CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE/THE REGIONAL DILEMMA - It’s time to keep an eye on our friends in the north/Can a regional outpost of a London agency hold its own, Matthew Cowen asks

The new era at J. Walter Thompson Manchester started with the announcement last week of a pounds 7.5 million dotcom win. Scooping up the account for golfdigital.com will help ease concerns over last year’s 30 per cent drop in agency billings.

The new era at J. Walter Thompson Manchester started with the

announcement last week of a pounds 7.5 million dotcom win. Scooping up

the account for golfdigital.com will help ease concerns over last year’s

30 per cent drop in agency billings.



And the fact that the win came after a three-way pitch against M&C

Saatchi and McCann-Erickson Manchester will make it all the sweeter.



However, it seems less certain as to who should now be taking credit for

pulling business into JWT’s Manchester office. Did golfdigital opt for

the skills of an independent northern agency which just happens to be

part of the J. Walter Thompson group, or was the website plumping for an

international agency that just happens to operate a shop in

Manchester?



The departure of the JWT Manchester chief executive, Andrew Stothert,

and the decision to hand control of all the group’s UK operations to the

JWT London chief executive, Stephen Carter, raises the question of just

how independent a regional outpost of a London-based parent can be -

especially when London is only one of many outposts of a global

empire.



For Sue Little, managing director of McCann-Erickson Manchester, the

problem of defining a regional agency’s role starts with the word

’regional’ - an adjective Londoners use to keep their northern cousins

in their place.



’In these days of increasing technology and e-commerce, it’s only in

advertising that we keep using the word,’ she says. ’I have a problem

with it because it seems to imply that we’re secondary.’



It’s a sentiment that Arnold Sindle, the group chairman of fellow

Mancunians, BDH TBWA, agrees with. ’If you treat an agency as a local

affair, then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy,’ he says.



’BDH is definitely not a Manchester thing.’



Both JWT Manchester’s regional competitors can back up their claims of

equality with results. McCann Manchester has seen 50 per cent revenue

growth over the past two years - although its success is swallowed up

into McCann UK Group figures for the purposes of the MMS top 300.



More impressively, BDH shot up eight places to 22 on this year’s

national MMS billings chart, its pounds 65.04 million total beating the

earnings of its three closest regional competitors combined. The agency

also scooped 15 gongs, including the grand prix, at this year’s IPA Area

Advertising Effectiveness Awards.



But although both McCann and BDH show the potential for success among

London agencies, it would be a mistake to assume that they operate the

same way.



’They’re all at different stages of life in terms of being bought by

larger parents,’ David Bell, of the Manchester-based independent,

Cheetham Bell, says. ’BDH has always had this independent flavour even

after it was acquired by GGT. McCann makes the most of its network but

it tends to mop up some of the stuff that London doesn’t want, and its

TV work isn’t as strong as its press and below-the-line operations.’ And

JWT Manchester?



’It’s been in danger of becoming a studio operation, where they just set

ads.’



So what decides the level of independence of a regional agency?

According to Sindle, it begins with choosing which London agency to get

into bed with. ’We were courted by God knows how many groups but there

was a chemistry with TBWA from day one,’ he recalls. ’There’s a lot of

mutual respect and they’ve never tried to invade our turf.’



For Little, the attraction of McCann’s parent group is less about

sensitivity than size. ’It’s important to be able to compete nationally

and to be able to form global alliances,’ she says.



’McCann has different agencies that offer very complementary skill sets.

We’re part of a UK communications group that can focus on a client’s

needs in the broadest sense of the word.’



But there are plenty of hurdles to overcome. ’One danger with regional

agencies is that they become second stringers,’ TBWA’s head, Paul

Bainsfair, says. ’They end up only being offered the accounts based in

the regions, that don’t spend as much money.’ And nobody likes working

for a second stringer. ’You find a lot of the agencies staffed by young

people who want to get out and go to London,’ Bainsfair adds.



’Or people who have moved from London looking for a more comfortable

lifestyle.’



That may have been the case with the former JWT Manchester head,

Stothert, who, colleagues say, was unwilling to move away from

Manchester in order to advance within the group. He leaves the agency

struggling to replace the loss of retailers such as Greenall’s, which

ceased trading last year.



The national network has yet to bring in enough business to offset such

losses. However, Carter, J. Walter Thompson’s new chief executive of UK

operations, is confident that the Manchester agency still has a key role

to play within the group. ’It’s a big country,’ he says. ’JWT has stakes

in successful agencies in Scotland and Northern Ireland, so why not in

the rest of England and Wales? The world is being localised and if you

look at the Government’s policy of regionalisation and devolution, it’s

obvious that regional centres are going to become more and more

important. We clearly need a successful group in Manchester.’



Carter points out that such an operation must succeed independently.

’It’s a different business with different expectations,’ he says. ’It

has to be a successful business in its own right.’ And just how will

Carter achieve that success? ’We have a very successful business in

London and my aim is to run an equally successful business in

Manchester,’ he says. ’I’m just not certain how I’m going to do it yet.’



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