Whiter United, if Sky and Alfa Romeo are lost?

United London’s loss of Sky’s 75m advertising account and its loosening grip on Alfa Romeo’s pan-European business have raised doubts about the agency’s future.

United London’s loss of Sky’s £75m advertising account and its loosening grip on Alfa Romeo’s pan-European business have raised doubts about the agency’s future.

Jim Kelly and Robert Campbell, respected advertising veterans, took control in January to reinvigorate the shop. They claim that even without Sky’s income, United London will rise again.

Kelly says redundancies are being worked out but denies that up to half the 45 staff could go. “The agency will inevitably be smaller as a result of Sky’s departure,” he adds. “We’ll look to restructure in a more focused and purposeful way around the clients and core people we have.”

On the positive side, Kelly points to a string of wins since he and creative chief Campbell joined: TV ad business for the Alcohol Harm Reduction project, two Masterfoods confectionery accounts and the Early Learning Centre. These are on top of existing accounts such as Singapore Airlines, the Food Standards Agency account for salt awareness and the Georgia-Pacific tissue paper account. However, Kelly concedes the agency needs significant account wins in the future.

Meanwhile, the loss of Sky and likely loss of Alfa raise wider questions about the future of WPP-owned United, a loose agglomeration of nine creative shops from around the world.

Formed last autumn from the ashes of WPP’s 65-strong Red Cell network, United claims to compete with creative micro-networks such as BBH, Wieden & Kennedy and Fallon. But it faces the same criticisms that were levelled at Red Cell – that in reality it is a mere holding shop to secure Alfa Romeo for WPP. Without that account some wonder what – to use its official title – “The Voluntarily United Group of Creative Agencies” is for.

Crunch time One observer talks of Armageddon for United London unless Kelly and Campbell weave their magic fast and adds: “I don’t think the network has a future because there hasn’t been a single successful pitch the network has run and won. That said, Sorrell does need a sexy network in the group.”

While many of United’s individual agencies are successful creative hotshops in their own markets – such as Les Ouvriers du Paradis in France – the question is whether the group is greater than the sum of its parts. On the plus side, Coca-Cola and Procter & Gamble prestige fragrances have chosen to use various network offices.

United’s global chief executive Andy Berlin dismisses doubts about the future and insists United offers clients something they cannot get anywhere else. “We have only ever been interested in creating a great creative group. We have never wanted blanket coverage. The world doesn’t want another advertising network, it wants creative solutions and our mission is to be a source for innovative ideas.”

Former Red Cell chief Lee Daley, now chairman and chief executive of Saatchi & Saatchi UK, says: “With strong leadership and WPP’s commitment, United has a future. WPP needs a sharp, small network that’s full of character and creative vim.”

Full support Berlin has no doubt that United has the full backing of WPP chief executive Sir Martin Sorrell. “When Martin tells us we are going to continue, I take it at face value,” he adds.

United Group’s slogan is “United by our differences”. If a client seeking this disconnected approach to global advertising appears, WPP will be ready. Until then, questions remain.

For the London shop, the doubts will only be answered when it wins sufficient business to plug the gaping hole left by Sky’s departure.