Hamish Pringle is not the type to lose sleep over job titles,
Harriet Green writes.
Hamish Pringle is remarkably perky for a man who’s just lost his agency.
He’s from the old school, very British. He takes his beating, stands up,
dusts himself down and smiles at the prospect of punishments to
For two years as chairman and chief executive, Pringle tried to keep K
Advertising alive. Then, last week, K was absorbed into Saatchi and
Saatchi (Campaign, 21 February). But Pringle is ready for a whole new
conker fight: he’s become Saatchis’ marketing director, reporting to
joint chief executives a decade younger than himself.
’People think I should sit here feeling completely beleaguered, battered
and bewildered,’ Pringle says. ’But I’m not. I don’t get stressed and
worried about these things. I slept like a baby throughout the whole
thing,’ he chuckles, a brave soul in a pin-striped suit.
Pringle spent a year preparing for this, dealing with one upset after
another. (One grisly moment saw Pringle threaten to sue his former media
director, Denise Porter, for allegedly stealing computer files. In
another, the agency’s much-trumpeted merged account planning and media
planning department was abandoned after less than a year.) The final
blow was the resignation of K’s youthful creative director, Keith
Courtney, the overall winner at Campaign’s 1996 Press Awards. Courtney
had outgrown K and both men knew he’d be snapped up by rivals sooner or
later. Two weeks ago, Leagas Shafron Davis made the call.
Pringle scurried immediately to Derek Bowden, Saatchi Europe’s chief
executive, and Alan Bishop, Saatchi London’s chairman - and sealed K’s
fate. Pringle had failed to hire a senior account executive for
Carlsberg following the departure of Glen Fraser last July - finding a
creative director looked impossible. ’We decided that failing to hire a
creative director would be seen as another sign of weakness,’ he
explains. ’We moved quickly because I couldn’t see any point in leaving
the people here in any more uncertainty. It was the end of that
Despite its low profile and poor record for new business, K produced
profits and memorable creative work, notably Courtney’s award-winning
Pentax ’baby’ campaign.
Pringle deserves credit, too, for retaining key accounts such as
Carlsberg, Commercial Union, Alcatel, Cheltenham and Gloucester and
Puma. But he made avoidable mistakes.
Bowing to Cordiant pressure, he moved offices from Charing Cross Road to
Whitfield Street, thus blurring K’s identity and making merger with
Saatchis more likely. At the same time, he got rid of his own backroom
facilities in order to use Saatchis’ instead.
The rejig was handled badly: the agency relaunched amid news of
Pringle’s 24-year career is littered with opportunities that didn’t
quite come off. Would he start an agency with Derek Day (later to found
Butterfield Day Devito Hockney)? Take top job if Chiat Day merged with
BDDP? No, but in 1986 he did set up Madell Wilmot Pringle with John
Madell and Paul Wilmot. It wasn’t a success.
’I had my moment. I didn’t get it right. I got into business with the
wrong people,’ he admits. The problem? ’I couldn’t change Paul Wilmot’s
spots.’ After four years, they sold out to RSCG. Pringle departed with a
sizeable sum (he believes that Madell and Wilmot, who stayed longer,
trousered rather more).
Wilmot calls Pringle the John Major of advertising: ’(He) plays it by
the book. A lot of clients appreciate a steady hand on the tiller. But
Hamish isn’t what you’d call fast on his feet. If you threw him a googly
in a meeting he wouldn’t be able to handle it. He’s not a dynamic
Pringle’s friend, Bruce Haines, then managing director (now chief
executive) of Leagas Delaney, rescued him from Madell Wilmot Pringle.
Then Pringle followed Haines to KHBB. In 1994, Haines went back to
Leagas Delaney and Pringle became chairman of KHBB (or CME KHBB as it
was briefly known).
The following year, Pringle planned a management buyout of the London
agency with the managing director, Graham Arkell, and creative director,
Barbara Nokes. The idea was for Cordiant to retain a minority stake,
with Pringle, Arkell and Nokes taking the bulk of the equity and
distributing the rest among staff. But KHBB’s major client, Alcatel,
which accounted for 20 per cent of the billings, didn’t like the idea.
So Pringle played safe: ’It was the wrong time of life for me to do it.
I had family commitments.’
Anyway, the threesome were ill-suited: after arguments about naming the
new venture, and the shareholding, Arkell and Nokes departed.
But staff and industry friends are hugely loyal. ’Be nice to Hamish,’
they all implore. Haines says: ’He’s a detail man, I relied on him
He works incredibly hard, is immeasurably dedicated and a very good
He is absolutely straight - one of the most honest people in the
business.’ Courtney, too, is indebted to Pringle: ’He was like a
He took me under his wing and helped me enormously.’
Cordiant prizes Pringle’s client skills. There seems to have been no
doubt he would be asked to stay, whatever happened to K. As he puts it
himself: ’I do seem to have this talent for winning new business.’
Especially large financial clients. At KHBB, for example, he was
responsible for landing the pounds 13 million General Motors GM Card
launch and Cheltenham and Gloucester.
But what about this decline from chairman and chief executive to
marketing director? A blow to the ego? Pringle is remarkably honest
about industry ageism: ’I’m never going to be an advertising
entrepreneur again,’ he explains. ’I’m jolly lucky to have this job.
Once an account man gets over the age of 35 many of us have passed our
sell-by date. Over 40 you are seriously out. I’m 46. I’ve said before
that if I got made redundant, fired, or whatever, I’d stay in a job and
in the business. I won’t stand on ceremony about titles.’ (In fact,
Pringle still chairs two organisations to which he is heavily committed:
the IPA’s effectiveness committee and NABS, the advertising
He seems genuinely enthusiastic about his new job, relishing the
prospect of flogging a serious player again. He enthuses: ’Saatchis is
the generic for an ad agency. That has been an unexploited asset for a
while but I don’t see any challengers. The key objective is to be number
When I beat Dominic Proctor and Stephen Carter (J. Walter Thompson’s
chief executive and managing director respectively) or when Andrew
Robertson (Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO’s managing director) and I come head
to head, it’s going to be fantastic.’
Nevertheless, Saatchis currently languishes at number five in the ACN
MEAL billings league. It needs a massive injection of new business
(pounds 82 million, to be precise) to catch the top shop, AMV. Is
Pringle the man?
Haines thinks so. Pringle, he explains, is a big-agency person who likes
conventional, well-planned client companies: ’The Saatchis position will
fit him to a T.’
Mark Robinson, J. Walter Thompson’s marketing director and a close
friend of Pringle, agrees: ’He’ll come up with hundreds of ideas that
people haven’t thought of before. He is suited to a large, established
He’s come home to the right job.’
Saatchis’ chairman, Alan Bishop, is clearly delighted to have another
senior player on the team (as well as K’s tasty pounds 30 million in
billings): ’He’s very experienced and knowledgeable about the business.
He’s run his own agency, worked on a wide range of accounts and made a
lot of tough business decisions himself. That is what will make the
Even his old antagonist, Wilmot, thinks Pringle has made the right move:
’He’ll be good at Saatchis. He’ll put a bit of stability into it. Hamish
is awfully good at being sensible.’