Why WPP’s United front broke down

What makes creativity happen in marketing services? Touching though the image of free, creative spirits spontaneously coalescing around a shared vision and harmonious personal chemistry may be, the reality is usually very different.

Success sustained over the years undoubtedly relies upon attracting the best pool of talent available. Yet it would be unthinkable without the energy, vision and drive of an individual shaping the agency’s culture. Ogilvy in its heyday would have been unthinkable without David Ogilvy, BMP without Martin Boase, Lowe Howard-Spink without Sir Frank or Wells Rich Greene without (the exceptional woman in the group) Mary Wells. We’ll go bipolar in the case of Saatchi & Saatchi, but the principle stands.

Nevertheless, energy, vision and drive have their limits, and we saw them illustrated this week at WPP. If sheer force of will were all that was needed to turn United into a successful creative network, then Sir Martin Sorrell would have produced the desired result long ago. He’s certainly tried hard enough.

Points for trying
Over the years we’ve had Lansdown Euro – a residual receptacle for the European Alfa Romeo advertising account – tarted up as the grandiloquent-sounding Conquest (1988). When martial ardour failed to do the trick, Conquest adopted the softer language of genetic engineering and became Red Cell, with no greater success. Despite Sorrell going to all the trouble of building a substantial minority in Chime in order to lever out the once creative powerhouse of Howell, Henry, Chaldecott, Lury and merge it with Red Cell, the transfusion was anaemic; the DNA didn’t work.

Enter United, a declaration of global intent rather than a physical reality. The idea was to create a loosely-strung network of creative boutiques centred on London and New York. The redoubtable creative talent of Andy Berlin, acquired in 2001 along with his agency Berlin Cameron & Partners, was to be the driving force. Berlin brought with him a clutch of premium clients such as Coca-Cola, General Motors and Reebok which really did threaten to take the old Alfa Romeo agency to a new level.

Meanwhile, Sorrell successfully launched a charm offensive on Jim Kelly and Robert Campbell (two outwardly mobile founders of RKC&R). The aim was to deploy Kelly’s management skills and Campbell’s creative reputation to staunch growing losses at the fast-fading rump of “HHCL”. To sweeten the deal, Sorrell organised an enterprise stake of 25 per cent apiece in the restructured London agency. Just like the old days at RKC&R, eh?

Failure not an option
Well not quite. Despite their agency holding the £75m Sky advertising account (an HHCL legacy client) and some promising COI business, success eluded Kelly and Campbell as much as it had their predecessors. Once Sky decided it wanted to move to WCRS, the game was up; the heart was ripped out of the London agency. All that really lay between the account’s loss last November and WPP’s formal announcement this week about United London closing shop was the need to come to terms with wounded pride. Even Alfa Romeo had fled the coop (though where to remains, officially, a secret).

Despite all the energy and resources Sorrell channelled into the problem over the years, he has had to endure a humiliating failure. Not one that rocks the financial landscape admittedly, but a highly personal one all the same.

After exploring this sad litany of misspent energy and wasted initiatives, it is tempting to digress into a little homily about silk purses and sows’ ears. Great agencies cannot be created by financial engineering or the fiat of a group chief executive – however powerful. This is not to contradict the point made earlier about creative organisations needing the unique defining vision and energy of a founder. The point is, this energy and vision must come from within the organism; not by way of some mechanistic formula imposed from without.

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