Agencies are a shifty business. It’s not only the accounts, which are their financial and creative lifeblood, that come and go with alarming facility – so too does the talent that makes success possible in the first place.
No difference there, perhaps, to other service businesses – the law, the City and even the software industry, for example – but because their barriers to serious competition are higher, the resulting breakaways are fewer, more marginal and therefore less powerfully regenerative to the business as a whole.
In marketing services, by contrast, breakaways are endemic (some would go further with the disease metaphor). And for good reason. If you want to get ahead in advertising, the successful breakaway is the best way to make a name for yourself, not to mention some serious money. Sure, if things go wrong, you may lose your shirt, not to mention your house. But, in a business as incurably optimistic as marketing services, who wants to think about that?What you need to think about, though, is how much acrimony you are prepared to generate in achieving that success. Launching cold turkey, as Hurrell & Dawson has done, can result in a long, nail-biting wait while the overheads clock up. Best to have a start-up client, which buys you time while you feverishly prospect for other business. And where better to get this pump-priming business than from a client that knows and trusts you already – one that happens to be handled by the agency you have just jettisoned?Rarely, as in the case of Johnny Hornby and Simon Clemmow, will skilful timing come to your aid. Carphone Warehouse’s Charles Dunstone, foundation client of CHI, had already let TBWA know he intended to quit. No acrimony, no wait, no threat of legal obstruction over non-compete clauses. Trevor Beattie and Andrew McGuinness were less lucky when they broke away: they had to wait a year to get their hands on McCain Foods, or risk litigation. M&C Saatchi (British Airways) and Sir Frank Lowe at Red Brick Road (Tesco) were sufficiently well-heeled not to worry about acrimony, and in both cases the client, spookily, fired the host agency. They also had something to prove that went beyond mere money.
But, in the case of Adam & Eve, the start-up sensation of the moment, piloted by former RKCR executives James Murphy, Ben Priest and David Golding, the motive for tweaking the tiger’s tail is less apparent. Adam & Eve is in the midst of a winning flush, having picked up Cadbury’s Biscuits (£3m), Westfield Shopping Centre (£5m) and The Telegraph (£8m). It emerged last week that it had also secured a valuable piece of sponsorship business. Controversially, it simultaneously emerged that the client was Lloyds and the business in question a part of Locog’s Olympics sponsorship. Strictly speaking, this business had never been awarded to RKCR in the first place. But winning it was certainly sailing close to the wind in terms of Adam & Eve’s non-compete obligations to WPP.
Still, apart from a cauliflower ear or two, Murphy and his colleagues have emerged creditably. Everyone likes a plucky underdog; it does the agency profile no harm at all.