Why future is not so bright for WCRS

Orange’s decision to review its account and the loss of Sega Europe have plunged WCRS into the doldrums. If it is not to slip down the Havas pecking order, the agency needs win to more business – and fast.

One senior agency executive has said that in advertising the difference between success and failure is just three telephone calls away.

So when WCRS received the news that flagship client Orange was reviewing its &£32m account (MW last week), it must have given the French-owned agency’s flamboyant, bow-tied chief Robin Wight quite a shock.

The move follows news that Sega Europe had pulled its &£60m business out of WCRS following “creative differences” over future Dreamcast campaigns.

In January, WCRS completed its &£30m European launch work for the Rover 25 and 45 after five months. It failed to retain the business beyond the launch, losing out to M&C Saatchi in a pitch for the UK account at the end of last year. Though not exactly a loss, it was nevertheless bad news for WCRS.

It has not all been bad news for the agency. WCRS has won the &£4m account to promote the London mayoral elections, the &£6m Buzz business and the &£8m Anchor account, among others.

The agency, which prides itself on being an entrepreneurial business with all the peaks and troughs that that entails, has pulled itself back from the brink before.

Five years ago, it lost 18 per cent of its income when it was stripped of Prudential, Thomson Holidays and the Daily Telegraph, only to make a strong recovery since then.

But this time observers have raised questions about the future of the Golden Square-based agency and its place within the Havas group.

WCRS accounts with billings worth more than &£10m include Bass, BMW, Land Rover and Camelot – which is itself facing a review for the next National Lottery contract. The agency insists it still has the Orange account, although this may not be for much longer.

A longer term worry is the mooted takeover of Bass by bidders including Heineken and South African Breweries. This could lead eventually to a review of the Carling lager account that has been held by WCRS since 1983.

A lot will depend on Wight’s legendary energy and enthusiasm, which has been the key factor in slamming the brakes on the runaway roller-coaster ride when the agency has plummeted towards lows in the past.

Wight has always been seen as the figurehead with the driving force and ability to turn fortunes around in times of trouble.

But two senior advertising sources, which were unwilling to go on the record, say Wight may even be prepared to step down.

Very much on the record, Wight strenuously denies this. He is adamant he will stay to steer the agency into calmer waters. “There is no crisis at WCRS. Rumours of my advertising death are exaggerated. I have never been a retiring person.”

French parent company Havas Advertising’s &£1.3bn acquisition of US ad group Snyder Communications last month has led industry observers to question Wight’s future role.

Observers say he is disgruntled with Havas’ decision to place Snyder agency Arnold Communications at the head of its Campus division, of which WCRS is a part.

WCRS may be pushed further down the Havas pecking order by the transplant of Partners BBDH, previously owned by Snyder, into Campus. One observer says: “WCRS was seen as the star of Campus, where Wight is chairman.

“French agencies have found it difficult to gain a foothold in the US. Havas may have offered Arnold first position in its Campus network as a bargaining tool.

“Wight will not be happy about this. He will see it as a snub.”

Wight responds: “Arnold is the largest single agency in Campus, but it will continue to be an international partnership where merit – not size – wins the argument.” WCRS’ relationship with BMW could face problems if car clients feel there is too much conflict at the various Havas agencies. Arnold has produced award-winning ads for Volkswagen since it won the company’s US account in 1995. Euro RSCG handles Peugeot-Citroen in the UK, while Partners BBDH works on Mercedes-Benz.

Havas still has the option of merging WCRS with Euro RSCG.

Havas chief executive Alain de Pouzilhac admits there will be “many changes” when the merger with Snyder is completed in July. He says: “Arnold will lead the network – there is no question about that in my mind.

“We also have to fit Partners BBDH into Campus. It is an outstanding company.

“Wight is the chairman of Campus at the moment, but Arnold will increase the revenue of the group three-fold, so a number of things will change.”

A handful of observers feel WCRS needs to keep raking in profits to keep Havas happy – and that the mood in France could be changing.

De Pouzilhac adds: “I’m always worried when our agencies lose accounts. WCRS is a jewel in the Campus network and it’s positive enough to turn this around. But it’s now in a more negative period than last year.”

Wight claims Orange is only asking agencies to pitch for “future projects”, despite Orange head of brand marketing Rob Furness having stated the company is looking for “the right partners” for the next three years, with WCRS “not necessarily considered in the pitch process” (MW March 2).

Wight admits Sega was a “genuine loss”, but claims it is equivalent to &£4.1m in billings for 1999 and has been balanced out by last week’s &£4m RAC account win.

Observers feel Sega and Orange announcements could be linked to the departures of dynamic creative duo Larry Barker, to BMP DDB, and Rooney Carruthers, who is to join Foote Cone & Belding in San Francisco.

Although Barker quit in 1998, the pair may prove a hard act to follow.

One source says: “I wonder whether Carruthers and Barker saw something coming round the corner. The losses may be just bad luck or coincidence, but there could be more to it than that.”

Some observers believe WCRS’s start-up mentality leaves it open to claims that it enjoys the thrill of chasing and securing clients more than it does keeping them.

Wight responds: “WCRS does feel like a start-up – a high-energy place with a special buzz. But that is the dynamic which has powered us for 20 years. It doesn’t feel unstable for people who work here.”

Wight remains chairman of Campus, but observers feel WCRS must win some big accounts to persuade Havas chiefs it can still be a money-spinning part of the group.

The next few months could prove crucial for WCRS.

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