The World: CHI ready to get serious about cracking the US

From humble beginnings in a New York living room, the agency has big plans for its American offering, John Tylee writes.

Unless you've been scouring the pages of Campaign with a forensic attention for the past two years, it might have escaped your notice that CHI & Partners had a bridgehead in the US.

Well, more of a toehold, actually. Until recently, CHI's US presence amounted to a handful of Brits helping to support its Carphone Warehouse client on its first transatlantic venture. So low-key was the initiative that the core team carried out its work in the living room of a New York apartment.

Now, having spent the past few months quietly putting a senior management team in place and with the prospect of further business from The Carphone Warehouse and its US partner, Best Buy, CHI says it's ready to get serious about being Stateside.

The key to the success of the venture may lie in the newly negotiated co-operation agreement between CHI and Ogilvy & Mather in the US. This is intended to add substance to the fledgling operation by giving it access to the Ogilvy group's expertise in such areas as digital, DM and PR, as well as some of its backroom functions.

"It's enabled us to hit the ground running," Dave Clemans, the CHI New York creative partner, insists. "It gives us instant scale while retaining the nimble flexibility and leadership focus of a streamlined creative shop."

If all goes well, Johnny Hornby, the CHI founding partner, is hopeful it could result in some referred business from O&M, whose parent, WPP, has a 49.9 per cent stake in CHI. And he doesn't rule out the relationship eventually allowing CHI to evolve into a global micro-network similar to that pioneered by Bartle Bogle Hegarty and its Publicis Groupe stakeholder.

If it happens, it will be a further significant example of the way in which The Carphone Warehouse, CHI's founding client, continues to influence its destiny.

It was Charles Dunstone's operation that caused CHI to tentatively plant its flag in New York in 2007 after the company had established a joint venture with Best Buy, the second-largest US retailer. The agreement gave The Carphone Warehouse cheap entry into the US mobile market by enabling it to sell its products out of a number of Best Buy stores.

At a ten-day planning session in Minneapolis, Hornby convinced Best Buy chiefs that, having worked with The Carphone Warehouse in the UK for ten years, CHI had the expertise to launch the initiative. Unwilling to rush headlong into New York on the back of a single account, CHI opted for a cautious approach. Use of the apartment came courtesy of Steve Parish, the TAG chief executive, who helped get CHI off the ground in 2001 by offering its founders free office space. Creative work was produced from the UK.

The pivotal moment came when the joint venture partners agreed to commit to a full roll-out from ten stores in New York to 800 across the country.

Victoria Davies, TBWA\London's former managing director, was hired to run the New York end of the CHI business while the hunt began for some strong local talent that would underline the seriousness of CHI's intent.

Not least to Best Buy, which, according to Hornby, has been supportive but needs reassurance that CHI's US offering is credible. That may be crucial given that Best Buy has its own plans to become a serious European player.

After Davies, CHI's first big hiring for the US was David Broad, a one-time media planner on Hershey at DDB New York and an ex-media director of Anomaly, who arrived in January to run communications planning.

The second was Clemans, a much-decorated creative whose career spans spells at Crispin Porter & Bogusky, Goodby Silverstein & Partners and The Martin Agency. His biggest claim to fame is work for Burger King, Volkswagen Jetta and the teen anti-tobacco brand Truth.

Davies hails Clemans as "a godsend". She says: "He's got that great Crispin Porter mix of creative ingenuity and commercial insight. And he has a sense of humour that can be understood on both sides of the Atlantic."

An account planner will complete the senior team. After that, the big question is whether US clients will buy what CHI has to offer. It's here that Sir Martin Sorrell, WPP's chief executive, might be able to open some doors. Meanwhile, there's the prospect that CHI's UK client list can be leveraged to good effect in the US.

It had hoped its experience with British Gas might be put to good use in the contest for Reliant Energy, which supplies electricity to more than 1.7 million customers in Texas. And although Reliant opted to go with Grey West in San Francisco, Hornby says: "It feels like we are starting to get some traction."

Of course, it could be argued that the US ad scene needs another agency, let alone one from the UK, like a hole in the head. Hornby understands this but also points to the sheer size of the market. "To be a top-50 US agency would make it all worthwhile," he declares.

And if it all goes pear-shaped? "What's the worst that can happen?" he shrugs. "We shut up shop and lose a bit of face. But I think I can cope with that."