Close-Up: Live Issue - A bullish Sharpen Troughton Owens aims high

The former Red Cell Response managers have put their names above the door and their cash on the line.

It is the day after the WPP-owned direct agency Red Cell Response announced to the world it was changing its name to Sharpen Troughton Owens Response, and the three partners are brimming with all the enthusiasm of a hungry young start-up.

The creative partner, Gary Sharpen, the managing partner, Martin Troughton, and the client services partner, Nigel Owens, are talking excitedly about their new proposition: this independent DM hotshop within WPP has a twist - the names above the door are buying equity in the business with their own money.

"Putting our names over the door makes it black and white that we marry our success with our clients' success," Sharpen says. "We are putting ourselves on the line."

Troughton adds: "The sense of ownership is so fundamentally different from the sense of management - I just hadn't realised how much. So while I've really been enjoying working with these guys, there was a missing ingredient."

But, of course, this is no start-up. The agency has been around since the late 80s, when it launched as Marketing Perspectives. It became part of WPP in 1999 and was renamed Perspectives Red Cell in 2001. Sharpen came on board in 2003 and it was rebranded again, this time as Red Cell Response.

Despite the various efforts to revive the agency's fortunes over the years, it has remained virtually invisible, tucked away as the UK DM arm of one of WPP's more lacklustre networks. When the Red Cell network was disbanded last month with only the cream of its advertising agencies making it into the newly formed Voluntarily United Group of Agencies, there was no room for a direct agency, particularly one without a network or a reputation.

Troughton says: "We had to create a reason to exist - staying as Red Cell Response wasn't one. Why would you need Red Cell Response when you've got OgilvyOne, RMG:Connect, Joshua and Wunderman? We had to find space in the market and in WPP's portfolio. Which is what we've aimed to do as an entrepreneurial, domestically based ideas business."

Troughton already has his name above the door of another WPP agency, Harrison Troughton Wunderman. Sharpen has one start-up under his belt, the former Leonardo, which is now part of Arc; Owens has been at his current home for the past 15 years.

Had the decision been taken to close or merge the agency into another, Sharpen and Troughton - keen to use the entrepreneurial flair they have both displayed in the past - claim they would have left and launched a start-up independent of WPP.

It has been just over a year since Troughton was brought in as a troubleshooter, assuming the nebulous role of chairman after an acrimonious departure from his former agency, HTW. Aside from the occasional change in staff, including the departure of the former managing partner Miles Murphy, which finally meant Troughton could roll up his sleeves and get his hands dirty, there has been little news from Response. "I've been waiting to hear from them all year," one bemused creative director says.

"All I've heard in recent years are name changes."

But is this really as exciting a prospect as its partners make out? Are they, in fact, trying to create an opportunity out of an agency that the WPP chief, Sir Martin Sorrell, deigned to sell (or should that be "palmed off on") them?

The combination of Sharpen (one of the most awarded DM creative directors) and Troughton has encouraged most commentators to believe the venture has Sorrell's seal of approval and a good chance of succeeding.

"They are incredibly talented individuals and specialists in their field," Amanda Walsh, the president of United, says. "But they were getting lost and they weren't getting on shortlists because no-one knew they were there. It was a bland brand, but now it has instant recognition and personality. It's a wonderful combination and is very positive for the market."

The Sarbanes-Oxley ruling means no financial details of the buyout have been provided, but the fact that the three partners will now own part of the business could boost its chances of success, according to the analyst and editor of Marketing Services Financial Intelligence, Bob Willott.

"There is some merit in this because there is less motivation in being a shareholder in a major global organisation than there is in something you can control and influence," Willott says.

Although some eyebrows have raised at the notion that WPP would sell part of an agency - particularly in DM, an area it is trying to develop - these types of deals are not unheard of. OgilvyOne in Poland is said to have a similar ownership structure, the difference being that the founders were left a chunk of the business when it was bought by WPP. This ensures the people running the business do not leave the minute they get their earn-outs. Of course, there will be no earn-out in Sharpen Troughton Owens' case. So the structure bodes well for the three partners - if they can make it work.

The agency has already won business this year, including the Chartered Management Institute, Auto Trader, Learn Direct and esure, and, according to Troughton, there are a couple more clients in the pipeline. However, the venture will need more than just its managers' names, reputations and enthusiasm if it is to achieve the kind of success it is aiming for.

While Troughton is the driving force behind the changes, he also knows how to use the talents of the others to their advantage. Sharpen and Troughton have traditional DM skills, while Owens brings knowledge and experience in sales promotion. They believe sales promotion can be a key component of their communications.

The venture is being positioned as a creatively led, integrated DM agency that will operate independently but link up with OgilvyOne, Joshua, RMG:Connect and HTW, possibly as a conflict shop. And, according to Troughton, Sorrell has already seen the potential to replicate this model around the world: it was his idea to add "Response" to the name, creating the possibility for a group of internationally aligned agencies in the future.

The creative product is central to the agency's position and Sharpen is a keen advocate of creativity in DM. Not only has he been honoured at every award ceremony - from D&AD to Campaign Direct and the Direct Marketing Association - he is also behind the Shelf Awards, which recognise young talent. So it is no surprise that Troughton, who needs no excuse to be confident, is bullish about where he wants to be.

"DM still has a legacy of process and complexity but I think the creativity comes before that. And that's where we want to position ourselves," he asserts. "Of course, we know the techniques and we can deliver them, but we want to inspire people and they are moved by big ideas. In five years, we want to be referred to as the Bartle Bogle Hegarty of the DM industry - that would be very nice, thank you."

It's fighting talk but, if their talent matches their enthusiasm (and past accomplishments suggest it does), they may well succeed.

TIMELINE 1987: Marketing Perspectives launches. 1990: Nigel Owens joins. 1999: WPP acquires the company. 2001: The agency is renamed Perspectives Red Cell, bringing it in line with WPP's Red Cell network. 2003: Miles Murphy joins as the chief executive, replacing the co-founder John Williams, who becomes chairman. Gary Sharpen comes on board as the creative director. 2004: The agency drops the word Perspectives from its name to become Red Cell Response. Martin Troughton joins as the chairman. Murphy leaves and Troughton assumes his responsibilities. 2005: The partners buy equity in the business and it is rebranded Sharpen Troughton Owens Response.

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