LIVE ISSUE/LANSDOWN CONQUEST: WPP injects lease of life into Lansdown Conquest - The under-used branch of WPP may now be allowed to prosper, John Tylee says

By JOHN TYLEE, campaignlive.co.uk, Friday, 06 November 1998 12:00AM

Is the Conquest network - the Cinderella of the WPP empire for a decade - about to be handed its ball ticket by WPP’s chief executive, Martin Sorrell?

Is the Conquest network - the Cinderella of the WPP empire for a

decade - about to be handed its ball ticket by WPP’s chief executive,

Martin Sorrell?



Last week’s palace revolution at the Lansdown Conquest agency in London,

which ended in the ousting of Bill Patterson as its chief executive and

the installation of a management team, suggests it is being allowed to

swap the scullery for the dance floor.



’Sorrell is cleaning out the stables,’ a former senior manager at a WPP

agency says. ’And you can bet he wouldn’t be doing that if he didn’t

have the horses to put in it.’



For ’horses’, some are reading the conflicting business that presents

both problems and opportunities for the main WPP agencies, J. Walter

Thompson and Ogilvy & Mather.



Kraft General Foods, Nestle and Kellogg - all WPP clients - increasingly

tread on each other’s toes when it comes to product launches; whereas

rival companies like Unilever or Procter & Gamble have found ways around

such problems either by growing their agency rosters or adopting less

rigid conflict policies.



Added together, these developments amount to an overwhelming argument

for a strong and credible WPP third-string network, which opens up a

wealth of intriguing ’what if?’s.



’There are all sorts of things you could do,’ an agency manager with

strong WPP connections, suggests. Switching O&M’s Unilever assignments

into Conquest, perhaps, so leaving the bigger player free to court

P&G.



WPP sources, however, are adamant this won’t be the case. ’A network set

up purely to resolve conflict can have no culture,’ one says. ’Conquest

has to be seen as a business in its own right.’



What sort of business? Luca Lindner, Conquest’s Italian chief executive,

believes its principal role will be as a counterbalance to O&M and JWT

by handling ’challenger’ brands as opposed to the brand leaders on the

client portfolios of its big brothers.



’Our clients will all be large companies but not super-multinationals,’

he says. ’They’ll not only be growing their businesses domestically but

also outside their home markets.’



All very well. But isn’t the ten-office Conquest network - which gets

between 30 and 50 per cent of its new business through the WPP link -

too threadbare in places to service substantial pan-European business

effectively?



Lindner acknowledges there is work to be done. Conquest agencies in

Germany and Italy are already of sufficient size and quality, he claims,

while the new team at Lansdown Conquest will be left to grow its

business themselves.



Existing operations in France and Holland will be augmented through

acquisition and the network is looking at establishing an American

bridgehead.



’WPP sees a clear mission for us and is backing us strongly,’ Lindner

insists. ’Martin tells me he’s happy with our performance - we’ve grown

25 per cent this year - but not my ambition. He still wants more.’



Articulating what it stands for has never been easy for Conquest, a

network born out of opportunism which had to evolve a philosophy as it

went along.



Brought to life in haste in 1988, Conquest’s raison d’etre was Alfa

Romeo’s pan-European account upon which the network has attempted not to

be over-dependent.



Alfa, which currently accounts for 20 per cent of Conquest’s business

compared with 80 per cent six years ago, was offered to Sorrell by its

Fiat parent but could not be accommodated within either JWT or O&M -

both of which had conflicting Ford business at the time.



Sorrell found the answer in a JWT Milan-based subsidiary agency, called

Columbia, which he hived off to form the nucleus of the Conquest

network, opening offices simultaneously across the Continent. A separate

UK distribution deal for Alfa kept the account out of the network office

here until the early 90s, when it switched from GGK to the then Lansdown

Euro.



But having established Conquest as the repository for Alfa, Sorrell

dismayed some of his senior managers by his apparent subsequent lack of

interest in it.



’Martin never seemed to know what to do with it,’ an ex-O&M top European

executive remembers. ’Good people weren’t attracted to it, the network

never got much referred business and it never sat alongside O&M and JWT

at the top table. It was a sideshow.’



More pressing problems within JWT and O&M - both of which have had

turbulent periods - along with the acknowledgement that Conquest was in

need of significant investment, are cited as the reasons for Sorrell’s

neglect.



The source of his renewed interest in Conquest is said to be the huge

price O&M had to pay for its capture of IBM’s dollars 500 million global

account in May 1994. Compaq, Microsoft, AT&T and Hewlett-Packard were

all forced to walk as a result. ’Sorrell thought it was insane,’ a WPP

source says.



Tellingly, Lindner, Conquest’s leader and Alfa’s ’supersuit’, is cast in

Sorrell’s pragmatic mould. ’His creative judgment isn’t much good but

money really makes him buzz,’ a former associate says. ’Getting agencies

to deliver financially is what really interests him.’



There’s no doubt too that relationships with his London agency will

improve under its new regime. Lindner and Julian Saunders, Patterson’s

successor as chief executive, are known to get on well, while the

iconoclastic Patterson is said to have bridled at having the network’s

top account centralised elsewhere.



The question is whether the new regime - Saunders, John Wringe, the

managing partner, and Simon Frank, the creative partner - can manage the

change and develop the business.



Well-received work for Nikon and CNN - which made the D&AD annual for

the first time this year - indicate improved creative potency. ’The new

team is talented and good on its feet but does it have the will?’ a

former Conquest senior staffer asks.



’In the past the agency has suffered through too much play and too

little work. If it’s going to thrive in the highly competitive middle

ground, its people are going to have to work their arses off.’



Saunders believes that, given the backgrounds of its senior people, the

agency’s culture will be planning-led. Meanwhile a big win, such as the

pounds 3 million Matthew Clark Blackthorn cider and Diamond White

assignments for which it is currently in contention, wouldn’t go

amiss.



’Three years ago we weren’t getting on to lists like that,’ Saunders

says. ’Now we have to start winning them. We’ll need some luck - but now

we’re in a position to make our own.’



This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk

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