HHCL/Red Cell deal marks the end of an ad era

Being the subject of rumour and speculation is never a comfortable place to be, ask Pete Townshend. Closer to home, more than half of the top 20 ad agencies are currently being ground through the rumour mill, writes Claire Beale.

A Campaign journalist grouching about the fever pitch of speculation might sound about as convincing as Jordan bemoaning having to get her silicon out yet again. But these are no idle rumours and, though not helpful in the short term, suggest some healthy changes are coming to creative departments near you.

Change is openly on the agenda for some. It’s no secret that the creative director virus has claimed four victims in the top 20: Saatchis, Grey, O&M and JWT are all on the creative hunt. Add the tremors of creative unrest at a navvy’s handful of other leading agencies and I can’t remember when the creative management of the industry seemed so unsettled.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that Steve Henry’s future has also been the subject of much thought. As one of the best creative talents in London, he would be a prize for many of the agencies struggling for creative respect and is thought to have been the subject of a little wooing. But a HHCL/ Red Cell deal without his name on the dotted line would have forced the fledgling agency to dangle its hook in the small creative talent pool with the rest; and that would have been a crippling burden for the new operation.

Now the on-off merger has been signed, Henry has given it his blessing and commitment, and what was once the most exciting creative agency in London is nestling into the bosom of WPP.

The demise of HHCL — and whatever way you look at this deal, that’s what’s happened — is a sad day for anyone who felt the excitement that the agency weaved through much of the 90s. A willing courter of industry controversy, and with critics aplenty, HHCL nevertheless set the pace for a good part of the decade. From open-plan offices, hot-desking, integration, fee-based high margins and breakthrough creative work on Tango, the AA, Ronseal, Pot Noodle and Egg, HHCL had a fundamental influence on the shape of the industry today.

But even with Henry in place, the new agency will struggle to break free from the histories of its parts: HHCL’s soaring too close to the sun, Red Cell’s pointless UK offering. The entrepreneurial verve and creative excitement that the old HHCL magicked is beyond recapture and, anyway, the time for that particular brand of magic has passed. The departure of Axel Chaldecott underlines the ending of the era, though Henry will be a reassuring presence for remaining clients and a platform on which to fashion a new creative product.

With creative musical chairs about to begin for so many agencies, though, I wonder whether Henry’s name has been crossed off all those wishlists.

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