The sudden exit last week of Rupert Howell from his post as McCann Erickson’s European president raises the question of how an entrepreneurial agency boss with a huge ego fares in a corporate environment.
Howell is known as a founding “H” of the highly creative though now-defunct agency HHCL & Partners and former joint chief executive of Chime. He joined McCann four years ago as part of a “dream team” that was intended to inject in the network some entrepreneurial nous and creativity.
Rumours that he was about to be pushed out of the InterPublic Group-owned network have abounded since 2005 when he was handed the unglamorous task of sorting out Eastern Europe. But Howell managed to succeed David Warden when he retired in 2005 as the EMEA chief. Two years on and Howell says he is leaving to “take the summer off”.
Howell says that he is still in negotiations with McCann and will not be drawn on the reasons for his departure. “My initial brief was as a potential successor to Dooner and my first job was to sort out the London agency, which I did for 18 months. And that was also the reason I took the offer because I had very limited exposure to the world.
“I was then given Eastern Europe and the job of overseeing the General Motors account, which was a bridge towards taking the full responsibility for the EMEA region. I was given a set of moribund, disaffected agencies and I not only improved the McCann brand but also managed to double the profitability in the past two years,” he says.
Howell leaves on June 1 to be replaced by the agency’s EMEA chairman Giuseppe Usuelli.
Industry observers say that the continuing rift with chief executive of McCann Worldgroup John Dooner has been an “open secret”. One source says: “Rupert has a massive ego making it difficult to survive in a large organisation like McCann. The fact he has survived for four years is a great achievement.”
Another says that the consummate British ad man found the “slightly crude” American corporate culture of the network grating. “The future of the network would have seen more control rest with the Americans, something that he would have been uncomfortable with,” says the source. The fact that Howell had little or no international experience in his European role did not help either, says another source.
Critics say that Howell, never known to underestimate himself, tends to believe his own hype. As one rival European network chief executive points out, it was Adam Lury who was the vision behind HHCL, while Howell supplied the ambition and energy.
At McCann London, the dream team that he assembled to turn around its fortunes, including former Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R creative star Robert Campbell, is all but defunct. The agency is still looking to replace the billings lost when it was forced to pull out of the Reckitt Benckiser pitch by IPG. In the process it lost the Boots Healthcare International business, worth £60m. Its recent wins include Heinz and the Manor Bakeries Cadbury Cakes account. The network wins have been far from spectacular, though they include the pan-European launch of US insurance brand Genworth.
“He has always wanted to control and dictate. Running McCann Erickson EMEA, littered with little fiefdoms with very powerful regional heads, would not have been an easy task,” says a former employee.
But Howell, who turned 50 this year, is not bowing out altogether. “I am not ready to retire, but am unlikely to do a start-up,” he says. His last venture, The Growth Organisation, failed to get off the ground in 2003. But as Lord Bell, chairman of Chime Communications, says: “Rupert will continue to be at the top of the tree. He has not been designed by God to sit in a corner shop.”