Opinion: Perspective - HHCL's rebrand ends major chapter in ad history

2006 got off to a strange start. There was the sad news about the death of John Webster, coming in the same week that WPP jettisoned the HHCL name from the advertising landscape.

Both events drew a veil over two of the proudest components of the UK's advertising history. Webster and HHCL played key roles in building the British advertising industry's stature on the international stage.

Howell, Henry, Chaldecott and Lury's combined contribution to UK advertising was immense. It earned them Campaign's Agency of the Decade accolade in 2000 for many reasons, but the most important one was that it made advertising agencies question their business models.

Romping and tissue meetings may have had a cringey kind of tokenism to them, but they showed that HHCL was experimenting with the future of advertising.

Neither practice has particularly caught on, but the creative mentality that invented them did.

Advertising for the likes of Maxell, Tango, the AA, Holsten, Ronseal and First Direct carved a new creative and strategic path that led rival agencies to reassess their own output. It inspired new creative shops such as St Luke's and Mother, demonstrating to their founders that there was no set rule to starting an agency. In 1994, it set up IMP, an in-house direct marketing division - unheard of back then. Then there was media strategy: HHCL spawned Michaelides & Bednash, pioneers of communications planning.

All of this energy reached a crescendo at the end of the 90s and Chime Communications signed a cheque for a whopping £24 million to buy the agency in 1997. The fact that WPP has now been able to secure the agency for a total of £6.25 million indicates that the glory ended with the close of the last century.

Painful though the thought might be, there is no real reason for WPP to hang on to the HHCL brand.

Over the past five years, it has become associated more with a slow demise than with the rip-roaring business success it once was.

In addition, its founders, save Steve Henry, have all drifted off elsewhere.

When an agency's original founders leave to work towards the success of a rival, the logic of keeping their name over the door begins to wobble.

The really sad thing about the loss of the HHCL brand is not so much that the name is going, it's that there's a lack of advertising operators in the future-forging space that they used to occupy.

Clemmow Hornby Inge, Delaney Lund Knox Warren & Partners and VCCP, some of the young growth engines of the moment, aren't really challenging the established agency model. They're investing in communications planning and direct divisions, but this is a continuation of what HHCL began in the mid-90s. None show the same commitment to ground-breaking creative work.

There is potential at Beattie McGuinness Bungay, which promised at its launch to work across new communications channels. Nevertheless, for now it seems to be resting on its advertising output as its raison d'etre.

The year 2006 could be a pivotal one for the UK ad industry. In 2005, agencies were coming out of a downturn and, therefore, were more preoccupied with the immediate past than with the long-term future. Now there's great potential for that to change. The communications landscape is evolving, making this the ideal time for a pioneering start-up to forge ahead.

So Interpublic is turning its armies of lawyers on Sir Frank Lowe's still-unnamed agency. Its action could damage the crucial early stages of the new agency, but for what gain?

If Ed Morris has decided to leave Lowe, he will go, one way or another.

IPG has enough problems to deal with without the distraction of high-profile legal action.

- Claire Beale is on maternity leave.

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