Interview with Rupert Howell

After a Business Studies degree at Warwick and a year as a marketing trainee, Rupert secured his first job in advertising at the Ogilvy group in 1979.  Two years later he joined Grey and then, after another two years, Young & Rubicam, where he became London’s most successful New Business Director, winning over £100m of business.

Spurred on by this success, he decided to found his own agency, Howell Henry Chaldecott Lury in October 1987.  Its fame and fortune grew to the extent that it was sold ten years later for £24m to Chime Communications plc and in January 2000 was voted UK Agency of the Decade by ‘Campaign’ magazine.

HHCL went on to become Campaign’s “Agency of the 90’s” with famous campaigns for Tango (Orange man), The AA (4th Emergency Service) and Ronseal (Does what it says on the tin), before being sold to Chime Communications PLC in late 1997, where Rupert became CEO.

In 2003, he joined the world’s largest agency, McCann Erickson as Chairman UK & Ireland and President EMEA, leaving after four years to become Managing Director in the Broadcast & Online division at ITV PLC.

In the summer of 2010, Rupert resigned from ITV to take a two year sabbatical before joining Trinity Mirror PLC as Group Development Director in 2013.

He is also non-executive Chairman of the HeyHuman/Brave Group, Deputy Chairman and Senior Independent Director of Matomy Media PLC and a Trustee of the Media Trust.

“Failure often comes as a result of complacency. But if you fail because you take the risk and it hasn’t paid off then I don’t count that as failure.”

Can you tell me about your background?

I did a business study degree at Warwick. I have always been interested in business and commerce. I actually had a provisional place at Oxford to begin with but I didn’t want to do it.

I enjoyed my course. It was a three-year course and I felt that the marketing element was interesting, and although I was quite numerate at the time on the accountancy side of the business, it was certainly not something I wanted to be. I was much more interested in the demand side rather than the supply side of the equation. I went for marketing jobs and I ended up having a choice of jobs between Cadburys and Lucas. Cadburys offered me a choice of two jobs and Lucas, who had a very good reputation, offered me a job in an overseas parts division based in London.

I wanted to live in London so I worked for Lucas.  It was a very good training programme but I was pretty miserable. I had a boss who I got on with very well and he told me one day that I was on the wrong side of the business – and that I should be in advertising. I had never really thought of that before. I talked to him about it, and my then girlfriend’s dad was a top marketing director who said he would give me an introduction to it, and then it was up to me from that point.

He introduced me to a couple of agencies and they both offered me jobs. That’s where I started. I knew within a week that I had found my home. It was a completely different atmosphere and very informal. It was all about self-starting, so you worked hard but you played very hard and it was a fascinating business.

What were you like at school? Were you a good student?

Yes, I guess. I wasn’t a swot, I was much more a sportsman. Not a particularly good one but a very enthusiastic one. I was very talkative, very noisy and always had an opinion. I worked reasonably hard and did OK academically but not brilliantly. But I was a participant and I took part in everything.

You did a business degree before you started work. How important do you think further education is to get into this industry?

It depends on which side of the business. To be honest the degree education doesn’t really equip you particularly well for working in advertising but on the planning and account management side it’s almost impossible to get in without one. On the upside, it’s got nothing to do with degrees. It’s working hard and having the right personality. It is about how much perseverance and consistency you’ve got.  So it really depends on the different sides of the business. On the creative side some do come through courses out of places like Watford, but the vast majority just decide they want to do it.

They put books together and ideas and they just go around and get placements and eventually they break through. On the graduate recruitment side you have to have a pretty good degree to get in because this is still an industry where there are a hundred applicants for every job. They have got to know what they want to do. You have either got the artistic or the commercial, consumer and research end.

I went in as an account executive, which was a very junior client service position, but that was the very obvious move to make. I had been on the client side as a marketing trainee so my skills were in the business and commercial side rather than on the creative side. In those days, media was in house and actually, I did quite enjoy the media side but again had no real expertise there.

Maxell Tapes 1989 which won the Grand Prix at Cannes.

Is that the department responsible for planning a business?

You have separate new business departments in the big agencies who solely concentrate on winning new business, and that is something senior management gets involved in. Account executives join in specific new business activities, but in big agencies they don’t have the responsibility of generating their own business. Their real responsibility is managing existing business and managing the workflow through the agency.

When did you get into the new business side of things?

That happened when I was in my third job in advertising.  My first was in the Ogilvy Group where I was an account executive. I then moved to an agency called Grey Advertising where I worked on Proctor & Gamble. I did that, became an accounts supervisor, and did a lot of pictures there. When I say I did a lot of pictures I wasn’t leading them, I was the guy pouring the coffee and doing the dirty work.

I love all that side and the chase of the business. I then went to an agency called Young & Rubicam, where there was a change of leadership. I was called into the office and he said he had been told I was the best account director in the agency so he was going to take me on board for all new business and make me a new business director. Over the next two and a half years I had won a million pounds worth of business at the agency. That was really the beginnings of defining the rest of my career. I realised I had a knack of searching out business prospects.

What do you think made you so successful?

It’s hard to say but I think for example we have got great new business people here. Firstly you need the ability to get on with anybody, any age, from any background instantly. You should be quite relaxed in anyone’s company. You can call it charm, you can call it the gift of the gab, you can call it bullshit or whatever you like but it’s that ability to get on with anybody instantly. Instant likeability.

When you meet a prospective client sometimes you have a maximum of one hour to make an impression. One of the great businessmen of all times is a chap called Tim Bell – now known as Lord Bell. They used to say Tim was so charming that dogs would cross the road to be stroked by him. Everybody warmed to him. You have to have that and then unbelievable persistence. There is a quote by a famous golf player who said ‘the harder I practice the luckier I get’. It’s all about real hard work.

There was a big feature written on new business around the time I was setting up my own agency and one of our competitors said that every time he meets a prospect that bloody Rupert Howell has been there first. I thought that was a perfect epithet for me as a new businessman.

I was quicker than anybody else, worked harder than anybody else, longer hours than anybody else and I did my homework better than anybody else. When Christian joined last year we sat down and made a list. We started with five thousand companies and then we whittled it down to a few hundred companies. We then applied a whole number of criteria to why they might be interested in us and why they might be dissatisfied with their current agency, and we got down to a list of sixty companies. A gold ten, silver twenty, and bronze thirty.

Out of the ten companies we were working for two of them already. Now is that lucky? No. It’s because we have done our homework and thought it through. It’s a numbers game. The more clients you see, the more you network, the more you think about their issues and the more opportunities you get.

Tango campaign 1992

How old were you when you founded your agency?


Is that quite young?

Yes. Most people have tended to do it in their mid-thirties. I was twenty-nine and my partners were thirty. So we were young, particularly at that time.

What do you think your strengths are?

I am an optimist. I don’t think you can succeed in any business unless you are prepared to be optimistic and positive about things. There are so many things that come along to knock you back. Always see opportunities in anything.

I am very determined – hugely competitive. I am not radically competitive like top sportsmen have to be, but I do have that determination. I have been featured in quite a number of books about leadership skills. It’s hard to define them but the simplest definition of a leader is somebody that people want to follow – it’s true.

You can’t impose leadership on people. You can scream and shout at people but it won’t get you very far. It’s about enthusing people, giving people passion and being prepared to follow the direction you set.

I think I have the ability to take people with me. My detractors would call it arrogance but I would call it confidence – I am also very confident about what I do. A previous client and friend of mine who used to run ITV was once asked what I did for him. He said I gave him confidence.

This guy knew what to do. He always knew what to do in any situation but I gave him the confidence to do it because I supported it and said go for it. The thing that surprised me quite early on when running my own agency is how lacking in confidence people in the boardrooms were. They would sit there beating themselves up. I would think and say ‘What’s wrong with you people? Of course you’ve got problems but let’s look at the good stuff too’. I do think that successful businesses are characterised by an ability to recognise their weaknesses and tackle them, but also to recognise their strengths and be proud of them.

First Direct campaign

In your career is there anything you would have done differently?

I have made lots of mistakes but I am not sure I would do anything differently. There were different paths I could have taken. What would have happened if I had gone to Cadburys instead of Lucas? Was that a mistake? I doubt it. Certainly when I left Young & Rubicam to start my own business…if I had stayed there I would have ended up running Europe for them, if not the world –  without a shadow of a doubt.

It’s quite interesting because around the time I sold my business, Y & R floated and was then bought by WPP, and I would have made more money if I had stayed with Y & R than I did in my own business. But I have made more money in my own business than I ever dreamt I would ever make anyway and I have had great experiences, as well as created some of advertising’s history. Some of the things we did I would never have done with Y & R so that’s the trade-off you make. I don’t regret anything as I’m not that kind of person. I am only interested in looking forward. Have I made mistakes? Of course I have.

When you started in advertising did you think you were going to fly in this industry?

Because I have a lot of confidence I thought ‘I’ll do OK in this’. The thing that really brought it home to me was about six months after I started in advertising I went to a cricket match, as cricket is one of my passions. I took my then boss to a match and my father was there as well. My father did what parents tend to do and rather embarrassingly asked my boss how I was doing. He said, ‘Oh fantastically, he’ll have his own agency one day’. And I thought that was interesting because I had never thought about that and this guy had said it. So I thought, ‘Oh, I probably will actually’. It was what other people saw in me at that point in time. I had thought I was going to do well but I hadn’t thought of a specific direction.


Were you always a popular person from a young age?

We all have our own insecurities but yes, I think so. I was the youngest of three children and there was a big age gap between my brother, sister and I, so in some sense I was like an only child. There is a lot of evidence to suggest that only children do very well because they get a lot of attention from their parents and therefore their confidence is built up.

I am sure I benefited from that and I also had a very privileged education, which helped as well. In those days the kind of school I went to was all about self-sufficiency and learning to sort yourself out. My Dad was in the army and travelling around the world, so I was at boarding school from the age of seven and a half, which is pretty young. I wouldn’t want to do that with my children but you don’t half grow up. I think self-sufficiency leads quite quickly to self-confidence.

Has the industry changed since you started HHCL or are there still the same opportunities now?

There is still the same opportunity. It always changes and it’s constantly evolving but they still exist. The great thing about this business is that all you need to have to open an agency is a bunch of talented people and a telephone and an office. You don’t need anything else.

It’s not like in law where you have to have a professional qualification. We started HHCL in my flat. We were five guys in an apartment with a telephone. It’s a very easy business to start. That’s great because it regenerates itself all the time. There are some terrific young agencies that have started in the last few years and more that I am sure that will start in a few years time. But the structure of the business is always changing. What has changed since I started in the business is that the big have got bigger.

There are still lots of opportunities in domestic agencies but the reason the big have got bigger is the intense consolidation at the top end of the market. When I started there were about twenty multinational agencies and now there are about half a dozen, so there has been a lot of consolidation at the top end of the market. Domestically in each individual market, there are tonnes of opportunities.

Is it a challenging industry to get hired in?

It is quite difficult to get a job in advertising, yes. There are a number of jobs that are coveted generally. For people who are incredibly money-orientated, jobs in the city are coveted. When you get down to people who are more creative, it’s a fantastic life if you have the talent. It’s a high-risk life.

I have friends who are actors who are permanently insecure about where their next job is coming from. For that kind of job, you need a certain type of personality. The interesting thing about advertising that it’s a lovely position on the cusp of creativity with commerce – so it’s got that combination.

There are a lot of creative elements of the job but it is commercial as well, therefore there is a degree of career structure and security – so it’s quite rare in that case. Therefore it’s hugely attractive and as a result very difficult to get into. It used to be when I was president of the IPA – which is our industry trade body – in 2000/2001. I think in those years the total number of graduates taken on in the business was something like a hundred and forty and there would be seven thousand or so applications. So it is difficult to get in but there are lots of ways.

The interesting thing is planning and account management people get in through the research industry – it’s a very big industry. If they can’t get into advertising straight away they will join the research industry and then transfer over two years later. It’s a very big industry. Lots of people do fieldwork and that sort of stuff, and it’s good training.

Graduates join as secretaries just to get in and then get promoted up. It’s difficult to get in but once you are in and if you have got the talent you fly very quickly and early in this business. You don’t care where you start in this business, be it in the post room, as a secretary, as a receptionist or anywhere.

Does it seem to be quite unique in that sense?

It is quite unique. A lot of people who have got to the top of this business literally started in the post room. You really can get right up to the top. But the graduate route is the more normal route but it is tough. It really isn’t about which University you went to. Some agencies are biased towards Oxbridge but actually, there are more agencies that are biased against Oxbridge. They want somebody who has something of a more rounded education and has lived more of a rough life. There is no particular bias – nobody cares what degree you have got; it’s all about personality.

What kind of people will go far in advertising?

Gregarious, outgoing, team players, opinionated and talkative people. This is not an industry for the shy. You have got to express an opinion and hold your corner and be able to take the knocks. You need to be able to play as part of the team and be able to communicate. Communication is business. The single most important ability you have to have is the ability to communicate – with both your customers and your colleagues.

Is it a young industry? After a certain age are people not really considered?

The average age is thirty so it is a young industry. I would imagine that 70% of this agency are thirty years old and younger. For about ten years you can go as far as you can go. You can build up a very nice career up to about the age of thirty and then at thirty to thirty-five there comes a point where you decide – or it is decided for you – whether you go to the very top or not. It’s very evident by their mid-thirties if people are going to go to the top.

If they are not?

If not there are jobs, but what happens is a lot of people drop out of the business. Quite a lot of women decide to leave when they have a first child, but a lot carry on as well. We have a few senior women who have come back after every child. You get the natural dropping out at that point. There are jobs around but there is a steady fall out from that point on. If you look at the Chairman or Chief Executives of all the major agencies most of them are probably late forties or early fifties.

What about the people who don’t make it and they don’t want to drop out of the industry?

Yes, there are jobs for them. There’s no age discrimination as such, nobody says we should choose this guy as he’s fifty and he’s only an account director, so let’s get rid of him. There are lots of people like that but they tend to be vulnerable – particularly in a recession – so if there is a recession people are likely to be made redundant.

If you have a fifty year old in the same job as a thirty year old could do, the fifty year old is going to be paid a hell of a lot more, simply by getting an inflation pay rise for every year they’ve been in the business. So it’s not surprising that when those cuts happen they tend to hit those people hardest. I wouldn’t say that’s very different from any other industry.

Are there opportunities in advertising for people with no creative streak within them if they are just really business minded?

You don’t have to have a creative streak. There are also commercial jobs. We have finance people and there is a chance for everybody. The finance people still have to do the books just like they would in any other industry but they like the working environment. They like the atmosphere around what they’re doing.

What impresses you?

Determination, give me a trier any day. Someone who just never gives up, in all walks of life. Innovators impress me. Someone who comes up with new ideas. I am in awe of creative people who can face a blank sheet of paper and come up with ideas. Trustworthiness really impresses me – people who do what they say they’re going to do.

Which advertising campaign are you most proud of?

That’s always a difficult question – it’s like asking which is your favourite child! It depends on different days. At Y & R I did the British Gas floatation campaign. It was a very formative campaign. It was a flotation period in the mid-80s and it was wild. Huge amounts of money were spent.

At HHCL there were three campaigns we did which achieved global fame. We did Maxell Tapes in 1989, which won the grand prix in Cannes and was voted the best ad in the world. It’s not my favourite ad that we did but it was the one which put HSCL on that map.

The next one was what secured our place in British advertising history, which was Tango in 1992. The one I am probably most proud of was First Direct.  We created an enduring brand that changed what people thought possible in financial services. Everything about First Direct was stunning. It still is and I’m still a customer. Why anybody banked with anybody else is beyond me. Well, I know why. It’s because you were more likely to divorce than to change banks.  We were involved in every step of the way with First Direct. We launched First Direct and made advertising history. It was the first time they had simultaneous ads on ITV and Channel 4.

You have obviously met with the most successful people in advertising.  Is there a commonality you see between people and their personalities?

Yes, I’ve pretty much met them all. Supreme self-confidence, charm and competitiveness are all consistent traits. It’s strange but you can be fiercely competitive during working hours and then be great buddies after. I go on holiday with at least half a dozen of these people. We share a lot of characteristics. An enquiring intellect rather than a classical academic intellect, being inquisitive about people and about how things work. Real determination, a lot of charm and a sense of fun.

What is your attitude towards what some people refer to as failure?

I think there are lots of good quotes on the subject.  My favourite management dictum is ‘nothing fails like success’ because I think what often happens is that failure often comes as a result of complacency. Complacency is one of the biggest dangers in life and in business.

I think failure comes from a number of sources. If you fail because you don’t have the aptitude to do something, then that is just a fact of life. You’ve just been misguided in the choices you have made or what people have told you to do. But if you fail because you take the risk and it hasn’t paid off then I don’t count that as a failure. You have tried something and you have got a lot from it. You learn.

Are there any common mistakes that you see people making at the beginning of their career?

Yes, lack of attention to detail. Trying to run before they can walk. You are going to be asked to do a whole lot of things that are beneath you. You’ve come out of university being the president of this society and you were a top-notch student and some asshole here is going to ask you to make and pour coffee.

All I can tell you is that the people who make it in this business take care about everything they do. Whether it is pouring coffee or making sure the meeting room is perfect. It may not be your job as the account executive – it may be the secretary’s job to set up the meeting room – but apart from everything else the impression a client takes is formed by everything.

It goes back to the old saying from the early days – of wondering why airlines were so obsessive about cleaning the ashtrays. The answer is because a dirty ashtray makes you wonder what they were doing to the engines. The same is true in any business about attention to detail.

The way you get on fast in this and any business is doing what you are asked to do supremely well and doing it enthusiastically. Obviously, you don’t want people asking you too often to do their job but there are ways of raising the issue. But do stuff enthusiastically and do it well and you will find the opportunities being presented to you on a plate. You won’t have to search them out. Take care. Take pride in what you do. Be constantly inquisitive.

What one principle do you live by?

Never ask anybody to do anything you wouldn’t do yourself. If you look at poor leaders I think they are universally characterised by asking people to do things that they won’t do themselves. If I tell people ‘Neo more taxis, you have to walk to meetings’, then I would only say that if I was prepared to do that myself.

What do you attribute your fast success to?

Hard work. You make your own luck. I was in the right place at the right time occasionally. I think more than anything is the age I was because I didn’t ever see that as a barrier.

Most people are constrained by their own self-image. They say they’re not old enough or not ready. You’ll never know unless you try. Say you’re ready and try. If you are not ready you will find out and then try again a bit later.  A refusal to accept anybody else’s pace other than my own.

Is there anything you don’t like about the industry?

Yes, lots of things. I would like to spend more time with my kids than I do. It’s very all-consuming. I think there are a lot of charlatans in this business, a lot of posers and quite a lot of behaviour I don’t particularly admire. There are all sorts of things but nothing’s perfect.

Do you think that all the personality traits that you talk about are what makes somebody a good salesperson? Are personality and ability to sell one and the same thing?

The same thing.

Is there anything I haven’t asked you that you think young people should know?

I would say like any other profession it’s not everybody’s cup of tea. It’s one of those things that you will know when you get in. The first thing is to do whatever it takes to get in.  If you are put off by the fact that you get rejections and stuff you will never make it in this business.

There are people who spend two or three years lobbying to get into the business – people who park outside the agency with banners doing anything to get in, so you need huge determination.

If anybody thinks ‘I’m smart and I’m attractive so I’ll just swan in…’ – they have no chance. If you want to get into this business you have got to decide it’s what you want to do. You have to be incredibly determined, do your homework and display all those characteristics to make you successful.

If you do that I will promise you will get in somehow. Those people who are really determined will get in. There are thousands who apply who just fancy advertising rather than really want to do it. Some of those might get in, some might not, but it’s the people who really want to do it who succeed.

Once you get in then you can progress incredibly quickly so do whatever it takes to get in and don’t give up. It doesn’t suit everybody but you will know pretty quickly if it’s the life for you or not. Having done this job it opens up lots of other avenues on the client side and in the media world. I think it’s a fascinating job and you get to work with some of the great brands. You can spend half the day working on Coca-Cola and half the day on Microsoft. That’s the beauty of this business.

Would you take somebody who has started in a smaller agency?

Oh yes. In fact, sometimes they are better because they would have had to do more. In a bigger agency, you will get a much more formal training which is good. In a smaller agency you get much more on the hoof real-life training and that’s good too.

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