Cold Comfort for Hotshops in WPP's 'United' Network

02 November 2006

NEW YORK: Managers at WPP Group's micro-network of small agencies with individual reputations for creativity, are under increasing pressure to stem the hemorrhage of accounts and key personnel that have recently bedevilled the group.

It won't have helped that the entity labors under the pedestrian moniker 'The Voluntarily United Group of Creative Agencies' - or for the less turgid , United.

'United by our differences', according to its tagline.

These 'differences' have led to a crisis, admits chairman/ceo, the much-admired adbiz icon Andy Berlin: "Critics think we'll be on the deathwatch for the next two to three months." Although insisting this is not his personal view, he concedes, "it will take a year or two to turn [United] around."

In addition to recent losses, other key accounts are reportedly in intensive care, among them NewsCorp's UK satellite monopoly BSkyB (worth some £75 million) and Fiat's Alfa Romeo division in Italy.

United was established last year by WPP ceo Sir Martin Sorrell in a bid to stem defections to top independent agencies from its quartet of mega-networks (JWT, Ogilvy & Mather, Grey Global and Y&R).

It's easy to be wise after the event. But many seasoned adfolk could have told WPP that industrial-scale ad networks and creative hotshops cohabit as amicably as Michael Moore and Donald Rumsfeld.

In the opinion of some onlookers, Sorrell's acumen and eye for balance sheet opportunities are unequalled in the advertising business.

But, they add, he is not, has never been and never will be an adman. He is essentially a 'suit', a top-echelon networker of genius and, above all, a laser-visioned accountant with the deal-making instincts of a pilot fish.

Berlin, who has a reputation for frankness, says he doesn't know if Sorrell will keep United in one piece or break it up and allocate its nine offices to other WPP networks. Sorrell himself remains uncharacteristically zip-lipped.

United's failure to make its mark on the international agency scene was diagnosed by David Wethey, chairman of London consultancy Agency Assessments: "For clients, there wasn't an overpowering reason to leave the agency you were with because United never established they had anything different or better," he opined.

Wieden + Kennedy's London managing director Neil Christie was less diplomatic. "United has been cobbled together and it's a marriage of convenience rather than a set of shared values,"

Berlin, however, remains in rah-rah mood: "I was present at the creation of this, and I'm not walking away," he said. "No one's ever done this before and I believe it can work."

Data sourced from Wall Street Journal Online; additional content by WARC staff