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Back Chat with CHI&Partners' Johnny Hornby: 'Being brilliant ideas people is still a highly valued skill for clients'

We catch up with Johnny Hornby, founder of CHI&Partners and The&Partnership, to chat about Canada, why he’s been loving the election, and being mates with competitors.

Back Chat with Johnny Hornby

So, what’s been keeping you busy?

Canada, oddly enough, has kept me very busy, especially over the last year because we have spent the last nine months opening three offices there, one in Vancouver, one in Montreal and one in Toronto. We’ve got 80 people now for a big client that we brought over here a few weeks ago called Telus. And we brought them to meet a lot of our other clients here. It’s really interesting, actually, putting clients together and discussing some issues because you realise that a lot of these companies might do the same thing and not compete because they’re on different continents, so we had O2 together with Telus and TalkTalk, and so on.

What have you been enjoying recently?

I have been enjoying the speculation and debate both related to communications and otherwise around the general election. I’m fascinated by politics – it’s something I used to, in a small way, take part in, when I used to do the advertising for the Labour Party. It’s an interesting microcosm for what’s happening to our industry, when you look at the fact that the content that was most circulated around the election wasn’t created by our industry.

What’s been getting under your skin?

It’s a boring thing but it’s true – the procurement department in the client world is unhelpful. Not because we’re going around trying to charge people too much money for what we do, but because the procurement function is too often divorced in understanding from how it all works, and therefore treats some of these things like they are procuring sugar rather than pretty intelligent stuff. The most frustrating thing for me this year is where I’ve won a pitch with the marketing departments and then either lost it or it’s hugely compromised in the procurement department because those two aren’t joined up.

What campaign or brand do you wish you had worked on?

Having spent time with Ronan Dunne and listened to the O2 story, I think it’s really compelling. It’s turned its customers into fans, delivering such good customer service that it can turn its customers into advocates. To put something together where Beyonce turns up to do a Mrs Carter tour and 70 per cent of people on the first two nights were O2 customers is just a really clever piece of loyalty marketing. It was incredibly brave to hear the story of Ronan going to his board and saying ‘You know that Millennium Dome? We were thinking of sponsoring it and having all our customers go to amazing musical events before everybody else can.’ It just feels like a modern way of thinking about marketing. I found that very compelling.

Who inspires you?

In our industry, we compete fiercely when we’re in a pitch and then most of us are mates the rest of the time. This evening I’m having dinner with Robert Senior and Moray MacLennan, who are probably two people I should be competing with fiercely, but I hugely admire how M&C Saatchi has built its business over such a relatively short space of time. I admire a lot of my competitors, and I’m very friendly with them. The model that we pursue, which is the one of creating a 51 per cent partnership, with 49 per cent holding company, is one that Nigel Bogle actually shared with me in the early days and I completely copied when I went to speak to Martin Sorrell about doing what we’ve done. The other person who is just an absolute standout talent in our business is Martin. He is an extraordinary whirlwind. I think he’s made all the right calls at the big calls, in terms of digital, emerging markets and media. It’s not the most unique thing to say, because he is the standout character in our business, but for anybody who does what I do for a living you can’t help but look at what he does. He’s bloody good at it.

What’s your last word on the industry?

It’s important for our industry to never lose our confidence. It’s really important that we walk tall and be proud of what we do. Being brilliant ideas people and storytellers is still a highly valued skill for clients. And because that creativity is now data driven, we should be able to prove how good we are. I think it’s really important that we keep our swagger.

Cutting his teeth at Ogilvy and CDP before working for Simon Clemmow at TBWA, Johnny Hornby, along with Clemmow and Charles Inge, went on to set up CHI&Partners, working on brands such as Lexus, Samsung, RBS and GSK, and in 2013 launched The&Partnership.

This feature was first published in the 13 May issue of The Drum.

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