Close-Up: Live Issue - Is the regional network model viable?

Can a regionally based agency compete on a level with the London shops, John Tylee asks.

Golley Slater's decision to extend beyond its regional heartland, and set up shop close to London's Regent Street, is in marked contrast to the way the flow used to go.

The tide has turned from a time 20 years ago, when the international agency groups led the march out of the capital to colonise the regions. In 1990, Grey boasted outposts in Manchester, Birmingham, Leicester and, of all places, Bournemouth.

This made sense when regional clients with significant budgets liked the comfort provided by an agency on their doorstep and when, according to a leading industry consultant, "London equalled expensive and regional equalled cheap".

Today, only three major networks continue to fly the flag outside of London. Manchester remains a second home for McCann Erickson, TBWA and JWT. Additionally, McCann also has offices in Bristol and Birmingham.

The others have retrenched for a variety of reasons - better technology that obviates the need for lots of face-to-face meetings; a better transport system, which means a train trip to London is relatively quick and comfortable.

Then, there is the perpetual problem of regional agencies keeping hold of top talent. The best and the brightest like the glamour and the fatter pay cheques associated with London, and many clients have followed them, particularly for the planning expertise many regional shops are unable to match.

London's magnet-like attraction is not lost on some regional operations, which have toyed with the prospect of establishing London bridgeheads. Few have amounted to much, not least because of the plethora of good agencies now operating in the capital.

Manchester's Cheethambell JWT considered opening up in London a few years ago, on the back of its Reckitt Benckiser and HSBC First Direct business and with the aim of bringing London-based clients the kind of integrated solutions offered by regional agencies.

In the end, this came to nothing. "The problem was we didn't 'own' the client relationships," David Bell, the agency's chief executive, explains. "If we had been able to put more of our own business into a London operation, it might have been different."

Chris Lovell, the chief executive of Golley Slater, Cardiff-based, and with nine other offices around the UK, says a capital presence is essential if the network is to come of age.

"Eighty per cent of advertising decisions are made in London and we're increasingly working on more national work (such as the Mitsubishi campaign pictured)," he says.

This is not to suggest the regional model is under threat. Golley Slater has many clients who wish to remain local, and that will not change, Lovell insists.

Indeed, there is always likely to be a place for regional agencies. Clients with a strong sense of local identity, tend to favour them.

And not just for emotional reasons. For one thing, many agencies outside London have long been delivering the kind of integrated service - from making the TV commercial to getting the stationery looking right - that London shops have been slow to match.

For another, they are seen to have an intuitive feel for the markets in which they work. As Martin Jones, the AAR's director of advertising, says: "London agencies can run research groups, but won't necessarily be able to tell you what people in Wigan want."

NETWORK CHIEF - Paul Bainsfair, European president, TBWA

"BDH\TBWA, our Manchester agency, is vibrant and well established. There's lots of important business to be had there. But it's not just about having a geographical advantage. A lot of regional clients like agencies that roll up their sleeves and do everything.

"Regional agencies have been working through the line - from producing the high-end creative solution to designing carrier bags - long before many others were boasting of being able to offer a full range of communication solutions.

"The networks have withdrawn from the regions because the best talent goes to London; it's easier to close down an office rather than find replacements."

NETWORK CHIEF - Rupert Howell, regional director, EMEA, McCann Worldgroup

"If you want to see the agency model of the future, you could do a lot worse than take a train to Manchester. Our agency there - and our other offices in Birmingham and Bristol - have a terrific 'can do' attitude. Nothing is too much trouble, whether they're doing a TV brief or a leaflet.

"They are fully integrated because they have to be. And they were doing it long before it became fashionable. As a result, what was once a necessity has now become a benefit. What's more, there are many more excellent people working in regional agencies than you might think. And, as regional development has grown, so has their self-confidence."

CLIENT - Jeff Dodds, marketing director, Honda UK

"It's very much a case of horses for courses. The great thing about regional agencies is that they understand the geography and the territory, often having worked in the environment for a long time.

"If I want a through-the-line campaign, with a heavy direct marketing element, I know a London agency could put a plan together, but it wouldn't understand the local market in the same way a regional agency does.

"Nevertheless, core competencies are important, and if we need a big TV campaign we will usually go to London for it. At that level, there is a clear gap between regional and London agencies, which generally have the best talent."

NETWORK CHIEF - Chris Lovell, chief executive, Golley Slater

"We have strong companies in each of our regions and many local clients who enjoy working with them. But we recognise a large amount of marketing decisions are taken in London, and that we have to get involved with them.

"It's fair to say that pitch consultants such as the AAR and The Haystack Group have not been able to recommend us to people because we've not had a London presence.

"The big difference between London and regional agencies is that we have to be more ambidextrous. We can produce a much more integrated service, which appeals to regional clients because it comes out of a single agency relationship."

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