Certain features are probably indisputable. First and foremost, Jonathan Stead is undoubtedly a good marketeer and proved himself able to build a substantial business.
Secondly, there was a string of client losses that would be nobody’s idea of fun, whether prompted simply by bad luck or by an element of under-performance or by both. This danger is encapsulated in the overly simple Willott three-legged table principle: unless an agency always has at least four solid clients, the business is likely to collapse.
Thirdly, as is now widely known, the agency was short of capital after Stead had partially bought out his creative director John Townshend and paid himself a big dividend to offset debts he owed to the company. It is entirely probably that Stead was not expecting clients to exit when he drew that cheque, but it left the agency more vulnerable than was prudent.
But there is a deeper feature that merits consideration. Rapier was a company owned and run predominantly by one man. Former senior colleagues seem to have come and gone all too readily. Stead owned most of the shares and was chief executive. That degree of control can be very useful in enabling decisions to be made and implemented. But it does place enormous responsibility on the individual to get the decisions right, and that is an unrealistic expectation to place on any one person.
The fact that the company had spent over £1.7 million on Stead’s personal behalf at its peak suggests that it was not always easy for him to distinguish between personal interests and company interests.
And while Stead may be most at ease when running his own show, the downside is that there is no-one with any influence to counsel caution when excessive enthusiasm might put the company at risk or to lend moral support if conditions got tough.
Rapier’s downfall might not have been avoided if there had been another heavyweight partner on board who could command Stead’s respect and complement his undoubted talents, but at least the risk of that downfall would have been considerably reduced.
The new-born joint venture with CHI offers Stead a second chance, this time with a heavyweight partner. If Stead can cope with sharing power and ownership, there could yet be a happy ending to this sad story.
Bob Willott is editor of “Marketing Services Financial Intelligence”