Close-Up: Can new team bring stability to SapientNitro?

By Kate Nettleton, campaignlive.co.uk, Friday, 26 February 2010 12:00AM

Malcolm Poynton and Kim Douglas have the pedigree to make the agency's integrated offering work.

The entrance to Nitro's London office has been spinning faster than the revolving door at Harrods on Boxing Day since the company placed its foot in the UK market five years ago.

Founded by Chris Clarke in Shanghai in 2002, Nitro launched its London offering by buying out the Bartle Bogle Hegarty breakaway Soul in 2005, and the conveyor belt of senior management teams hasn't stopped since. Unfortunately for the agency, its UK office has also since been a consistent underperformer in both creative and new-business terms.

Clarke admits: "We've never got it right in London. I never gave any love or care to London. But now I've made a commitment to spend time there so we can get the right culture going and I'm not going to try to do it from 7,000 miles away."

That promise itself may be cause for concern among observers. Many of the ex-Nitro staff say that it was Clarke's "overbearing" management style, projected from departure lounges, that stifled their ability to build the business.

One former senior employee explains: "It had potential to be really healthy, but when you keep getting your strings pulled from abroad, it becomes very difficult. Chris is beyond hands-on, but you can't manage people from planes."

Following Nitro's sale to the technology consultancy company Sapient last year, Clarke has relocated to the UK, albeit for two weeks out of every four, to help run the London office.

And, as of last week, Nitro and Sapient Interactive have been legally merged globally, forming one entity under the SapientNitro moniker, sharing a P&L, and leaving Sapient's lesser-known trading and risk management offering, Sapient Global Markets, as a standalone business.

As well as committing more time to the UK, Clarke has roped in some heavy-hitters to tame this new creature in London, snaring the former executive creative director of Ogilvy, Malcolm Poynton, who is joining as the chief creative officer across Europe, and Mindshare's chief strategy officer, Kim Douglas, who takes the helm as its UK managing director.

They join Sapient's management of Christian Oversohl, the president of Europe, and Mike Reed, the UK managing director - both of whom retain their titles.

Both tick all the boxes (Poynton on creative acumen and integrated experience, and Douglas bringing a much-needed planning backbone and automotive experience to help keep a grip on Volvo), but history suggests that the pair will struggle to turn the agency into a genuine player on the UK scene.

Yet its global presence has been given a welcome filip thanks to the awards success of sister Australian agency CumminsNitro's "The best job in the world" campaign for Tourism Queensland. That piece of work will also add weight to the network's claim to offer a genuinely integrated approach to communications, now backed by the technical might of the Sapient operation.

And the antipodean links are maintained by the new management team in London, who both hail from the region and appear united in their bold ambitions for the shop.

"For the first time in the UK market, there will be an offering from a creative company that's balanced between digital capabilities and branded strategic thinking," Poynton explains.

When Nitro initially entered the UK market, it did so with an integrated proposition at a time when phrases such as "360 degree" were just a glint in marketing directors' eyes. Six years later, and with traditional agencies competing for and winning digital advertising accounts, and digital shops winning traditional business, the market has started to catch up with that proposition.

Poynton argues that the more traditional agencies are just talking an integrated game: "It's slightly disingenuous to suspect that they're already in that place when, in fact, they are clearly trying to get to that place."

"That place" being a hybrid digital and creative agency offering an entire customer experience, from advertising through to e-commerce. This is something the new senior management believes they can offer straight off the bat, thanks to an existing overlap between Nitro and Sapient's expertise.

It's true that Sapient, although rooted in back-end technology design, has been venturing into the creative side of interactive communications, with work on Coke's "happiness factory" and "multimedia vending machine", while Nitro has retained a digital bent.

What's more, Sapient's established tech legacy gives the agency the scale and ability to bring to life creative ideas in the digital space.

Kevin Dundas, the former chief executive, says: "If you can think it, Sapient can build it. They just needed someone to think it."

However, Clarke admits that Nitro in London needs to "lift its creative product". Poynton's creative pedigree could be the key to rectifying this situation. "He has a hunger, knowledge and passion for where the creative world's heading and where technology fits into that world," Clarke says.

If Poynton, and Douglas, can convince potential clients of the strength of the combined business - and, most importantly, learn to work effectively with Clarke - they might just have an interesting new agency model on their hands.

ALL CHANGE: A BRIEF MANAGEMENT HISTORY OF NITRO LONDON
CHRIS CLARKE
2002: Launches Nitro in Shanghai with Mars as a founding client
Jun 2009: Sells Nitro to Sapient in $50 million deal
Nov 2009: Comes to London to run merged agency

PAUL SHEARER
2004: Clarke hires Shearer in 2004 before the Soul buyout
2008: Leaves to join Arnold London

BRUCE CROUCH
2005: Nitro buys Soul, the BBH start-up led by Crouch
2006: Leaves to launch start-up Audacity

ANDY BIRD
2005: Bird runs Soul as creative partner. Joins after buyout alongside
Crouch
2006: Leaves with Crouch, later joins Ogilvy

ENDA MCCARTHY
2005: Joins as general manager
2006 Leaves to join FCB London

JOHAN FOURIE
2006: Joins as European managing director
2008: Leaves with Shearer to join Arnold London

CHRIS NURKO
2006: Hired as global head of innovation, later promoted to deputy
global chief executive
2009: Rejoins Futurebrand as global chairman

KATE HOWE
2008: Joins as managing director from Gala Coral Group
April 2009: Leaves shortly after Dundas' appointment as chief executive

RICHARD RUSSELL
2008: The European creative director at Saatchi & Saatchi joins as
executive creative director
Dec 2009: Announces departure without a job to go to - on gardening
leave

KEVIN DUNDAS
2009: The former Saatchi & Saatchi worldwide strategy officer joins as
president and chief executive of Nitro London
Nov 2009: Leaves to join 180 Amsterdam as managing partner

MALCOLM POYNTON
2010: Joins as European chief creative officer of SapientNitro

KIM DOUGLAS
2010: Joins as UK managing director of SapientNitro

This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk

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