to what is often viewed as the network's weakened grip on General Motors in the region - European offices have won five of the last eight GM pitches, a source points out.
In his three-and-a-half years at the agency, Howell has presided over a number of new-business wins and the overhaul of the agency's creative reputation. He argues its creative product has improved beyond recognition and points to the European new-business league tables, which McCann has topped for the past two years, as evidence of its new financial backbone.
"I'm sad to be leaving the outstanding team I've assembled in EMEA and I am truly proud of our achievements together," Howell says. "We took a disparate and poorly perfoming region and turned it into the success story of McCann and IPG."
"When Rupert joined us in 2003, McCann EMEA was going through a difficult period, which is precisely the kind of challenge that Rupert relishes. In just four years, he not only has restored the confidence and growth of the region, but helped position it for further expansion. We wish him all good things," Dooner says.
Howell's and Dooner's conversation last week is understood to have focused on the latter's aim of wrestling more control over large network accounts in Europe.
"Rupert was too much of a challenge for the iron fist of New York - he didn't really 'fit in', he wasn't from McCann central casting," a former colleague says. "He did a really good job and his departure is unfair. Ultimately, it raises the issue of whether you really need European management for a US-run company. It's a small world, and you can effectively run the network from New York."
This, sources at McCann say, is precisely what Dooner has planned. Brett Gosper, the McCann US president, is widely expected to return to Europe in a role in which he will take control of multinational clients in Europe, both those with large European markets such as Unilever, Nestle and L'Oreal, and US-based businesses, including GM and Microsoft. Howell, had he been offered such a role, would have seen it as an erosion of power.
"If New York controls the accounts, it's really only left for European management to do a bit of HR work and local 'figuring out'. It's more of a chief operating officer's role; McCann doesn't need a leader in Europe," a former McCann exective says.
So what next for one of advertising's more colourful suits? Howell has little left to prove in advertising - he was a founder of one of the most iconic advertising agencies of the 90s, the now-defunct HHCL & Partners; he oversaw its sale to Chime Communications for the rumoured sum of £24 million, and took on the chief executive role at Lord Bell's group for what was a torrid four years before accepting the McCann role.
Quite what his departure spells for the London office remains unclear. Sources say that while he was the architect of the "dream team" (the swathe of advertising talent brought in to turn around the fortunes of London and the EMEA network), his role in the UK was very hands-off. Giuseppe Usuelli, the Milan-based chairman of McCann Erickson EMEA, will assume his responsibilities, although Dooner's mooted plans for EMEA will no doubt involve these responsibilities changing. And with the majority of Howell's team now playing their game in rival shops, the idea of a new broom coming in and making sweeping changes to his predecessor's management seems increasingly remote.
Howell won't be drawn on any future plans, although neither will he discount a return to UK advertising. "I don't know what I'm going to do, other than I'm definitely taking the summer off," he says. Over the past year, he says he's had a number of "approaches" from various companies, and he's adamant he wants to stay in the media. "I love this business and the people in it, although I see myself in a much broader role now."
THE HOWELL CV
1979: Joins Ogilvy Group
1981: Joins Grey as an account manager
1983: Moves to Young & Rubicam as account director
1984: Promoted to new-business director at Y&R
October 1987: Launches HHCL & Partners with Steve Henry, Axel Chaldecott
and Adam Lury
June 1989: HHCL & Partners wins Cannes Grand Prix for Maxell Tapes
December 1995: Campaign Agency of the Year
October 1997: HHCL & Partners sells to Chime Communications for a sum
rumoured to be £24 million
October 1998: Joins Chime as chief executive
December 1998: Named IPA president
October 2002: Quits Chime
August 2003: Joins McCann as president and regional director, Europe,
the Middle East and Africa
May 2007: Quits McCann