How explosive is the Nitro mix?

feature3_120Independent micro-network Nitro has beaten McCann Erickson to win the pan-European launch business for Unilever’s “healthy” ice cream brand Frusi (MW last week). It is not the first time the London arm of Nitro, owned by “maverick” Australian Chris Clarke, has claimed a prized scalp.

The industry was unanimous in its surprise when the agency beat Fallon to the global Volvo business in tandem with US shop Arnold earlier this year. Nitro also works on Nike’s running shoe portfolio and Footlocker.

Yet despite the wins, observers suggest that Nitro London underperforms in comparison with its Shanghai and New York offices – a claim Clarke himself acknowledges. However, he adds that he is “really happy” with the work coming out of London, particularly the innovation arm headed by global deputy chief executive Christopher Nurko, a former FutureBrand executive.

Clarke is believed to be targeting acquisitions to beef up the London operation, which includes digital shop Mook and the remnants of Soul, the Bartle Bogle Hegarty breakaway he bought last year.

He says even though London is not meeting its own “challenging” internal expectations the agency is doing “pretty well”. Both he and Nurko point to tough competition in London. “It’s a super-competitive market,” admits Clarke. “But we are doing well, making money, growing and are committed long term to real success in the market.”

Uninspiring
Perhaps so, but for one industry observer Nitro remains “uncohesive” and says its London shop is “industrious but uninspiring”, particularly in the wake of the departure of the last remaining Soul founders earlier this year.

The source says: “I’m not sure how robust the London agency is. My sense is that it isn’t that strong.”
He thinks Nitro as a micro-network lacks the “substance” of rivals such as BBH. He does, however, acknowledge the great strides made in Shanghai – the first office of what Clarke and Nurko expect to be ten by 2009.

Nurko believes Nitro is misunderstood in the industry; its strengths lie outside the hurly-burly of the advertising merry-go-round of pitches and account wins. Three-quarters of new business is outside traditional advertising, many conversations happen “above” brand and marketing director level, with chief executives and finance officers.

Anonymous involvement
Nitro is also pitted against consultancies and branding agencies such as McKinsey and FutureBrand. Such wins, he says, are rarely reported because clients prefer their involvement to be anonymous. “What we’re presenting may be difficult for people to understand,” adds Nurko. He believes another reason for caution in London is the scepticism that surrounds Clarke, a former film and music director.

Clarke founded Nitro in Shanghai in 2002 – two years after selling his first agency, Pure Creative, which had been set up with founding client Mars in Australia in 1993.

The decision to sell, says Clarke, was taken because he was “burnt out”, but he later decided he had made a mistake and formed Nitro. He opened New York and London offices in 2004, buying a stake in – and later acquiring the whole of – Soul, a BBH breakaway.

“I love building and growing a company,” says Clarke. “I have never needed Nitro more than now, so I have zero plans to sell. I am not the kind of guy to sit at home and do nothing. I love my global job at Nitro. I love what we have achieved in five years.”

For a man who loves winning, a tough fight ahead in London is no doubt a challenge he relishes.

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