Is it possible for agencies to feel a twinge of sympathy for a
rival that's going through the wringer? If reaction to HHCL & Partners'
woes is anything to go by, the answer is a definite yes, and all the
more so when a once-admired agency enters a downward spiral of business
losses and inconsistent creative output.
And yet we all remember that HHCL beat off the excellent claims of
Abbott Mead Vickers to be named Campaign's Agency of the Decade for the
Through a combination of business initiatives and daring creative work
for the likes of Tango, the AA, First Direct, Pot Noodle and Ronseal (to
name but a few), it grew from a boutique start-up in 1987 to the
outskirts of the UK top 20 and a lucrative sale to Tim Bell's Chime
Recently, however (because Rupert Howell is a force of new-business
nature many have linked the two things and suggested he needs to return
to the fray), HHCL lost several accounts. Some could be put down to
realignments (Amazon), and some down to the client new broom syndrome
(Egg, AA). There have been some wins, too, and from important clients
such as Unilever and Mars - but the losses, far outweighing the wins,
have been enough to knock confidence in and at the agency to an all-time
It is in the frenzy of its recent growth that the eagle- eyed could have
spotted the seeds of HHCL's current woes. Precise figures are not
available, but over the past two years let us assume that the agency
grew from about £14 million revenue a year to £22 million,
and from about 150 to 220 staff.
At that kind of growth rate it is inevitable eyes are taken off the
ball, people are stretched and standards suffer.
Which leads us to the question of Howell. In the past couple of years he
has gone from running the agency and holding down the demanding
presidency of the IPA, to move across to Chime where he has been groomed
as the clear successor to Bell.
Now, rather than stalking new business and keeping senior clients happy,
he has embarked on the acquisition trail for Chime, and with some
success - Chime has snapped up the PR firm QBO and Roose & Partners, and
it has entered the US market via the acquisition of a Boston-based
hi-tech PR firm. What matters now is not that Howell comes back - for we
can all think of another agency whose fortunes have been suspiciously
linked to the physical presence of a charismatic founder - but rather
that HHCL's new management team is fully engaged in creating the next
story in the cycle.
For as BMP and GGT proved in their early years, good agencies are
nothing if not cyclical: agencies get started, people break away from
them, clients come and go, management teams form and are broken up, and
a single great campaign can send the whole thing back up again and
In fact, I defy any reader to think of any top 20 agency that hasn't had
a fallow period following one of considerable success.