CLOSE-UP: NEWSMAKER - RUPERT HOWELL. New model agency will tell clients their business

Rupert Howell wants to tell companies how they can grow, Mark Sweney writes.

Describing his new venture, The Growth Organisation, Rupert Howell smiles cheekily and says: "It does what it says on the tin." He is pleased with the conceit of pilfering the Ronseal slogan, developed by HHCL & Partners, the agency he co-founded.

There's also a touch of irony in the fact he has used an advertising strapline to describe a business that won't do any advertising. It might not even recommend advertising as a marketing solution. The Growth Organisation is about strategy, getting involved with companies before ad agencies are even contacted.

"Lord Leverhulme famously said: 'Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted. The trouble is I don't know which half.' Well, I can answer that," Howell says. "The 50 per cent wasted is when the business isn't ready. Too much advertising is done as a knee-jerk reaction because something new has to be said."

Howell has teamed up with Robin Price, a fellow HHCL founder and a financial whizz, and Piers Schmidt, a founder of the now-defunct marketing consultancy Fourth Room. This triumvirate will form the backbone of the new outfit.

The Growth Organisation will be an umbrella holding company for a network of companies, built up through acquisition or best-of-breed partnerships, whose services will be channelled through the consultancy.

"Consultancy is at the centre of the model. It is the next-generation model of marketing services - which is a narrow concept. We think of it as growth services. The key capability is to help clients identify, capture and create organic growth whether that is through communications, adjusting the behaviour of staff, the retail experience, or whether it is in the real or virtual world."

Howell is cautious about criticising the advertising networks. After all, it is a hand that has fed him very generously, but he does see a gap in the market.

"Agencies are suppliers, no longer partners. They do advertising strategy, but there is an opportunity they didn't see coming to get back in with clients and offer wider strategic advice. Like Bogle with Levi's or a Bullmore or Ogilvy used to do, or me with Egg or Go. Clients now go elsewhere for strategic advice. The world is now about total customer experience - not just communications," he explains, demonstrating the confidence bordering on arrogance for which he is famous.

"I'm not knocking agencies. They are bloody good at what they do. But the world has changed and there is a chasm. When I was at the IPA, I always said it was very conservative. We tried to change at HHCL and had some success. I don't want to cast stones, we were guilty as well, but that is what you learn from experience."

A launch is planned for after Easter. Funding is presenting a challenge in the current economic climate, but Howell is optimistic. "We are at the classic stage where we have the idea, the publicity, founding team and other partners lined up and some businesses we are looking to acquire - but we are in the chicken-and-egg process of getting funding. It is entertaining - everyone wants certainty but, by definition, entrepreneurialism always has an element of risk."

But why is he even interested in going through all of this fund-raising, start-up stuff again? He certainly isn't short of pennies (the sale of HHCL to Chime netted him somewhere near £5 million) and he made his mark in the annals of advertising history with HHCL acclaimed as Campaign's Agency of the Decade in the 90s.

"It's simple really. I'm an entrepreneur, there must be a gene for it.

I've got one more shot in me and I'm too young to retire. HHCL was a big shot, but I guess you still want to challenge the market."

With such an illustrious background there must surely be a temptation - either from client demand or simply talking about what he does best - to offer advertising solutions?

Howell admits that those sorts of questions come with the territory and he isn't ruling out an advertising agency becoming part of the network.

"I'd be surprised if I'm not asked about advertising. But we think there are great agencies out there to do that. We might advise clients on advertising. In the fullness of time we might buy an agency to form part of the group."

The big question is will the venture work? Well, you certainly wouldn't want to bet against Howell's record, failure isn't in his vocabulary (although he once failed a Latin exam). With fresh approaches being sold by agencies such as Naked, which is basking in new-business success, clients seem more willing to think outside the box.

Howell has recognised this and aims to position the company as the first port of call. "Naked is extremely good but it is operating just in the communications sector. It's successful because of going half a step before the communications process - it doesn't have a communications factory to feed. We are a step before looking at the whole demand side, a strategy of which communications is one part. I don't want to launch another ad agency, I've been there, done that, got the T-shirt. I've discovered a world before that. We think we have discovered a model that will be king."


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