CLOSE-UP: Time for West Coast cool to turn up the heat in UK - Live Issue/Wieden & Kennedy London/The US hotshop has found barren ground in London. Matthew Cowen asks why

’You say ’tomayto’ and I say ’tomahto’. Let’s call the whole thing off!’ That seemed to be the simple explanation for last week’s goings on at Wieden & Kennedy London.

’You say ’tomayto’ and I say ’tomahto’. Let’s call the whole thing

off!’ That seemed to be the simple explanation for last week’s goings on

at Wieden & Kennedy London.



The abrupt departure of the creative director, Adam Kean, after only six

months in the job left the agency looking for its third creative head in

a year and conjured visions of a titanic culture clash between British

and US business styles being played out behind the agency’s closed

doors.



It also gives UK industry-watchers another excuse to engage in one of

our most satisfying activities - putting the Yanks in their place. After

all, with W&K’s dismal new-business record still hanging around the

agency’s neck like a star-spangled albatross, it’s easy to see Kean’s

departure as more evidence that Dan Wieden and company, for all their

award-winning Nike ads, just can’t cut it over here. Creative hotshops

that bloom in forgiving Portland Oregon don’t grow in tougher London

soil.



As with all sweeping generalisations, there is an awful lot wrong with

this point of view. For starters, US transplants clearly can compete

with London agencies on their own turf. At the same time as W&K was

comprehensively failing to shake things up in 1999, Minneapolis-born

Fallon McElligott was enjoying an encouraging first year of business in

the UK. Fallons grabbed 14 new accounts to W&K’s lone Cartoon Network

win and topped off the year by poaching the pounds 10 million Skoda

account from Grey in December.



Secondly, W&K London isn’t staffed by long-haired West Coast surfer

dudes but by experienced Brits such as the managing director Hugh

Derrick and, until recently, Kean. Obviously, the cross-pond cultural

differences aren’t insurmountable. But the reasons W&K has failed to

surmount them run far deeper than being ’too American’ .



The first might be that they haven’t tried - yet. Derrick is keen to

point out that W&K is being judged by commercial standards that the

agency doesn’t apply to itself. ’London is a very hard market when you

try to go against the grain,’ Derrick says. ’People think that we should

just toe the UK line. We’ve got a blind religious attitude about putting

out strong creative work and most agencies just don’t have that clarity.

You can draw comparisons between us and Fallons but I don’t think

they’re trying to do the same thing that we are.’



In one important respect, he’s right. W&K London has embraced its

founder’s view that the search for new business is unimportant compared

with a mystical focus on the quality of creative work. That’s certainly

at odds with Fallons’ approach. ’New business is the lifeblood for any

agency, particularly a start-up,’ Fallons’ managing partner Robert

Senior says. ’We feel no temptation to rest on Fallons’ reputation,

because clients in this country know far less about agencies and their

backgrounds than the industry would like to believe.’



With a reputation as formidable as W&K’s, it’s possible that the

founders of the UK operation believed business would flock to them on

the basis of their former Nike or Coca-Cola work.



If W&K has been slow to publicise its assets to UK clients, it’s a

mistake the management now seems ready to rectify. ’Maybe we should have

said to Dan that we needed to court business aggressively from day one,’

the planning director John Shaw says.



The repercussions of the London agency not pulling in enough new

business of its own run potentially deeper than a few gripes in the

pages of Campaign. Without accounts to put their own distinctive stamp

on, a creative department could feel dangerously overshadowed by

Portland.



Especially when W&K’s determination to focus on creative increases the

pressure on them. ’We ask creatives to take on a much broader

responsibility and to get involved more fully in the way their work is

presented,’ Derrick says. ’There tends to be more of an ivory tower

mentality in the UK.’



Both Derrick and Shaw are keen to dispel the image of Dan Wieden as a

long-distance creative tyrant, but they are happy to point out that

there is a distinct creative culture within the W&K organisation. ’We

all have the same sensibilities about the kind of work that we want and

we need people to share those innately,’ Derrick says.



Coupled with traditional American directness, such demands could go some

way to explaining why W&K’s creative director position is becoming

something of a revolving door. ’The direct style of US agencies can seem

unstinting,’ Shaw says. ’People argue out their points and things can

get heated but people shouldn’t take such things personally. We all

stick together, it’s just a different style.’



The pressures on W&K are not just internal, however. ’The spotlight is

so much more focused in the UK because the industry is so concentrated

in one urban area,’ Cindy Gallop, the president of Bartle Bogle Hegarty

in New York, says. ’The industry in the States is a lot bigger and

there’s a lot more to talk about.’



’You can’t put a foot wrong in London without somebody noticing,’

Derrick agrees. ’Our agency in Amsterdam wasn’t winning huge chunks of

business at first but they were able to just get on with it.’ Still, as

W&K might say to one of its own creatives, you have to take the heat to

stay in the kitchen.