Close-Up: Live Issue - Wunderman turns to Harrison for HTW formula

WPP needs Steve Harrison to spread some of his agency's creative magic around the DM network, Claire Billings writes.

It is now five years since WPP revamped its then newly acquired global direct marketing network Impiric. In the process, it reinstated the network's original name, Wunderman, and parachuted in the Frenchman Daniel Morel to run it.

Just months before the relaunch, the London-based hotshop HPT Response staged a reverse takeover of the London office of Impiric, and, after a brief spell as HPT Impiric, became Harrison Troughton Wunderman.

Since then, HTW has been among the top performers in its field, becoming Campaign's Direct Agency of the Year in 2002 and sweeping the board at industry awards. It is unlikely WPP was prescient enough to believe one day HTW would be the creative benchmark for the rest of the network. But, with last week's promotion of its chairman and creative director, Steve Harrison, to worldwide creative director of Wunderman, that is what has happened.

Beyond London, Wunderman does not enjoy a glittering creative reputation.

Its image is not helped by the fact half of its revenue comes from its Ford business, an account rarely associated with great work. Nevertheless, the business helped Wunderman's gross income climb, albeit modestly, from $414.7 million in 2000 to $435.2 million in 2004, in a tough economic climate.

Harrison's remit will be to visit the network's key offices (including New York, Frankfurt and Buenos Aires) and share with them his method of producing award-winning work. But how much good can this do? One former WPP source suggests the network's problems run deeper than the creative product, saying: "There's no coherence. In London, HTW is a traditional DM agency with a separate digital offering; Amsterdam is more data-centric; Spain is broader, with DM, CRM and data; and France is more like a second-string ad agency. It is kept together by the idea of Lester Wunderman as its founder and leader."

Another issue is the lack of shared business with its associated above-the-line network, Young & Rubicam, in an increasingly integrated market.

This isn't necessarily Wunderman's fault: after all, it was Y&R that lost Ford's advertising business in 2001.

Despite these problems, there is clear evidence of the network's strengths - such as its DM heritage and its global footprint of 76 agencies in 36 countries. In 2004, it won a sizeable chunk of Microsoft's $400 million customer relationship marketing account (the rest went to MRM Worldwide). Harrison has already created award-winning work, proving, with last year's "bolt-on" mailing, that good work can be produced even for a product as dry as an exchange server.

But consistency around the network is crucial, and the local and targeted nature of DM means the resulting campaigns are only as good as the outpost that creates it. There's little doubt Harrison can help rectify this, but there are other challenges - the consistency of its offering and its relationship with Y&R - that need addressing too.

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Digital marketing executives oversee the online marketing strategy for their organisation. They plan and execute digital (including email) marketing campaigns and design, maintain and supply content for the organisation's website(s).