EDITORIAL: Boots spurns WPP to rebuild heritage

There must be times when Sir Martin Sorrell must wonder whether he's running just to stand still. No sooner does the WPP group chief executive usher his newly acquired Cordiant clients through the front door than Boots threatens to exit out the back.

It signals an anti-climactic end to the Boots deal which seemed such a stunning coup for WPP when it was announced almost three years ago. Here, at last, was the kind of arrangement that seemed to justify the existence of communications supergroups at a time when their raison d'etre was increasingly being questioned. Here was proof that, in reaching an agreement to take on Boots' £80 million global business, WPP had shown itself capable of bringing real added value to its major operating companies such as J. Walter Thompson and MindShare.

The problem is that, having negotiated an all-embracing deal, it's difficult for Boots to extricate itself from just one part of it. The company "bought" WPP and is now faced with reviewing everything, creative and media included, out of the group. If there's a lesson to be learned, it's that not even the most scrupulously negotiated group deal can withstand the arrival of a powerful new marketer with an agenda for change within the client company.

Looking at the problems and challenges confronting Ann Francke, the Boots director of strategic marketing and development, it's easy to see why she might want to consider whether the Boots message is being delivered in the most effective way. A strategy aimed at creating a multi-faceted retail brand has flopped. Not only have profits fallen by almost 17 per cent, but Boots has squandered its heritage as the trusted "high-street doctor", opting instead for "three-for-one" promotions to win business.

There has been no cohesive brand message as different sections of its marketing department have vied for the biggest slice of the adspend.

Small wonder that Boots has failed to communicate what it stands for. But its failure to do so also begs the question of whether it was hindered by the kind of deal into which it entered. The fact is that companies under common ownership working for a single client with a fixed and finite budget will always want to maximise their share of it. It's not just a question of boosting income; pride is also at stake. It just goes to show that the problems associated with the seamless integration long promised by the supergroups remain as hard to overcome as ever.

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