That the two remaining founders of Soul should leave the agency 18 months after its acquisition by Nitro should not, perhaps, have been a surprise.
Rumours had been circulating about Nitro London managing director Bruce Crouch for months. There were suggestions that Crouch, father of Liverpool and England footballer Peter, was leaving to become his son’s manager, while others talked of an alleged rift between senior personnel that was unlikely to heal.
As one agency insider says: “There has been a lot of smoke for a long time. Now it appears there is a fire.” Crouch, who has stepped down as managing director (MW December 21), remains at the group and is said to be in talks to launch a group-owned standalone creative shop this year. However, head of art and design Andy Bird is leaving for an unnamed agency.
Nitro, owned by the controversial and charismatic Australian Chris Clarke, seems to be reinventing itself as a branding and digital network. Clarke has brought in TBWA executive Johan Fourie as European managing director, former FutureBrand vice-president Chris Nurko to head “innovation” division Left Blue Sky and Tribal DDB founder Steven Marres as global head of digital content. Paul Shearer remains global executive creative director based in London, while a London-based global planning director is also being sought.
Clarke, confirming the changes, says: “We are really going to focus on digital and innovation.” But one senior industry executive is surprised at the pace and scope of the changes. “It completely threw me,” says the source. “After a slow time after Soul merged with Nitro I think they had finally got their positioning dead right. They were on the brink of something very interesting – a modern communications agency rather than just simply ‘integrated’.” Soul was set up in 2000 by five former Bartle Bogle Hegarty executives: Crouch, Bird, Duncan Bird, Kevin Brown and Seamus O’Farrell. It was billed as a different kind of agency, although critics suggest it was never greater than the sum of its parts.
“Soul never took off,” says one, suggesting its biggest problem was not employing a communications planner, instead relying on Brown’s talents as a media planner. “It looked more like an advertising consultancy rather than an agency.” The deal that saw Nitro acquire some – and then all – of Soul was seen as a win-win by industry watchers. It gave Soul a cash and personnel injection, while Nitro gained a stronger London presence to add to its more impressive Asian network with clients that include Masterfoods and Unilever. Yet London-based business remains quiet. Perhaps, says one industry source, Clarke still fails to understand the intricacies of an “oversupplied” London market.
“London operates in an entirely different way to the rest of the world,” says the source. “There are a lot of very good, smart creative agencies.” He points to Wieden & Kennedy which he says struggled to crack the UK for several years despite impressive credentials abroad, “mistakenly” believing simply opening would be enough.
Another questions the ability of Clarke himself: while charming and convivial, the source says he has “a history of over-embellishment”. “Smoke and mirrors springs to mind,” he adds. “There is a feeling it could all collapse around him.” Perhaps so, but with a change in personnel and a shift in focus, Nitro once again has an opportunity to focus on the external business of running an agency rather than worrying about internal management. And for Crouch, an opportunity to concentrate on the work, rather than the running of the business – which according to one senior executive, “should never be left to a creative” – is on the cards.