Media Perspective: The future seems decidedly bleak for Initiative London

By Ian Darby, ian.darby@haymarket.com, campaignlive.co.uk, Friday, 12 September 2008 12:00AM

It's hard to know whether to react with disdain or admiration when Interpublic continues to be optimistic over the fortunes of Initiative London.

Last Thursday, the office suffered another setback when France Telecom announced that the agency had been struck off the pitch for its £76 million Orange UK media business. This will result in the account moving out of Initiative to either Mediaedge:cia or Vizeum (with i-level also contesting the currently separate online chunk of the account).

The Orange loss means that Initiative London has shed four of its top five billing 2007 UK clients. Orange, E.ON, Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer Consumer Healthcare spent £134 million between them in 2007, according to Nielsen Media Research, and the small gains made by the agency barely scratch the surface in replacing them.

Yet there remains a belief at IPG that Initiative in the UK can prosper under a management team led by the chief executive, Gary Birtles, the managing director, Danny Donovan, and the planning director, Tony Regan. Senior IPG sources say Initiative London has "the right attitude and leadership", recent losses were "frustrating", rather than damaging, and that the "new" regime has had a good year to date and has "refreshed and revitalised" London. Excessively generous words, in my opinion.

It's true that neither of IPG's UK media operations have been helped by problems at group level. After a tortuous search, Nick Brien, the chief executive of its Mediabrands holding unit, finally found a leader for the Universal McCann network in PHD's Matt Seiler. Over at Initiative, Brit Richard Beaven is building a strong US reputation, which he hopes will energise the whole network. This week's departure of the strategic development director and former UK chief executive, Jerry Hill, and the EMEA president, Dirk Wiedenmann, could provide the chance for new talent to emerge in Europe.

Sadly, this is all coming rather late for Initiative UK. It's hard to see how the agency's leadership team, whose achievements seem distinctly lightweight, are going to win back the momentum (especially as recessions are known to sort the wheat from the chaff in the agency world). A full merger with Universal McCann is still not on the cards. A delayed move into Universal's St John's Square building will happen by the end of the year but, for the time being, Initiative has two large accounts, Tesco and Burger King, which justify its UK existence.

However, it can't rely on this forever and I'm finding it hard to shake off the feeling that Initiative London could gradually wither to a similar state to that of its smaller UK sister Brand Connection, which disappeared with barely a whimper.

This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk

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