HHCL was one of the UK's most admired advertising agencies during the 1990s but fell upon hard times in the following decade and was eventually closed. At its peak, however, it was enormously influential, introducing a bizarre and often controversial sense of humour into its work that spawned many soulmates (such as Mother), as well as imitators. In 2000, it was named Agency of the Decade by UK ad industry bible Campaign. As so often seems to be the case with such accolades, that seemed to bring with it a terrible curse, for 2001 turned out to be HHCL's worst ever year, as a string of major accounts moved elsewhere. After several restructurings, HHCL joined WPP's Red Cell Network, and was subsequently split off into new network United. However, even under a new name of United London it struggled to establish a position in the market. It was finally absorbed into WPP's Grey London in Spring 2007.
HHCL was founded in 1987 by partners Rupert Howell, Steve Henry, Axel Chaldecott, Adam Lury and Robin Price. Howell had been a senior account handler at Y&R's London office, Lury a skilled planner formerly at BMP, Henry and Chaldecott a highly admired creative team at WCRS. Silent partner Robin Price became the new agency's financial director.
HHCL was formed with a clear mission to shake up the advertising landscape by introducing ads which were memorable for a twisted sense of humour combined with unrivalled creativity. As a result of a series of sometimes controversial ads for telecoms company Mercury Communications / One2One (featuring comedian Harry Enfield), banking service First Direct, and above all soft drink Tango ("You know when you've been Tango'ed") the agency cast the mould for a whole new style of advertising which was underpinned by a bizarre sense of humour guaranteed to get consumers talking. There was more than humour as well. The campaign for the AA, electing the breakdown service to the role of the UK's 4th Emergency Service, was hugely successful, reversing a steep decline in AA membership numbers.
Having carved out its niche in advertising, and captured a series of Agency of the Year accolades, HHCL turned its attention to all the other aspects of its clients' marketing. In 1995 the agency restructured itself as HHCL & Partners, vowing to tackle a broad range of marketing services from PR to sales promotion, under the banner of 3-D marketing. In order to deliver this additional coverage, HHCL snapped up a 13-man team from sales promotion agency IMP London, headed by Chris Satterthwaite. At the same time, HHCL's media planning department was spun out as a separate agency, Michaelides & Bednash.
In 1997, the business was acquired by Chime Communications for around £27m in cash and shares. WPP took a stake in the agency during that process, providing HHCL with an international network. HHCL Brasserie was founded in 1995 to offer clients seeking short-notice TV exposure support on a project-by-project basis. It went independent in 1998, before closing its doors in 2001 as a result of difficult trading. Also in 1998, George Michaelides and Graham Bednash bought out HHCL's remaining 50% stake in their Michaelides & Bednash media strategy operation to go independent. (Their agency was later absorbed into WPP's Mindshare).
At the start of 2001, the agency set up spin-off agency Rainmaker, run by three former Goldman Sachs bankers, to handle creative business consultancy. It was renamed Heresy in 2001. HHCL spun out a dedicated digital agency, Digital Experiences, in 2002. The two satellites were combined under the Heresy brand mid-year. Design agency No One was spun out late in 2002. All three businesses re-merged under the Heresy brand in 2003.
After the plaudits of the 1990s, HHCL found 2000 and 2001 rather less accommodating. It lost high profile accounts from Guinness, Egg, Unilever's Sure deodorant and Amazon, while the Tango campaign showed clear signs of running out of steam. The agency was given a wake-up call late in the year when Tango's parent Britvic gave HHCL one last chance to deliver a strong relaunch campaign or lose the account. It failed and the account was shifted in early 2002.
A few weeks later, Chime hinted that it was exploring ways to develop a wider international network for HHCL. By August it looked likely that HHCL would be folded into WPP's Red Cell group to provide a strong London base for that network. However negotiations dragged on for almost six months before a deal was finally agreed in January 2003. WPP acquired a 49% shareholding in the business, as well as management control, for £3.5m plus a further payment to be based on performance. As part of the deal, HHCL also absorbed Red Cell's existing UK operations, including marketing services shop Red Cell Perspectives. Performance greatly improved in 2003, bolstered not just by the added strength from the Red Cell network, but a recovery in HHCL's own new business efforts. This included the capture of the agency's biggest ever client, Sky TV.
But 2005 turned out to be another very slow year, with no significant account gains. In September 2005, the Red Cell network was disbanded, with HHCL and other agencies transferred into a new micro-network, United. HHCL adopted the new name United London. A further transformation took place in January 2006, when WPP acquired Chime's remaining shares in HHCL (for an estimated £2.75m) and sold on part of the equity to newly recruited directors Jim Kelly and Robert Campbell, former partners in Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe, by then the London arm of Y&R. Yet after 12 months there was little sign of any noticeable improvement. Campaign/Nielsen Media Research ranked United London as the UK's #21 agency in 2006 with estimated billings of £76m. However that figure included a huge contribution from flagship account BSkyB, which quit the agency at the end of the year. There was widespread speculation that United would not survive the loss. Robert Campbell left in January 2007. Two months later, it was confirmed that United London would close, with its remaining clients and some staff transferring to sister shop Grey London.
Steve Henry was the last of HHCL's original founders to depart, leaving in May 2006 to spend several years at TBWA. He launched coding consultancy Decoded in 2011. Of the other HHCL founders, Rupert Howell stepped down as chairman of the agency in 2001. He and Robin Price joined McCann Erickson; Howell later moved on from there to become commercial director of ITV until 2010, and then group transformation director of newspaper publisher Trinity Mirror. In 2016, Robin Price became finance director of UK marketing group Be Heard, the new venture from former WCRS chairman Peter Scott. Axel Chaldecott left HHCL in 2003, initially to run independent communications consultancy SMLXL. He was recruited by J Walter Thompson in 2005 to head up the global HSBC account, and more recently Shell. Adam Lury retired from the marketing industry in 1999 to become a writer and advisor on foreign policy, as well as a mentor and non-executive director of entrepreneurial businesses.
Last full revision 20th October 2016
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