Are the successors of the leading direct shops living up to their predecessors? Peter Crush reports.

Comparing past and present direct marketing heads is a bit like arguing who is the best James Bond. Super spies, like agencies, exist in their own point in time. There is little point debating how well Roger Moore succeeded Sean Connery because the first 007 rewrote film-making and the rest continued the franchise.

And yet when DM agency heads leave, a similar sort of panic ensues: can the successors ever live up to the standards set by their predecessors?

Chris Warren, the managing director of Tullo Marshall Warren, thinks not: "Takeover after takeover has left the industry littered with unhappy marriages. It is very difficult to combine successfully one culture with another, and DM agencies are not the best perpetrators of change management."

But others abruptly refute the suggestion. "We've moved on, we operate in a different environment. DM is broader and the metrics of measurement have changed," Chris Gordon, the chairman of WWAV Rapp Collins, argues.

"(Stan) Rapp developed our market, and handed us a good agency, but he fit the era he moved in. Now, we live or die by whether we produce bloody good DM."

What has caused the debate to resurface is one of this year's biggest "original founder" exits. Simon Hall, the founder of Barraclough Hall Woolston Gray (now Proximity London), left in the summer, a departure hot on the heels of another founder Chris Barraclough's move at the start of 2003.

Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO's chairman, Michael Baulk, famously described Hall as "simply the best direct marketer" he's ever worked with and, most importantly, called him "the driving force behind the growth and development of BHWG. Without his passion, the network would not be the success it is."

But as only a few of the original tribe remain (such as Terry Hunt, the chief executive of EHS Brann), does it matter that these people are moving on, or are we being left with personality-less DM heads that are merely the shadow of these great buccaneers' image?

"Today's successors are owning up to different standards," John Watson, one of WWAV's founders, argues, "and this is that profit rules. The top ten agencies are basically three conglomerates; I didn't want to look at balance sheets all day, that's why I left to run my own agency. I've gone back to my roots. Most of the original founders dislike how they are always having to look over their shoulders instead of doing great creative."

It's not surprising that figures such as Barraclough echo these sentiments.

"Today's heads are doing different jobs," he argues. "I say this with sadness. All the bright people left are preoccupied with admin. We're moving away from the entrepreneurial spirit the founders stood for. Hall had vision, he led people with charisma. I don't think Chris Thomas (the former Lowe chief executive, now the chief executive of Proximity) is that sort of person. It's not a personal defect, he's just not a DM specialist but maybe that's how agencies need to be run nowadays."

So what does Thomas make of this? "Hall undoubtedly built a brand," he argues, "but the business is bigger than a single person. I don't believe in the cult of the personality." He has a point. Heads leaving don't always affect business. Two years after the exodus of its founders, WWAV Rapp Collins was Campaign's Agency of the Year in 2000.

And, as Thomas adds: "Twenty years ago we were a pioneering business, but today we are bigger, broader and more complex. To a large extent we have got more professional. We are a robust rather than nostalgic business."

Drayton Bird, the head of the Drayton Bird Partnership, scoffs at the suggestion that agencies don't need leaders. "I don't doubt we've moved on, but while people stay for results, they come for reputation. No-one cares when a founder without charisma leaves; it's much more marked when people leave that had good views, and knew what they were doing."

But maybe these views have had their day. "I just don't think that you can have these giant individuals now," Stephen Pidgeon, the ex-Brann director and the chairman of Target Direct, comments. "It's harking back to an era that no longer exists. Thinking is different, the whole environment is different. One of my MDs is doing an MBA in his spare time. I'm just amused people still quote these so-called old luminaries."

The view that clients don't need the reassurance of one individual is, maybe, a reflection that the industry has grown up. As Paul O'Donnell, the chairman of OgilvyOne, says: "When the industry was young, it was probably no surprise those people promoting it got attached to the cause. Nowadays, talking about how you do/did stuff is less important. Personalities still exist in above-the-line agencies because apart from creative, that's all they have to talk about. Our industry is much more diverse."

And to the new enlightened crew, it's wasted time worrying if you measure up against the old-guard.

Sez Maxted, the managing director of Draft Worldwide (UK), comments: "Any management change will affect a company - if it doesn't, then they weren't doing their job. However, I think that as many of the founders leave, we are actually on the brink of an exciting time. We don't need grey, old men, but new people, more dynamic people. I think looking at the standards that will be set by the second generation is what we should all be looking forward to."