Close-up: Newsmakers - Old-fashioned values or old-fashioned creative?

HOW's founders may not be young but they know how to treat clients, John Tylee says. Why HOW? That's the question posed on the cover of the launch brochure of the UK's latest agency start-up. And it's an apposite one.

HOW is an acronym of the initials of its founding partners, the creatives Ken Hoggins and Chris O'Shea and the senior suit Mark Wilson.

They're a trio of fiftysomethings who, logic suggests, ought to be looking forward to sipping the last of the summer wine. So why on earth do they want to set up something at this time of their lives?

It can't be the money. Hoggins and O'Shea are known to have been on comfortable six-figure salaries at their former home, Banks Hoggins O'Shea/FCB, and to have shared a significant portion of the £14 million paid to BHO's stakeholders when it was sold to FCB six years ago.

Those who know them suggest it has much to do with their shared view that there's more still to be wrung out of advertising careers that stretch back over almost four decades.

Talk to Hoggins and O'Shea and the conversation invariably returns to agencies that do business in a civilised and less formal fashion than ownership by a large network will allow.

No surprise, therefore, that they've chosen to sell a piece of HOW to Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy, an agency that espouses the principled philosophy of Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO from which it sprang. "MCBD and ourselves are culturally close," Hoggins insists.

No surprise either that the pair recoil from the recent tales of Garry Lace's split from Grey London, and Ben Langdon's quickie divorce from Mark Wnek. They despair of how such events are reinforcing clients' perception of a profligate and shallow industry with a short-term mentality.

O'Shea explains: "A lot of clients have had a bad experience with agencies. They want an agency they can trust and that respects them. Clients are looking for shorter lines of communication."

The operation has secured MCBD's backing - HOW will be based at its Rathbone Street offices - because the founders want to side-step the skin-of-your-teeth chaos that surrounds most start-ups. Hoggins comments: "It's an intelligent way of giving clients an immediate back-up system. Chris and I have been there before. It can be chaotic and that's not good for clients."

On the face of it, HOW sounds like a natural home for Waitrose, the John Lewis-owned grocer to the middle classes, and there's much speculation that it will be the agency's first client.

For one thing, the Waitrose strategy of reminding consumers that premium prices are a reflection of higher product quality has always been so elegantly articulated in the creative work of Hoggins and O'Shea.

For another, the pair have chosen to set up with Wilson. The softly spoken 51-year-old was regarded as an outstanding account man when running the £9 million Waitrose business at BHO, although scepticism per-sists over whether or not he can make the progression to managing director.

Waitrose has now confirmed plans to review. However, it would be wrong to suppose that a company imbued with John Lewis' ethics would simply shift the account without a fair, competitive pitch.

In addition to this, there's an open question about whether or not Waitrose alone would be enough to sustain HOW's place in such an over-supplied and competitive market.

One of the industry's leading consultants suggests that Hoggins and O'Shea are motivated by an obsessional mindset characteristic of their age group.

"There's an overwhelming desire by that generation to feel part of the industry," he claims. "They've grown up with it and it's their life. The younger generation don't regard it as the be-all and end-all, but these guys do."

Others wonder if the stylish creative with which Hoggins and O'Shea are synonymous has run its course. "Their output is a throwback to the classic days of Collett Dickenson Pearce," a former associate declares. "It's always well crafted but is very much of yesteryear and that may be a disadvantage. I would question whether they have long-term credibility."

Not everybody agrees with these somewhat harsh and cynical verdicts, pointing out that ethical and clearly defined beliefs haven't done the likes of relative newcomers such as Mother and Clemmow Hornby Inge any harm.

"I think we're about to see the launch of a successful agency staffed by talented people with old-fashioned values," Adrian Holmes, the Lowe network chairman and worldwide chief creative officer, predicts. "It's easy to dismiss them as has-beens when they are anything but."

Hoggins and O'Shea are the possessors of a formidable creative legacy characterised by memorable work on behalf of Heineken, the Hanson Trust, AC Delco and, most remembered of all, the "my shout, he whispered" 80s press ad for Stella Artois.

They have always been bonded by a special kind of chemistry ever since they were first united at Lowe Howard-Spink in the early 80s.

O'Shea, a writer, had previously been plying his trade at Abbott Mead Vickers, a not entirely happy period for him. Indeed, his disillusionment with the industry so overwhelmed him at one stage that he quit temporarily to become a delivery van driver for Mother's Pride bakery.

"Chris was the kind of creative you could put in front of clients and they would always know what he was talking about," David Abbott, his erstwhile boss, remembers. "Although he saw himself as a creative director in the making, he really preferred to be doing the ads."

O'Shea's talent has always belied a modest and self-effacing character.

He once left a D&AD awards night early, having convinced himself he would not be among the winners, only to be telephoned later at home to be told he'd picked up a gold award.

Hoggins, meanwhile, had been art directing alongside the writer Steve Grounds at Crawfords. Grounds recalls his creative partner of eight years as a "gentle Geordie" with a passion for fishing, possessed of much talent, articulate and an equal contributor to the creative process.

The strength of their partnership manifests itself in a bond of strong, mutual protectiveness. "You could never get inside them," a former colleague remarks. "They're very nice people but you always felt there was a barrier between themselves and others."

Their loyalty to each other has sometimes come at a price, how-ever.

At Lowe, it led to friction between themselves and the agency's domineering founder, Frank Lowe, leading to an uncomfortable end to their tenure of the creative department. At Chiat\ Day, they quit as joint creative directors after little more than a year, having rejected the decision of the then managing director, MT Rainey, to put Hoggins in sole creative command.

By 1993, they had replaced Robert Campbell and Mark Roalfe as creative partners in John Banks' newly formed agency. Banks was introduced to the pair by the headhunter Canna Kendall and was much impressed. "When I saw their work for Stella Artois and Vauxhall, it made me wish I'd been the account director who'd had to sell it," he says.

Nevertheless, the Banks Hoggins O'Shea experience seems to have been a less-than-fulfilling one for them. The agency suffers from a low profile and a miserable new-business record and has recently installed a new management team to regain ground lost to newer and sexier operations.

For Hoggins and O'Shea, the agency's sale to FCB changed BHO's character irrevocably and for the worse. Some, however, accuse them of being naive.

"When you sell an agency you inevitably have to give up things," an FCB source says. "It's ridiculous to believe that everything will remain the same."

Are Hoggins and O'Shea being equally naive in setting up shop again?

For them, it's more to do with reaching a stage where their age and experience allows them to shape a working environment of their own design.

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