NEWSMAKERS/RUPERT HOWELL AND SIR TIM BELL: Chime bedfellows anticipate a prosperous union - The prime movers behind HHCL-Chime’s deal outline the future to Harriet Green

HHCL & Partners’ long-awaited merger with Sir Tim Bell’s publicly listed Chime Communications promises to be one of the most intriguing partnerships of recent years (Campaign, last week).

HHCL & Partners’ long-awaited merger with Sir Tim Bell’s publicly

listed Chime Communications promises to be one of the most intriguing

partnerships of recent years (Campaign, last week).

Financed by WPP, which takes a 29.9 per cent stake in the enlarged

Chime, the deal will make millionaires of the five founding partners -

Rupert Howell, Axel Chaldecott, Steve Henry, Adam Lury and Robin


But on top of that it dramatically broadens HHCL’s horizons. In one

swoop, the ten-year old agency gains a public relations sister (Lowe

Bell), an international network and public status, all without upsetting

its independence or that of its subsidiaries, the HHCL Brassiere and In

Real Life, or its joint venture, Michaelides & Bednash. Howell and

Price, meanwhile, realise their ambitions to run a public company,

joining the Chime board, with Howell becoming joint chief executive

alongside Chime’s deputy chairman, Piers Pottinger.

Rupert, over the past two years you’ve considered several options for

HHCL. Why go for this one?

RH As an agency we were too small to float. But we weren’t interested in

offers from existing advertising networks to fold us into their


The key was to preserve the independence of our brand and operation.

How did the three parts come together?

RH An offer has been on the table forever from Martin (Sorrell, WPP’s

chief executive). Tim and I had our first serious conversation

two-and-a-half years ago, although he’s been my mentor for 14 years

(when I started HHCL, I asked his advice).

TB We’ve spent ten years building up a successful public relations

business and we wanted to work with an equally successful advertising

agency: HHCL.

As for WPP, I worked with Martin Sorrell for seven years at Saatchi &

Saatchi. I know him extremely well.

RH Without Martin we would have done something but obviously it wouldn’t

have been the same. It would have been done in two stages. Martin made

sure we did it, when we did it and how we did it.

But Rupert, why not reverse into a shell backed by WPP? What does Chime

offer HHCL?

RH We wanted to merge with someone who is our equal which we could learn

from. It’s consistent with everything we have been bleating on about

over the past four or five years: clients are going to want more

integrated communications. The best model that existed before was Abbott

Mead Vickers/BBDO.

But with us, advertising is not dominant in the way it is with Abbott

Mead. Tim and I had an opportunity to put together two businesses that

are completely complementary.

TB This is a three-dimensional deal between a successful advertising

agency, a successful public relations company, and - as underwriting

party, but clearly not in control (let me stress that!) - we have WPP,

the most successful marketing communications group in the world. The

combination of advertising and public relations is almost the perfect

formula. Abbott Mead is going through the process of acquiring public

relations companies.

We don’t need to.

RH Chime is an experienced public company, a well-oiled machine. So we

can carry on doing what we do well: advising clients. Also Lowe Bell

deals with 500 clients at the highest level. It’s a ready-made

business-building opportunity.

Why was an international network so important for HHCL?

RH Now, we can tick the box that says full-service international

network. Our relationship with the network will vary client by


With some clients I can imagine the network being contracted to us, in

others it might have a direct relationship with the client.

What are HHCL’s international ambitions? Will you open offices in other


RH We already have an office in Dublin to service Guinness, but it’s

literally just an office. At the moment there is no need for more.

Increasingly, clients are interested in a centralised creative resource

but they need market information, adaptation and intelligence, market by

market. If a client required our services in New York we could do that

through one of WPP’s networks.

So, Tim, you’re back in advertising

TB No, Rupert is going to run the advertising business. What little I

can contribute is out of date. I’m an elderly figure who remembers

things like OTS (opportunities to see) and column inches.

Are you grooming Rupert to take over?

TB I’m not that old! I find it really offensive when people ask how long

I want to stay. I will continue as chairman. I have never considered

retirement: I’m not at the end of my career but approaching the middle

of it. Contrary to rumour, I’m in good health. And now there’s this new


Describe the challenge ...

TB Neither of us has a particularly large share of our existing markets

- Lowe Bell has about 6.5 per cent of the PR market and HHCL is 20th or

21st in the advertising league table. In the next few years we will grow

significantly through organic growth and acquisition.

Are you hoping to pick up business from WPP?

RH We have a choice of networks: we’re not tied to J. Walter Thompson or

Ogilvy & Mather in the way Abbott Mead is tied to BBDO. Business may

come via WPP but it’s more likely to be the other way round. We will

generate opportunities which WPP’s networks will allow us to fulfil. We

have more control over our destiny.

What about conflict?

RH Abbott Mead is inextricably linked to BBDO and can’t do anything that

conflicts with it. Martin Sorrell is pretty good at managing conflict -

JWT and O&M, for example, have conflicting business. And we can use five

networks - O&M, JWT, Conquest, OgilvyOne and JWT Direct.

TB Conflict is like beauty. It’s in the eye of the beholder. It’s an

irrelevant issue.

Are you culturally alike?

RH I’m bemused by criticism over our cultural fit. People like to put us

in boxes, but what’s been brilliant about this is that the more I’ve got

to know Lowe Bell as a company, the more I know we’re in tune.

TB If you go to Rupert’s offices you may think it is rather odd. You may

come here and see conventional offices. But there is no cultural clash.

There is a very interesting relationship which will bear enormous


How did staff greet the news?

RH When I told my people on Thursday they cheered. The thing they

worried about was merging with another ad agency and losing our culture

and identity.

They will work for the same brand and company, in the same building, for

the same clients.

So they won’t be working closely with Lowe Bell?

TB We must preserve the independence of the operations - we mustn’t take

away what made them special. There’s no question of us sticking Howell

Henry in the same building as Lowe Bell, for example. We are not going

to effect a merger - we already have had a merger of minds, a merger of

ambition and a merging of our talents.

Why are you changing the name of Lowe Bell?

TB I would prefer not to do it. But Frank (Lowe) has certain rights over

the name Lowe and he’s chosen to invoke those. We will therefore rebrand

the company, retaining the goodwill built up in Lowe Bell but without

creating difficulty for Frank.

Rupert, you and your partners have made oodles of money. Is that what

this is all about?

RH People have said to me, ’You’re going to be rich, why not go to the

beach?’. But I’d get terribly bored after a couple of weeks. I love what

I do. This is a fantastic business and over the next ten years it’ll go

though the most exciting phase in its history. We could quadruple in


TB Yes, they made a lot of money, but more importantly they get a lot of

shares in a company they have a huge influence over. Succeeding in a

public company is a much bigger challenge.


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