PERSPECTIVE: First the growth now the growing pains as HHCL hits turbulence

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

90s.



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

Communications.



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

low.



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

restore confidence.



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.



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