Lord Tim Bell, chairman of Chime Communications, has finally admitted he is negotiating with WPP Group to sell ad agency unit HHCL & Partners. Although rumour has been rife since late July that this was to happen, Bell assured his staff it would not.

In a leaked email to HHCL staffers revealed in WAMN [09-Aug-02], the noble Lord attested: “We are not in talks to sell HHCL to WPP or anybody else for that matter. HHCL is not for sale. What we are doing is discussing and are near to agreeing a deal to enable HHCL to offer its considerable advertising skills on an international basis to take advantage of the continuing consolidation of major brands into international networks.”

It can reasonably be assumed that Rupert Howell, a co-founder of HHCL and also Chime’s joint ceo, is not overly enthusiastic about the sale. Coincident with its announcement he tendered his resignation and will leave in November. His role as Chime’s joint-ceo goes to Chris Satterthwaite, currently group managing director and a former HHCL staffer.

If the deal goes through – and Bell would hardly have come clean if inking was not imminent – the former creative hotshop will be a key piece in the jigsaw puzzle of WPP’s incomplete fourth global network Red Cell, becoming the UK companion to New York’s Berlin Cameron & Partners.

Regret at Howell’s departure is not evident in a statement issued by Chime on Wednesday. This reads: “We are announcing today the resignation of Rupert Howell as joint chief executive. He will leave the board in November this year as he has decided it is time for him to start a new business. We take this opportunity to thank Rupert for his contribution over the last five years and wish him well in the future.”

• Meantime, Chime’s depressed first-half trading results reflect recent major account losses at HHCL (online bank Egg and soft drink Tango). Profit fell by 42% year-on-year to £5.2 million ($8.11m; €8.26m), while operating income plunged 25% to £38.1m – in line with market expectations. Other Chime units include ad agency Roose and PR networks Bell Pottinger and Good Relations.

Commented Bell: “We believe the downturn has bottomed out and we expect the second half of 2002 to be better than the first half of 2002. The evidence is that for us the worst should be over. However, the volatility of the stock market and the political risk of military conflict are still present.”

Data sourced from: BrandRepublic (UK); additional content by WARC staff