NEWSMAKERS/SPIRIT: Hard workers ready to carve out a niche for Spirit start-up - Karen Yates looks at what finally persuaded Michael Dobbs to return to adland

Oh no, not again - another ’unique’ agency start-up. Buzz-words have been chosen and secret photographs taken so Spirit can launch on to an unsuspecting world (Campaign, last week).

Oh no, not again - another ’unique’ agency start-up. Buzz-words

have been chosen and secret photographs taken so Spirit can launch on to

an unsuspecting world (Campaign, last week).

What gives this start-up added piquancy, however, is that it has flushed

out the veteran Saatchi & Saatchi man and best-selling author, Michael

Dobbs, from self-imposed exile. He cheerfully admits he was not an easy


Although a friend of Spirit’s creator, Richard Hammond, for 14 years,

Dobbs was nevertheless busy with politics and his novels, including the

successful thriller, House of Cards.

’I was just about to tell Richard to piss off for the fourth time,’ he

says, relaxing in one of the new agency’s four chairs, ’and then I

thought ... well, why not? A year ago I would have said no, but ...’

It’s the buts that are intriguing. Dobbs left advertising eight years

ago to devote time to outside interests. At the time, he had reached

what to many of us would be a pinnacle - deputy chairman of Saatchis. So

what has tempted him back to what is, essentially, little more than a

good idea and three small rooms in Covent Garden?

Dobbs has natural charm and an open, boyish face. So I plunge in with

the question on everyone’s lips. ’Is it for the money?’

This elicits a snort. A well-mannered one, but definitely a snort. Dobbs

followed this by reasonably pointing out that if it was money he was

after, he’d go somewhere, well, bigger.

Recent reports concerning money troubles are untrue, he adds, before

moving smoothly into a party political broadcast on behalf of Spirit. He

summarises the start-up as representing a dynamic idea (international

advertising from a single source of excellence) and dynamic people

(Hammond and Mitch Levy, a former creative director of Lowe


Dobbs is disarmingly honest, too, about how, as non-executive chairman

of the new shop, he will not be throwing himself into the enterprise

full time.

’First and foremost, this is going to be Richard and Mitch’s business,’

he admits. ’I’ll be there to support and assist as much as they need me.

Writing will still be the main thrust of my life. But it’s quite an

isolated and lonely occupation,’ And here, I suspect, is one of the

strongest reasons for Dobbs’ new outing.

So, the well-connected Dobbs will open doors for the fledgling agency,

help with strategy - his forte at Saatchis - and no doubt also

accumulate column inches in the press.

In this regard, Campaign can oblige with a quick flit through Dobbs’

career, which began after he completed a PhD in the US on the US/Soviet

strategic arms limitation talks, before working as a journalist on the

Boston Globe.

Back in the UK, he joined the Conservative Party as a researcher, and

was an assistant to Margaret Thatcher during her last two years in


Then, Dobbs’ bank manager advised him to get a proper job. As he tells

it, he met Tim Bell while downing champagne, courtesy of the veteran

Tory, Sir Gordon Reece. Bell was at the then young but exciting

Saatchis, so Dobbs asked his new mate what he should do ...

Spirit, of course, will be different. Based on the ’centre of

excellence’ formula, it is the realisation a life’s dream for


Some who have met Hammond might question whether he has a life


Virtually sleepless in the days running up to the launch, Levy looked

like he should be sent home to bed with a cup of cocoa on the day we


But not Hammond, whose curious ability to keep his emotions under wraps

has delighted and frustrated friends and colleagues over the years in

equal measure.

’He’s got the hide of a rhinoceros,’ one former colleague says. ’Point

him at new-business leads and, no matter how many times he was turned

down, he’d get you in there.’

Charlie Parkin, Lowes’ new-business director, has known Hammond for

years and comes from a similar background - the child of an officer in

the armed forces, followed by a career in media sales and


’Officers’ children get used to supplying small talk and being convivial

from an early age and a job in media sales also grows certain

strengths,’ she says, referring, perhaps, to the rhino hide.

In any event, the Hammond in short trousers who dreamed of following in

his uncle’s footsteps and owning his own company, grew up to be the

Hammond in telesales at Haymarket Publishing. He kept his powder dry as

he moved first to Express Newspapers and then into advertising at Leagas

Delaney. The waiting game continued as his career progressed through

Butler Dennis Garland and Bozell Worldwide.

It was only last year, when True North’s purchase of Bozell released

cash to shareholders, that the single-minded Hammond finally felt the

time was right and quit to set up at a borrowed desk in Covent Garden to

search for a usp - and a running mate.

In both he was lucky. International accounts are on the increase and

Hammond has more experience in these than most, while, in Levy, he met a

man who had begun to tire of the old-fashioned system of agency


They had both worked at Leagas Delaney but separated as their careers

moved apart, and Levy went through - as he puts it - ’most of the best’

agencies in town. When they met again, Levy was ready to try something


’We felt the chemistry instantly. He shares the same gripes with

networks as me and he’s worked out a solution,’ says Levy, whose most

recent acclaimed work was Lowes’ ’smarienberg’ commercial for


A perfectionist, Levy will be his own hardest taskmaster in the new

operation, according to Sean Toal, his copywriter for 18 years who now

works at CDP.

So, the scene is set. International account man and workaholic meets

creative perfectionist and workaholic. How does Hammond think it is

going to work? Without so much as the hint of a cringe and, obviously,

with some forethought, the answer is: ’Team spirit.’