Mourning what could have been at independent HHCL

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London is abuzz with the likelihood HHCL & Partners, the seminal hot-shop of the `90s, soon will be snapped up by Sir Martin Sorrell's WPP Group. With its closest New York counterpart, Cliff Freeman & Partners, scrambling to complete a deal of its own, HHCL's story is a universal parable for our times.

Born in the late `80s "third wave" of British startups, HHCL's work was more British, than, say, Bartle Bogle Hegarty's, but it created campaigns, like that for Maxell tapes, that took the Cannes Grand Prix, as well as other, hugely influential work for the likes of the First Direct Bank, Tango, the Automobile Association, Pot Noodles, Egg and many others. Its work could be pretentious, but at its best it combined rigorous planning insights, anarchic creative and an iconoclastic approach to media planning that put it at the vanguard of the movement away from sheer volume to quality of audience.

The real thing about HHCL was its self-belief. Its staff members were "moonies," totally committed to the cult of HHCL and the cause of radical advertising-a cause publicized ubiquitously by HHCL Chairman Rupert Howell, a master of self-promotion. This was a different kind of agency; it was in the cultural DNA.

It was open-plan early. No receptionist/assistant babes in short-skirts. It practiced hot-desking more seriously than did Jay Chiat. There were no job titles for a while, and it was the first London agency to genuinely integrate direct marketing into its account teams. Its work methods, attitudes and, most of all, creative output polarized opinion. At first the fusty British creative establishment even declined to recognize HHCL at awards shows-that is until the consensus shifted.

That's where the trouble started. It's difficult to be iconoclastic when the industry shifts to be more like you, and tough to be a different kind of agency when (after hiring staffers from DM agency IMP) the men in gray suits and the mini-skirted babes creep in. It's hard to be the "new thing" when St Luke's and Mother have launched, and impossible to be radical when "professional radicals" appears on your business cards.

In 1997, HHCL agreed to a lucrative merger with Chime Communications, the PR company run by Margaret Thatcher's favorite adman, Saatchi & Saatchi executive Lord Tim Bell. He seemed the antithesis of all HHCL stood for. Was that talk of culture and radicalism and being different just talk?

HHCL rejected almost every major agency network, and there were more of them then! Today, with some principals and other talent long gone, hit by a bad run of account losses and hurt by its lack of an international network, it faces the anti-climax of being absorbed into WPP's fourth network, Red Cell, even if it only gives away a minority stake.

One could argue Sorrell is one of the great iconoclasts. Perhaps, with Berlin Cameron serving as "Red Cell New York," the Red Cell network will take off. Perhaps. But anyone who knew HHCL and what it could have been cannot help but feel some disappointment, as much for the death of an independent spirit as for the agency itself.

Stefano Hatfield is editorial director of Creativity, and

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