The World: Is the supergroup dream team a pipe dream?

Holding company-level relationships got off to a rocky start, but it doesn't necessarily spell the end of the idea, John Tylee says.

Samsung's decision to call a review of its £300 million-plus worldwide media business is bad news, not just for WPP, but for any communications supergroup desperate to overcome the scepticism among global clients about one-stop shopping.

Less than three years ago, the South Korean electronics giant became one of the early adopters of a new idea that allowed big-spending multinationals to pick their "dream teams" from within a single holding company.

Team Samsung joined Teams HSBC and Vodafone, bespoke operations drawn from WPP operating companies to offer tailor-made communication solutions.

OK in theory, but the fact that the number of dream teams can probably be counted on the fingers of one hand raises huge doubts about whether they work in practice.

"The dream team idea is no more than a cosmetic exercise aimed at suspicious clients," a former European network chief says. "It doesn't work - and that leaves the holding companies with a big problem."

The speed at which Team Samsung unravelled would seem to bear this out. In less than a year, the company had relieved the WPP shops JWT and New York's Berlin Cameron United of their creative and account planning assignments, and switched them to Publicis Groupe's Leo Burnett without a pitch.

Now, having called a media review out of MindShare, Samsung threatens to reduce its relationship with WPP to a minimum. It looked very different in October 2000, when the WPP chief executive, Sir Martin Sorrell, ushered in the dream team concept by landing Boots' £80 million global marketing business.

At the time, this was breathtaking in its audacity. Observers said it broke the mould in the way creative, media and marketing services contracts were awarded. Three years on, Boots ended the arrangement.

So why hasn't the dream team caught on with global clients? "The idea that you can find everything you need within a single company is a fallacy," Richard Hytner, the Saatchi & Saatchi Worldwide deputy chairman, answers.

David Jones, the Euro RSCG Worldwide chief executive, believes the problems encountered by agency networks in delivering integrated solutions are replicated in holding company dream teams, but in an even more distant fashion.

"It's no surprise that most of the efforts to run a business at a holding company level have failed," he says.

Albeit a recent phenomenon, the dream team is a result of the consolidation of global advertising that began two decades ago.

Since then, holding company efforts to drive up operating company margins have been thwarted by client procurement specialists and the growing success of the micro networks. Dream teams are an attempt to tackle these problems.

However, big advertisers have yet to be convinced about the merits of one-stop shopping. Last year, an ISBA tracking study revealed that 70 per cent of its members undertaking global advertising were dissatisfied with their agency agreements, compared with just 9 per cent in 2003.

"I was so shocked by the figure, that I asked it be double-checked," Debbie Morrison, ISBA's director of membership services, says. "Maybe it adds weight to the theory that dream team deals, which tend to be negotiated at a high level between holding company and client, don't work well in practice."

This is borne out by a leading pitch consultant, who recently discussed a one-stop arrangement with a major global marketing group and was less than impressed by the response. "I encountered a lot of drilling down, but not much lateral thinking," he says.

He also believes that the dream team concept has fallen victim to a Catch 22 situation. "No client wants to be a guinea pig," he adds. "They need to be sure that the dream team has worked for somebody else before they commit themselves. And dream teams remain a rarity."

But in the end, critics believe that the dream team offering is flawed because egos, politics and in-fighting over revenue get in the way.

"Dream teams fail because they're predicated on pulling in people from across profit centres and from different cultures," Cleve Langton, the New York-based director of business development at DDB Worldwide, explains.

Others, though, claim it's far too early to consign dream teams to history, and predict they will be fundamental to the way holding companies service multimillion-pound global accounts in future. They say the alliance between Samsung and WPP was untypical, because of the influence wielded over the business by Cheil Communications, Samsung's in-house shop.

"It's almost like the relationship between Unilever and Lintas when it was at its peak," an industry observer points out.

David Wethey, the chairman of Agency Assessments International, suggests that, far from disappearing, dream teams will become increasingly common. Indeed, Dell is conducting a holding-company pitch at the moment.

"Dream teams will be attractive to clients, as they allow groups to put together strong teams under a very senior person," Wethey says. "Also, clients are so stretched they'll look at anything to keep costs down."

Hytner believes the dream team idea will survive, but that agency networks, not holding companies, will assemble and manage them.

"Clients will want agencies to give them not only a brilliant point of view, but to bring the best people to the table," he points out.

Langton agrees. He says: "Unless dream teams are drawn from within a single agency, they quickly become pipe dreams."

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