CLOSE-UP: NEWSMAKER/NICK BELL - Is this the man to make JWT look like a hotshop?

Will Nick Bell's talent bring in the creative awards for JWT? Jenny Watts reports.

There was one person who dominated conversations at The Gutter Bar in Cannes in 2001: Nick Bell. Not only was his agency's "bear" spot tipped for the Grand Prix, but he was also the subject of an all-too-public bidding war between Leo Burnett and Lowe.

Well, the poachers are out again. This time J. Walter Thompson is trying to lure him from Burnett to turn around its fusty creative image. But is Bell as hot as he was when his department picked up three Cannes golds for John West, McDonald's and Heinz?

Bell, and his then partner Mark Tutssel, had done the impossible at Burnett.

They had overseen its metamorphosis from a stuffy American subsidiary to a hot creative shop, nurturing talents such as the creator of the "bear" spot Paul Silburn, Martin Loraine and Steve Jones.

"Nick's so hard-working and driven - he did as much as anybody to make Burnett such a respected agency," Silburn, now the deputy creative director at TBWA/London, says.

Enter JWT, which has long suffered from a reliable, rather than trail-blazing, creative reputation. It hopes Bell's pending appointment will be the final piece in its masterplan to rejuvenate itself with fresh thinking and ideas.

JWT's chief executive, Simon Bolton, says: "In our worldwide meetings in April and October, we confirmed JWT is on a transformation strategy. We need to push that agenda forward."

Upping the creative ante is clearly the first entry on Bolton's agenda.

"I've scoured the earth looking for the right person," he says, adding that he's after someone who can "connect with our culture and, really importantly, push us to a new level of creativity".

This push follows the promotion of Jaspar Shelbourne in December to a worldwide role after almost a decade at the agency's creative helm.

Bolton met more than 30 people for the job, half of whom were from outside the UK, including Saatchi & Saatchi London's recent appointee, Tony Granger.

JWT was intent on securing a heavyweight creative talent, rare in London right now, and was forced to get permission from its WPP parent, never famous for its big salaries, to offer a competitive figure. It appears to have worked.

It's a necessary move to fit in with the agency's new drive. "We've been reasonably successful in new business, but I don't think we've won so many creative pitches," Bolton admits, adding that the agency wants to be more successful in awards shows and pointing to Bell's proven pedigree in that area.

Chris Thomas, who, as the chief executive of Lowe, was behind the attempt to poach Bell two years ago, still rates him, describing him as "smart, articulate and a good team leader".

But while there would be no argument on that front from his loyal creative department, Bell's unswerving belief in the importance of the creative product has regularly led to extreme tension with account management.

As Loraine says: "Nick will push everyone to the limit to get the right result. Not everyone likes that, but the successes of the past few years wouldn't have happened without him."

And it seems Bell's commitment to fighting for good work is matched by his commitment to his personal career development. His partnership with Tutssel fell apart when it emerged that Bell was talking to Lowe about its creative director job behind his back. Tutssel subsequently moved to Leo Burnett's Chicago headquarters, leaving Bell in sole creative charge.

Despite the creative accolades, more cynical observers say Silburn's John West spot has been driving the agency's hyperbole for quite some time. "The agency was riding on the success of that one campaign for some time," one observer says.

Its follow-up, minus Silburn, didn't create the same waves, and while its McDonald's work has been of a consistently high standard, the agency is now contending with renewed reports that the account is shaky. In general, the hubbub surrounding the creative department has died down, especially following the departure of some of its star players such as Silburn and Loraine. In fact, in terms of new business, the agency has never managed to capitalise on the creative fame it achieved in 2001.

Still, Bell's star continued to shine when he emerged as the creative chief of the merged D'Arcy and Leo Burnett last year. But recently a rift has grown between Bell and the group chief executive, Bruce Haines, who joined the agency a year ago. Bell has worked himself into an extremely powerful position within the network, and Haines has had to fight to protect the managerial domain that goes with being the group chief executive.

So is the political Bell a good hiring? Bolton believes he's built a strong team structure to head JWT, and will hope Bell can fit into it, although some observers are sceptical that the JWT brand, by its sheer nature, is ready for his heartfelt creative approach. "Its generic code is not primarily creative," one remarks.

However, with consistent work on accounts such as McDonald's, Bell has proved he's good at mass-market household names, the mainstay of JWT's business. But his arrival will mean a shake-up. "He'll demand a creative level they haven't been on in years," one observer remarks. Silburn adds: "He's passionate about creative work. If JWT really means it wants to raise its creative profile and is prepared to back him, it's got the right bloke. He'll be a very good hiring."