No crock of gold at end of Red Brick’s rainbow

March 30, 2009

When was the last time you heard anything about Frank Lowe-inspired Red Brick Road – you know, the Tesco agency? I thought so: when it lost its only other account of note, the global Heineken business, to BBH a few months back.

Red Brick Road’s inability to win new business after such a spectacular start back in 2006 means it is badly in need of an exit strategy. Which may well account for the following rumour. There’s going to be a merger with WPP’s JWT some time in the summer. The only real casualty will be JWT’s B&Q account. There, that’s it.
It’s quite an attractive rumour in its way. JWT, which has experienced a “recovery of sorts” following managing director Alison Burns’ departure is still weak on top management, the problem being the idiosyncratic personality of JWT Europe executive chairman Toby Hoare. Who better to up the ante than one of London’s best managers? Yes, step forward Red Brick Road ceo Paul Hammersley. Add to that the prize of Tesco, which JWT narrowly failed to lure a few years back when it was looking promiscuous at Lowe, and the idea seems juicier still.
There’s only one problem. The rumour isn’t true. What is true is that 20% stakeholder Sir Frank would like to get out and that he has held intermittent talks with WPP’s Sir Martin Sorrell. These talks have considered several scenarios. One was to poach the Tesco media account from Initiative and place it in a WPP-sponsored outlet, probably MindShare. That at least was the WPP angle. Sir Frank had other ideas, such as a joint media venture with WPP in which Red Brick Road would hold a 50% stake. No dice with Sir Martin, it seems. And when finally  the Initiative account did come up for review last year, well it just stayed put. There have also been whispers of  ‘doing something’ with Johnny Hornby’s CHI, already part-owned by WPP, but this one was stillborn on the drawing board.
WPP now seems to have given up on any kind of a deal. But that doesn’t meant Red Brick Road’s strategic problem has gone away. Nor has it prevented the agency’s executives from spinning imaginative fantasies about solving it.

Admen rally to the cause of cutting unwanted teenage pregnancies

March 27, 2009

Finally, something to cheer up adland: the hunting season is about to reopen. The advertising regulator has just announced it is seeking to abolish 9pm watershed restrictions on TV condom advertising; and may also permit pro-abortion ads for the first time.

Result: hysterical consternation among Catholic and anti-abortion groups. But what do admen care about that? This new development can only mean one thing:  some frenzied pitching – at last! – all in the worthy cause of cutting teenage pregnancies.

The controversy has been stirred by an outline proposal from the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) and the Broadcast Committee of Advertising Practice (BCAP), which have decided to review the current advertising rules. We can now expect almost round-the-clock condom advertising – the exception being when programmes are aimed at children under 10. So not during Horrid Henry but straight after GMTV. It’s all part of a review of advertising codes which is being put out for public consultation. The scrutiny closes on July 19th.

Currently condoms cannot be advertised on Channel 4 before 7pm and on other channels before 9pm. But the soaring growth of teenage pregnancies has prompted calls for change. (Hands up, by the way, anyone who can remember a condom ad on telly, even after the watershed? I thought so: the manufacturers clearly don’t see TV advertising as the way forward.)

Not surprisingly, there has been more outraged opposition than support for these controversial proposals. More particularly for the one that would allow abortion clinics to advertise on TV. The ever-entertaining Tory MP and blogger Nadine Dorries has already registered her disgust. It’s  “just plain sick”, she says.

“I am quite sure that any adverts will depict smiling pretty nurses, gleaming reception areas and leafy car parks,” she writes in her blog. She goes on to complain that the ads will not highlight the risks involved. She’s pretty ill-informed on the technicalities, as it happens.

Opening up new categories to advertising might, however, do something to restore confidence in an industry trussed by new legislation and battered by lobby groups calling for ever more stringent curbs. Worthy cause or not.

When will Sugar turn sour?

March 26, 2009

Maybe it’s just reverse psychology. That harassed, careworn fisog is so traced with the parchment lines of gloomy cynicism that, in a curious way, its every appearance on the box acts like an antidote to depression (or rather, since we’re talking business here, Depression). Search me for any other convincing reason that explains the charmed life of The Apprentice.

But success it has been. Sir Alan Sugar’s return to BBC1 attracted 8.1 million viewers and a 33% share in the 9pm hour, according to unofficial overnight figures.
Let me offer a heretical opinion: its success won’t last. That’s not simply because it’s a long way through its natural programme cycle as it embarks on a fifth series. But because the format is now too much at variance with reality.
Now, I know what you’re going to say. It never was a realistic depiction of any known business environment in the first place. Nor has Sir Alan been a particularly successful entrepreneur, and therefore credible role model. All right, he did make £800m at one point in his career (enough to keep most of us in M&S socks for the rest of our lives) but most of that was in property – wasn’t it? – so it doesn’t count. In short, the only thing that’s ever been real about The Apprentice are the first four letters in ‘reality TV’; it’s pure entertainment. And, on that level, still pretty funny.
But is it? There comes a point where the camping up no longer hits the spot, or captures the zeitgeist. That point is where the producers fail to realize that they themselves are part of the parody: we’ve reached it now. The yahoo capitalist culture seeded in Thatcher’s eighties, of which Sir Alan is such an eminent example, is curdling in a deepening dyspepsia of public disapproval.
At the head of the list of emerging anti-heroes is, of course, Sir Fred Goodwin – the supreme demon of unrepentant greed. But where bankers lead, lesser acolytes of the creed are sure to follow. As the ‘L’ of the Nasty Noughties Depression elongates, so contempt for capitalism’s cruder, more benighted evangelists will become commonplace. Just this week the European heads of seriously over-bonused AIG have quit because they can’t take the heat any longer and even Ken Clarke is getting flak over his unhealthy interest in offshore “investment”. Indeed, (I am indebted to the FT’s Lombard for this little gem) we are not far from parliamentary committees beginning their investigation with the following question: “Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the financial services sector?”
That’s not good news for wannabe capitalist attack dogs in search of 15 minutes of fame. And, give it another year, it won’t be good news for TV ratings either.

Suits versus creatives – Garry Lace decides

March 23, 2009
Lace: It's the ceo, stupid

Garry Lace: It's the ceo, stupid

Who really calls the shots at a successful advertising agency, the top suits or the creative supremo? It’s a tired old saw which received new stimulus earlier this year at an IPA Client Services debate featuring Robert Senior, ceo SSF Group, and Ed Morris, recently departed executive creative director at Lowe.

The result was a foregone conclusion. Senior flattered to deceive by exalting creative excellence as “the fuel without which the bus goes nowhere.” Leaving Morris to argue the lame pedestrian virtues of the account man as “grand orchestrator between creativity and commerce.” The vote? Er, 44 to 6 in Senior’s favour.

But wait just a moment. Doesn’t history tell us something entirely different, and isn’t Mr Senior the living embodiment of this alternative truth?

I call to witness none other than Garry Lace, one of London’s most consummate suits. Lace it was who first highlighted an increasingly bizarre phenomenon in creative agencies: the wilful decision to dispense with chief executives and entrust agency management to the precarious hands of creatives, planners and the like.

For Lace, of course, this unfortunate trend has the poignancy of a parable – with himself cast in the role of Jesus Christ. Look what happened to Lowe after I left, he might say: a creative (Morris) and a planner (Rebecca Morgan) have presided over its ruin. And now just a planner…

Strictly speaking, that’s being a bit economical with the truth. Lace’s flamboyance was his own undoing; and besides, there was Amanda Walsh in between.

But in a wider sense, he has a point. Euro RSCG, which has recently dispensed with the services of its chief executive, Mark Cadman, seems embarked on the same path of self-destruction – led by a planner (Russ Lidstone) and a creative (Mark Hunter).

Self-serving though these words of Lace may partly be, I feel I ought to quote them in full. “I’ve always worked on the assumption that companies need a leader” he says. “That person for whom people will work harder and care more because they are able to construct a vision for the business based on experience and instinct and articulate it in a powerful and motivating way. That person who proves to be a magnet for talent and clients alike and for whom nothing is impossible.”

Lace may yet get an opportunity to prove his point. He has been languishing recently as managing director and part share-holder of Admedia the “out-of-home” (read toilet advertising) specialist. But rumour is the strangest thing. It has thrown him into a start-up venture with Robert Campbell, former creative powerhouse of RKCR and current co-founder with ex-Times man Toby Constantine of tgi50, a website portal aimed at the ‘just over’ 50s.

Even stranger is another rumour: the one that links Mark Cadman with … Ed Morris, in a similar venture. If either of these ventures gets going, maybe we’ll be a little closer to the truth. Who really does rule at an ad agency, the suit, or the creative?

Lefroy girds his loins for Advertising Association job

March 17, 2009

So, Tim Lefroy is to be the next chief executive of the Advertising Association. Tim who? you may say. But don’t dismiss him so easily. Lefroy has an interesting track record.

Yes, he is a former, eighties, adman: not necessarily the best qualification for the job in the era of Big Tent, holistic marcoms inclusiveness. He was once the managing director of Young & Rubicam London (remember Tell Sid?), and also chief executive of Yellowhammer. This last, though famous in its day, went spectacularly bust in 1990 owing the Telegraph – among others – millions of pounds. It should be stressed that Lefroy had little or nothing to do with Yellowhammer’s unfortunate demise, the finger of blame eventually pointing at wayward founder Jon Summerill.
But back to the point. It’s what Lefroy did subsequently that’s interesting. He set up a consultancy called Radical, which he still heads, specialising in ‘corporate positioning and transformation’. Among his clients has been the Association of Investment Trust Companies, which hired him to reflate the reputation of what had become a tired and discredited financial instrument. Channel 4 and GSK followed as clients. Also, and more importantly, the Government. Lefroy was given the task of, discreetly, helping to privatise the research and technology arm of the Ministry of Defence, which he did very successfully; it is now known as QinetiQ. He’s also a prominent member of the Pensions Reform Group – dedicated to ameliorating people’s old age – of which Frank Field MP is the founder. His knowledge of public affairs, politics and personal savings is not, therefore, to be doubted.
All will stand him in good stead in his new position. His predecessor, Baroness Peta Buscombe, departed early in slightly mysterious circumstances. Ostensibly the Press Complaints Council position being vacated by ex-top-flight diplomat Sir Christopher Meyer was too good an opportunity to turn down. And it is true the post of PCC chairman is better paid. Yet, that’s not the whole story.
Buscombe was favourably regarded in her role at the AA. She was a breath of fresh air after Andrew Brown’s 13-year reign of dullness. Peta’s problem was she was just too dynamic. A former politician herself, she immediately saw the problem: that the only way forward for a marcoms industry under constant assault from politicians and lobbyists was to rally its multitudinous trade bodies behind a single banner – her own at the AA as it happened.
But, as with many things in life, it all came down to money. The AA is dependent for its rather meagre budget upon these self-same multitudinous bodies – most of whom are in a state of constant low-key warfare over the issue of precedence. The direct marketing crowd look down on the sales promotion crowd, who in turn bitterly complain that the AA is really just a cover for old-style television advertising (the IPA). No one likes, or understands, the uppity digital folk (the IAB). And then there’s the advertisers’ trade body, ISBA, which reckons (maybe rightly) that it’s superior to all of them. It’s certainly the biggest contributor to the AA’s coffers.
So a falling out between the AA and ISBA would not be good news for the AA. And all the less so if its chief were to find she lacked the financial wherewithal to complete her mission without a supplementary levy on ISBA members. Which seems to have been roughly the situation when Buscombe suddenly discovered the superior merits of a senior post at the PCC.
Into this den of lions the more circumspect Lefroy must now step, like some latter-day Daniel. We wish him luck. His track-record in effecting successful corporate change suggests he deserves nothing less.

We can drink to forget – it’s official

March 16, 2009

Phew! The drinks industry and the supermarkets can breathe a sigh of relief – for the moment. Gordon Brown has cracked down sharply on the suggestion made by his influential chief medical officer, Sir Liam Donaldson, that any alcoholic drink should cost a minimum of 50p.

Now that pubs are in terminal decline, cut-price lager and cider promotions in the supermarkets are pretty much all that is propping up the breweries. Certainly branding isn’t doing the trick any more, as the sorry demise of the once “reassuringly expensive” Stella has demonstrated with crushing effect.
For a while it looked as if the Scottish National Party’s dalliance with a similar low-price ban was merely a test-market for the real thing, in England and Wales.  A little like the smoking in public places ban (another of Sir Liam’s pet schemes) being trialled in Ireland before implementation here.
But Gordon has left us in no doubt it won’t be happening (this side of a general election at any rate). Apparently, we need to take into account the wider economic impact of a ban in our present straitened circumstances – why should a feckless minority spoil it for the rest of us when all we want to do is drink and forget?
Don’t be deceived, however. The nanny state – aided and abetted by Alcohol Concern and the British Medical Association – will be back for more.
Clearly, Portman Group, the UK drinks industry’s main ginger group, is not being duped for a moment. Suspicious of further interference (a pre-9pm watershed ban, for example, on television advertising), it is preparing a major campaign to turn the tide of opinion back in favour of tippling freely.
Called Project 10 in the trade, it will be launched with the catchline Why Let Good Times Go Bad? and focus heavily on persuading people to exercise personal responsibility when consuming alcohol.
Self-regulation’s the best regulation, eh? No doubt the financial services community would whole-heartedly agree.

WPP flicks V-sign at BBH

March 13, 2009

Oh frabjous day, calloo, callay, he chortled in his joy. As well the knight of Farm Street might when he received news that WPP had wrested back Vodafone’s strategic creative account, which had embarrassingly eluded his clutches for the past 3 years.

The account is “strategic” in several respects. First, it is worth a great deal of money – £50m a year in the UK alone. It also gives WPP control of the commanding heights of the Vodafone marketing services business: mastery of the Big Idea, from which all else in due course flows. Finally, it provides further eloquent testimony, in the wake of HSBC and Dell, that an integrated agency specifically built around a client’s global needs, and known as the WPP Team model, actually works. (No one mention Samsung in this context, by the way.)
Most piquant of all, however, will be the knowledge that Sir Martin has managed to deliver a body blow to the nether regions of rival agency group BBH. BBH comes from a different place on the agency spectrum to conglomerate WPP. It’s a creative micro-network, with limited international distribution. The idea being that it can seed a great creative concept capable of playing globally even though others may be left to distribute, and adapt it, to local markets. BBH, long one of the UK’s most accomplished creative agencies, has had considerable success with the micro-network mantra. Which helped it, for example, to win British Airways.
Worryingly, it had begun to peck at WPP’s entrails by winning the really big accounts from which, in the pre-digital age, it would have been precluded by its smaller scale. The loss of substantial Unilever business was a particular sore point.
And then, of course, there was Vodafone. In 2002 WPP looked as if it had got the Vodafone business all wrapped up when its leading brand agency, JWT, won the international account. Not for long. BBH was appointed to the telecoms giant’s roster in 2004 without a pitch and from then on began to prise open JWT’s grip on the account. To this day, BBH handles the UK strategic account, while JWT is left with the more boring product stuff.
So the act of seeing off BBH as well as McCann Erickson in a 3-way pitch for the global strategic business will have been balm indeed for WPP’s nettled leader. We can only presume that the UK bit of the business retained by BBH will soon be on notice…if Sir Martin has anything to do with it.

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