Newsmakers/Jonathan Stead and John Townshend: Cable & Wireless victors exude quiet confidence

Jonathan Stead and John Townshend seem unfazed by their win. By Emma Hall.

Jonathan Stead and John Townshend seem unfazed by their win. By

Emma Hall.

Jonathan Stead plays it straight. He talks about agency structures and

working practices, but only the suntan gives away the real story of the

chief executive of Rapier Stead & Bowden, the low-profile agency that

has just carried off the pounds 25 million launch of Cable & Wireless

Communications from under the noses of three top London agencies

(Campaign, last week).

On the quiet, Stead leads the life of a playboy at his Holland Park

home, spending weekends in St Moritz, holidays in Mustique and

Christmases in Aspen. He owns an Aston Martin 6.3 Valante, of which

there are only three in the world - Prince Charles owns one of the other


Straight out of the Cable & Wireless pitch, Stead and his creative

director, John Townshend, had lunch at the Groucho and then set off for

the South of France to reward themselves with a day or so on the Cote

d’Azur. And when the news of victory came, they headed straight to Quo

Vadis, the Soho eaterie adorned with a collection of Damien Hirst


Not that Rapier is trying to outdo its above-the-line rivals in the

glamour stakes. Stead and Townshend are quite happy to outdo the likes

of HHCL & Partners, Saatchi & Saatchi and Bartle Bogle Hegarty on a

purely business basis.

So while the three star shops slowly come to terms with defeat by an

unknown integrated outfit, Rapier is busy trying to recruit extra staff

to deal with the huge task it has just taken on.

Is the shop up to the challenge? There has been a lot of sniping about

the win, which looks like sour grapes, but the ad industry will not be

satisfied unless the result is a sparklingly successful campaign in the


Stead plays it cool - there is no hint of a chip on his 37-year-old


’Our attitude is that nothing is impossible. The most important thing is

to attract the best people and this win will help us to do that.’

The phrase ’nothing is impossible’ used to belong to Saatchis, which has

been beaten at its own game. Stead has a theory about how Rapier came

out on top: ’Saatchis was the first wave, BBH was the second wave, HHCL

was the third wave and we are the fourth wave.’

So what makes this outfit think it has so much to offer? ’We start from

a genuinely media-neutral solutions base. It’s to do with credibility,’

Stead says. ’We took a long time getting there, but this is an agency

that really cares about communications beyond advertising. Ads are one

of our offerings, but they are not the most important discipline.’

With more than the usual conviction, Stead makes the familiar point that

the advertising industry is suprisingly resistant to change. ’The aim of

nearly every agency is to do great ads, get more clients and make lots

of money. Our aim is to deal with a client’s needs with an integrated

approach,’ he comments.

The money side obviously comes in somewhere along the line, but Stead

ignores the topic, except to brush off the suggestion that his agency

must have been much cheaper than the others. ’We are probably more

expensive,’ he says. ’Ninety per cent of our income comes from


Stead started building his vision of the agency five years ago, when he

was in charge of opening up its New York office. He had joined what was

then Rapier Direct, part of the Charles Barker Group, in November 1985.

Two years later, Stead and a colleague, Martin Bowden, seized the

opportunity to buy the agency.

But transatlantic expansion brought to a head the differences between

the two men. According to Stead, Bowden wanted to stick to a small

below-the-line operation, while Stead was putting together his vision of

a truly integrated shop.

Stead says: ’I believed there was an opportunity to create a new kind of

agency, where the appropriate people were all brought together at the

outset. Instead of the usual sequential process, we keep everyone -

including the client - involved all the way through.’

So Bowden went his own way that year, as did many others. ’It is a very

different set of people here than we had at the start of 1993,’ Stead

reveals. And they picked up some good clients along the way, including

Eurostar and Bell Cablemedia, which opened the door for the C&W


Peter Croome joined as managing director at the beginning of 1994,

bringing with him coveted experience from Leo Burnett, FCB, DDB and

Woollams Moira Gaskin O’Malley. A year later, John Townshend, or Lord

John Townshend as he prefers not to be called, joined as the creative

director, and Stead felt he had the right team in place to bring the

agency to where he wanted it to be.

Townshend is only two years younger than Stead, but still has the

Fauntleroy curls and diffident manner which place him in a different

generation to his chief executive. Rapier’s creative director came

through DMB&B, Yellowhammer and Ogilvy & Mather. He was recommended to

Stead by Mark Wnek, the executive creative director of Euro RSCG Wnek


Wnek says: ’John is very much like me and I wasn’t surprised by the win,

although I know others will be. I’ve always seen it in him and I’m sure

they will go from strength to strength.’

Stead thinks so too. ’We have had a couple of big opportunities in the

past two years. I knew that it was all moving in the right direction and

it was just a matter of time before something like Cable & Wireless


He mistakenly tried to force the pace of change last year by taking on a

number of refugees from Knight Leach Delaney when it went out of


The arrangement did not last and only a few junior KLD staff stayed

behind when Stuart Leach and Andy Ray went off to set up a new agency,

Ray Leach Orlov.

But that episode is now behind Stead and Townshend, who are approaching

the future in a very businesslike manner. Stead says: ’If you talk about

radical solutions it sounds like a gimmick. We genuinely want to get on

with it - we are not trying to be trendy.’

The subject of fashion in agencies sends Stead rushing to mount one of

his hobby horses . ’People talk about agencies being in and out of

fashion, but scratch the surface and what you have are management teams

that are either working well and delivering or not.

In no other business would success be equated so closely with


George Michaelides of Michaelides and Bednash, the media strategist for

Cable & Wireless who worked with all four agencies on the pitch, found

some resonances between his agency and Stead’s. ’They are not interested

in competing in the village and neither are we. They have a willingness

to work as team players and that means other people want to work with


Chris Forrest, the former planning director of Duckworth Finn Grubb

Waters, is one of those people. He was brought in to work with Rapier on

the pitch strategy and was impressed by how ’rounded’ the agency is.

’Jonathan is a consummate chief executive and he has brains, too.’

Stead extended his higher education well into his 20s and spent a year

researching social psychology at the Massachusetts Institute of


But it’s going to take more than brains to convince the rest of the

world that Rapier deserved to beat HHCL, Saatchis and BBH to win the

Cable & Wireless account. BBH created the excellent One-2-One campaign,

whereas all Rapier has come up with so far are the yellow ’soft launch’


Even Wnek says: ’If their work is better than BBH’s it really will

surprise some people.’

But the truth is Stead won’t really care how impressed anyone else is by

his agency’s pounds 25 million campaign when it launches in the autumn.

As long as the client is happy and the work achieves its goals, the rest

of Soho will just have to put up with it.

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