Adding creative firepower to McCann Erickson

Rupert Howell wants to put creative passion on the top of the McCann Erickson offer. Richard Abbott finds out how

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By  Richard Abbott Published  May 7, 2006

Adding creative firepower to McCann Erickson|~|Howell,-Rupert200.jpg|~|Howell... ‘We are the biggest by far. There isn’t an agency in the world that wouldn’t kill for our client list’|~|Rupert Howell is one of the biggest and richest names in advertising, yet few people in the Middle East have heard of him. The regional director of McCann Erickson for Europe, the Middle East and Africa runs 103 agency offices in 80 different countries. Yet the agency’s name is nowhere to be seen in this region. Today, he is gazing out of the office window of Fadi Salameh, president of the Dubai-based Promoseven network. “This place has gone from being off the radar to this,” he says, pointing at the Sheikh Zayed Road skyline. “Clients are fascinated by it. It has become a sexy place to talk about.” McCann Erickson is one of the biggest names in agency circles but it does not have a direct stake in the Middle East. Instead, it partners with Fortune Promoseven, which services its global clients, including Coca-Cola and Mastercard. The CV of Howell, a cricket-mad Englishman, should be a compulsory set text for anyone who wants to make it to the top in advertising. From relatively humble beginnings as an account director at Young & Rubicam London, he became the agency’s youngest ever board director at the age of 27. He founded advertising agency HHCL & Partners in 1987 and saw it win Campaign UK’s Agency of the Decade award, before selling it to marketing services group Chime Communications. He joined the enlarged Chime as joint chief executive under a five-year agreement and left on the exact anniversary of the fifth year. After two years in retirement (“I hated it”) he resurfaced as the UK and Ireland chairman of the floundering McCann Erickson. “There was a horrible mess in London. We had to sort it out. I had to fire a lot of people and bring new talent in,” he says. After taking advice from his best mate Nigel Bogle (the second B in BBH) he decided to take on the EMEA region, a brief notorious for its tough traveling schedule. “The reason I took the job on was that I had always worked in a UK-centric environment,” he says. “I had an inkling that I hadn’t seen the world. I always had an itch that needed to be scratched. I have got a perverse streak in me that makes me want to take on things.” Howell’s trip to Dubai, his third visit, comes at a time when Fortune Promoseven is trying to reinvigorate its creative offer. It has always boasted an impressive client list but suffered from the perception that it does not value creativity —not helped by the fact that it rarely enters awards. New Dubai managing director Phil Lynagh wants to change that perception and has already hired Marc Linevedlt, creative director at Team Y&R Dubai, to head up the creative effort. The move mirrors that of the London office, which was failing to land new business, but has now started to turn the corner. So did McCann as a network take its eye off the creative ball? “It was almost taken for granted,” he says. “In a cluttered media world you have to do great work. Good enough isn’t good enough. “It’s all about power and passion. We have got the power. What we have to release is the passion. I’m a passionate kind of guy and I don’t do anything by halves. I just love meeting other people who feel the same way.” For Howell, the region is more than capable of challenging the rest of the world when it comes to making ads. “A lot of the work is very emotional. People prefer that to the more typical American rational approach,” he says. “There is a good sense of humour in a lot of the work, which I wasn’t expecting.” The biggest issue facing FP7, according to Howell, is how to manage the region’s phenomenal growth while maintaining the values and culture that made it successful in the first place. Howell says: “Typically, when I used to talk to clients they would say their most important markets were the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Spain — the so-called big five European markets. Increasingly, now, Dubai is getting added to that list. It has become central to client’s thinking. “A lot of people who were looking at the key growth engines for the global economy missed the Gulf out. And they were wrong. “For us it is a fantastic opportunity because our competitors are relatively weak and we are fantastically strong with FP7.” McCann Erickson is sharing more global clients with FP7 than ever before. Coke and Mastercard already form a backbone to the roster, and the likes of Microsoft and Intel are taking a serious look at the region. HP has specified Dubai as one of its four key markets within EMEA. In many ways, Howell has become McCann Erickson’s troubleshooter — a kind of internal PR man who flies out to bang heads together when required, and ensures that the needs of global clients are met across his territory. In The A-list, the who’s who of advertising published by Campaign UK, Howell is described as “adland’s most shameless self-publicist”. And although he is modest about his own career during our conversation, he does a remarkable job of selling McCann Erickson. “You hear clients and commentators saying that all networks are the same. That is bollocks. We are twice the size of the others and have ten times more experience doing international work,” he says. “We are the biggest by far. There isn’t an agency in the world that wouldn’t kill for our client list. “You name the world’s top pace-setter clients and we have got most of them. Name the world’s sexiest clients — we have got most of those too. We are going to add creative firepower. If we can add that to the size, scale and power of McCann, we will be unstoppable.” The masterplan is impressive, but one suspects that there will be a few more flights and sleepless nights before he achieves it.||**||

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