WORLD: ANALYSIS - HSBC's global alignment offers holding companies insulation

Resolving client conflict will test the holding companies pitching, John Tylee reports.

Prizes rarely come more glittering or the stakes much higher than in the race for HSBC's global marketing budget, worth up to £600 million, which the banking behemoth has just put up for pitch.

For three of the communications groups now joined in battle, Omnicom, WPP and Publicis Groupe, its capture would provide vital extra insulation in an icy worldwide recessionary climate showing few signs of global warming.

Winning the business, however, will call for high levels of creative thinking, not only in the pitch but also in the assimiliation of the world's second-largest financial services company within networks riddled with conflicting accounts.

For Interpublic, the fourth contender, conflict is the least of its worries - the Interpublic-owned Lowe in London has handled HSBC's above-the-line account since 1999. HSBC, along with the global Braun electric shavers business, contributes a substantial percentage of its revenue. Braun has already swapped Lowe for BBDO. If HSBC follows it to the exit, the result will be a "body blow" to the agency, a former Lowe senior manager says.

Understandably, Lowe has tried to put the best possible spin on events, insisting that the review represents no dissatisfaction with the agency by HSBC and pledging it would "vigorously pursue" the consolidated account.

The fact is that Lowe's position has been threatened by the failure of HSBC's marketing infrastructure to keep up with the pace of the company's rapid transformation into one of the world's most powerful financial players.

Its need for a consistent brand and communication strategy has been thwarted by having between 70 and 80 below-the-line agencies around the world.

The mission of Peter Stringham, HSBC's Canada-born head of group marketing, is to tidy things up.

HSBC will retain its positioning as "the world's local bank", which was created for it by Lowe, but plans to align within a single holding company "in order to apply brand and communications strategies consistently and to maximise synergies and cost effectiveness across the group".

Industry sources claim the catalyst for the review was Publicis Groupe's move to take full control of ZenithOptimedia, the long-time incumbent on HSBC's media account. This, in turn, led to an examination of its activities below the line, an area expected to account for the lion's share of its marketing budget in years to come. As a result, Lowe's tenure of the above-the-line business has inevitably come under scrutiny.

Now HSBC is asking the holding companies vying for its business to assemble "dream teams" drawn from their operating subsidiaries. However, account clashes threaten to make this an extremely tricky undertaking.

WPP is the favourite to win the account. Yet Ogilvy & Mather is the global network for American Express, while its Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R operation handles Lloyds TSB. Publicis is internationally aligned with the investment bank UBS, while its Saatchi & Saatchi sister agency in London has Royal Bank of Scotland on its client list.

Interpublic has the most awkward "mix and match" job. Its "dream team" would have been a pairing of Lowe and Draft Worldwide, its direct stablemate, which has an outstanding record of financial services marketing. But that combination was rendered impossible when Bank of America picked Draft and Interpublic's Deutsch to handle its $180 million account 15 months ago. "If HSBC wants rite of passage into a single network, it's going to have to show flexibility," a source close to the pitch says.

Even if all the holding companies manage to sort out the conflict issues, they still face the formidable task of servicing a client whose marketing challenges vary enormously from region to region. Contrast HSBC's profile in the US, where it has little retail presence outside New York State, with Asia, where it has a vast credit card operation and brand leadership stemming from its roots as the Hong Kong & Shanghai Banking Corporation, founded 138 years ago.

Where the business ends up is anyone's guess. Interpublic would do well to take HSBC's consolidated account, given Lowe's recent torrid time, while the Paris-based Publicis Groupe is perceived by some as being unable to provide the right cultural fit.

WPP, which is expected to set up a Team Vodafone-type operation should it win, is thought to be in with a strong chance. Not only has its takeover of the Bates network given it a significant amount of HSBC's Asian business but it has appointed Toby Hoare, the former chairman of Bates Europe, to lead its attack. What's more, Hoare and Stringham have known each other since both were senior managers at Young & Rubicam.

Not that BBDO, which will front Omnicom's efforts, is short of personal ties - Stringham is a former president and chief executive of BBDO Canada.

Moreover, the network accumulated a considerable amount of knowledge in the run-up to its unsuccessful Bank of America pitch. By presenting itself as "the world's local bank", HSBC has made a virtue out of a necessity.

How ironic, then, that it must now turn to a supergroup to deliver its message to consumers worldwide who feel increasingly alienated by global institutions.

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