Can Farm succeed where others failed?

Derek Draper’s branding outfit will bring ad and PR skills to bear on one-off projects. Is there need for it in a retainer-led sector?

Derek Draper, Peter Mandelson’s former aide and New Labour crony, is the first to admit he knows little about the advertising industry.

But as one of the founding partners of the branding company Farm, Draper is happy to learn all he can from fellow shareholders Paul Jeffrey and Robert Smith – former planning and client services directors, respectively, at Partners BDDH.

Draper does have some experience to offer. He helped to shape the “communications revolution that created New Labour – probably the most successful ‘brand’ launch of the Nineties”. And he says he is ready to “shake out” his contacts.

Draper also has plans to try his hand at strategic planning but he has several other projects to complete first: a novel on sex and politics, writing for The Observer and a pilot TV quizshow for BBC Choice.

“Strategic planning is like political communications. With New Labour we spoke to people who had prejudices about the party and tried to change them,” he comments.

Farm will work on a project-by-project basis with advertisers, assembling hand-picked teams for specific tasks.

Smith says: “The intention is to offer a broader set of communication tools.

“It’s become a bit of a cliché to say ‘we don’t start with an advertising solution’, but I think we genuinely don’t. If advertising is not the solution, we are more than happy to push forward and say what we should be doing.”

Jeffrey, a friend of Draper’s from his Manchester University days, says: “We don’t have creatives as part of the team, so we can genuinely bring in the right people for the job.

“Until about two or three years ago, the best creatives worked for a big agency, but increasingly better creatives are deciding to work for themselves and choose the projects they work on.”

Another perceived benefit to advertisers is having people with different communication skills all under one roof. However, earlier this month, the Renegade ad agency folded after less than two years due to lack of business. Like Farm, it combined advertising and PR to work on special projects, with clients ranging from Weetabix and Scottish Courage to Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. Sue Aitken, former Renegade managing partner, claims the agency was forced to close because clients had difficulty managing separate pools of money for PR, advertising and sales promotion.

She explains: “It was difficult converting specific projects into ongoing business, especially as that could mean a client having to sever a strong relationship with either a PR or ad agency.”

Smith admits that securing project work can be as time-consuming as pitching for retainer-based accounts, although he is adamant there is a gap in the market. “Some clients see it as ideal because every time they want to launch a new product they have to go to their existing agency and extend the retainer, or go out and hold pitches for another agency. This is very time-consuming for what might be a one-off project that only lasts three months.”

Draper’s company Farm also hopes to attract business direct from advertising agencies, having managed to secure its first project for the Co-Operative Bank from Partners BDDH.

Partners BDDH chief executive Nigel Long says of the outfit: “I don’t think there is a huge market for it, but there is a market. Most clients prefer to have a long-term relationship with agencies.”

Adam Sunderland, managing partner of White Door, which supplies agencies and clients with freelancers for specific projects, comments: “Outsourcing is a phenomenon. It is common in the US, and people think it hasn’t been happening here. But, in fact, over the past three years it has become increasingly popular.”

Saatchi & Saatchi international chairman Alan Bishop, who worked at Saatchi’s US operation for three years, says: “Big US agencies employ about 2,000 people and are seen to be slow and bureaucratic. So there is a gap in the market for hotshops, partly because of the overall size of the market.”

However, Bishop feels the variable size of UK agencies and clients’ desire for a long-lasting relationships with them will prevent widespread outsourcing.

In the past year, Draper’s lack of judgement has twice cost him his job. In 1998, he was dismissed from political lobbying firm GPC Market Access after the “cash for access” scandal. And earlier this year he was forced to leave his post as a Talk Radio DJ after a prank call from what he claimed to be a brothel in Amsterdam – the management failed to see the joke. Media observers will be interested to see if his tenure with his new partners will be happier and longer.

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