Can acquisition by JWT inject wow factor into Unity?

Has Unity fizzled out, and what might JWT want from buying it, Jeremy Lee asks.

So another creative agency is contemplating jumping into bed with a strategic communications agency, in an attempt to plug the gap between creative and media.

But this latest proposed deal, between J. Walter Thompson and Unity, begs more questions than it answers. After all, Unity no longer has the wow factor associated with its rival, Naked Communications.

Indeed, some are of the opinion that Unity has seen much better days -- so just what would JWT be buying? And what on earth does this mean for MindShare, JWT's sister agency, which claims to offer the sort of clever media thinking Unity specialises in?

No one at Unity or JWT was willing to discuss the proposed deal, but it is still worth looking at what Unity has achieved since it launched as a "fourth wave" media agency seven years ago.

The rationale behind Unity was, at face value, a sound one. Its partners, Andy Tilley, Ivan Pollard and Derek Morris, had all established themselves as bright strategic planners, who found the constraints of agency life suffocating.

Unity provided the chance to offer clients up-stream communications advice and charge them accordingly, with profits going into partners' pockets rather than into an agency profit-and-loss account.

Pollard and Morris emerged from BMP DDB where they had attracted a certain amount of glory. "There was this halo effect around them," one contemporary says.

Tilley, on the other hand, escaped from Zenith Media where he enjoyed a notoriously volatile relationship with its then chief executive, Christine Walker. At the time, he seemed like the token antidote to Zenith's pre-occupation with media buying.

The combination of the three had potential. Unity was going to rival Michaelides & Bednash.

So what has Unity done to change the world? Well, not a lot, if you believe some of its competitors. "I can hardly think of anything they've done. The potential was huge but they never exploited it," one rival comments. "Unity has just fizzled out and ended up largely as a training company, telling media owners how the media landscape has changed," another comments.

Such dismissiveness is unfair. After all, Unity's client list is solid enough -- it has a place on the COI Communications strategic planning roster, it devises the global communications strategy for the Star Wars films, it handles Carphone Warehouse and most recently it won a brief from Hachette Filipacchi to create communications strategies across titles including Elle and Red.

But cracks began appearing last year when one of its key brands, Capital Radio's Xfm, walked out of the agency following "strategic differences".

More startling was the departure last April of Morris who caught the industry by surprise and jumped ship to join Publicis as its chief strategic officer. This was a very public blow. It sent a signal to the market that an era was over and that the existence of Unity as a media boutique was in doubt.

Of the two founding partners still at the helm of Unity, Tilley has the higher profile, although some feel Pollard is more the brains behind the operation.

For his part, Tilley resembles a man out of advertising's central casting, circa 1991. With collar-length hair and a penchant for black T-shirts, he looks like a cross between Paul McCartney and a middle-aged drama teacher. People who have worked with him say he is prone to bouts of languidness.

Pollard, on the other hand, seems cerebral and likeable but happy to hang around in the background. This combination has led some to suggest that the move to find a creative partner must have come from Richard Eyre, the former ITV chief executive who joined in a non-executive role after Morris' shock departure.

So why the link-up with JWT? Perhaps one of Unity's fundamental problems is that it has failed to align itself to creative agencies in the way Naked has. Consequently, goes the argument, both media and creative agencies have felt threatened by it and tried to shut it out.

A comparison with Naked, and its seemingly unstoppable rise, is inevitable and not just because Naked's founders also wear T-shirts. Naked aligned itself very closely to Mother when it launched and has subsequently established Naked Inside with Clemmow Hornby Inge.

While this appears to be the direction that Unity is hoping to take, some suggest this was the only choice that it had after Morris left because it was finding it increasingly difficult to grow the business.

Indeed, it's a pretty open secret that Unity had been in conversations with various organisations before the possible JWT tie-up came to light.

So what can an agency get for its money? While both Tilley and Pollard have high-level contacts and vast experience in strategic planning, some question whether buying Unity as an entity is the right thing to do. The loss of Morris was a blow to the agency, so why not simply pluck one of the partners out of the organisation, a la Publicis? Perhaps because people are cynical about the one-man solution -- it would smack of tokenism. JWT is trying to spruce up its image and Unity needs new business, so this seems a neat marriage of convenience.

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