Close-Up: Live Issue - Red Cell looks for rebirth as true micro network

The network will be distilled to form United, to take on the likes of Fallon and Bartle Bogle Hegarty.

Farewell Red Cell. Last week's leaked news that Andy Berlin was in the process of cherry-picking the best agencies from the 65-strong WPP "micro" network signals the end of a concept that, if Sir Martin Sorrell were honest with himself, never delivered on its bullish promises.

The decision to pull the leading agencies out of Red Cell to form a smaller, leaner network that could use the word "micro" without looking at its girth and blushing in embarrassment, was taken at a review meeting just over a year ago by Berlin, the chairman of Berlin Cameron, and Amanda Walsh, the chief executive of Red Cell Europe.

"I remember sitting in that particular review and looking at what was happening in terms of the inability of this group to present itself believably to clients that were hiring alternatives to the conventional networks," Berlin recalls. "It wasn't like the Greeks beating down the gates of Troy - clients were not in a hurry to hire Red Cell as a network."

"We couldn't sell it," Walsh admits bluntly. "It wasn't exciting. (WPP) believed that scale would work, but Andy and I shared a belief that we needed to reshape it and get it down to a more manageable size. Clients aren't looking for a medium-sized network."

United, or to give it its full name, the Voluntarily United Group of Creative Agencies, will be different, the pair say. It will certainly be slimmer: so far, just nine agencies are included in the network (see box), although Berlin concedes that more may be added - there is currently no representation in Germany or China. Acquisitions, rather than launches, seem to be the most likely way to fill those gaps.

The other missing piece of the puzzle is a network client. This, presumably, was something Berlin and Walsh were hoping to have in place by the scheduled launch date of somewhere towards the end of October. The leak, by, they suspect, a former Red Cell employee, has scuppered those plans.

But with Berlin Cameron and Sra. Rushmore working on the global Coca-Cola pitch, and persistentrumours that Sorrell was trying to persuade Procter & Gamble to look in the direction of Red Cell, the network appears well poised to snare the global client that eluded it in its former guise.

WPP has always wanted a rival to networks such as Bartle Bogle Hegarty, Fallon or Wieden & Kennedy.

Swelled by the inclusion of the Bates offices following WPP's purchase of Cordiant in early 2003, Red Cell was fast becoming a very different beast to the one envisaged when it was founded in 2001. Nor were all the offices deemed to be of a sufficient quality to be part of the original agile, creative strategy.

One WPP insider likens the holding company to a water-treatment plant.

"When WPP bought Cordiant, JWT got the liquids and Red Cell got the solids," the source says. Put simply, Red Cell was just not a competitor.

"Martin (Sorrell) has watched BBH take significant Unilever business that historically would have gone to JWT. He needs to have an equivalent strong micro network so he can say to a client: 'You don't have to give this business to W&K or BBH'." Walsh says.

With the nine best agencies removed from Red Cell, what will happen to that network? Some, Berlin says, will be "aligned with" - that is, merged into - other WPP networks over the course of the next year. Others are likely to continue trading as independent entities within the WPP group.

"There are plans in place for all the big offices," he says. "Where the Red Cell name still has equity, those agencies will continue to trade under it, but it won't be an international network." Rather, it will be a financial structure, not an operational layer within WPP - a reporting line for the independent agencies to work under that will serve as a point of contact with WPP resources. "Red Cell will have a different identity - it will be unconflicted and it may very well adopt a particular set of values that it professes and even adheres to, but I don't think there will be that many agencies in it," Berlin says.

United will be run by Berlin, as the chairman and chief executive; Walsh, as the president; Laurence Mellman, the chief operating officer, and Charlie Robertson, the chief strategy officer. There will be no head office and very little in the way of an internal structure.

"We wanted something that was good to begin with and that clients could use right away, rather than some long building programme," Berlin says.

"Once you start thinking like that, you question why you need a bunch of overheads in the centre of it."

"We don't have anything to run," Walsh adds. "We go wherever the pitches are."

Nor will there be any prescribed reporting structure for the individual agencies within United. The agencies selected are all entrepreneurial shops and still have strong links with their founders. Berlin has no desire to impose his will or method of working on a Norwegian or Spanish agency that has evolved a completely different system. What will sell United will be its creativity.

Convincing the WPP senior management of the wisdom behind the idea was more a long sell than a hard one, Berlin says. What would he have done if WPP had blocked the United idea? "Neither of us are quitters," he replies.

WPP was understandably eager to keep Berlin in the network-over the past few years, Berlin Cameron has worked extensively on network pitches including Jaguar, which WPP lost, and Samsung, which it won. This was a double-edged sword, Walsh says: while the Samsung win contributed to the Red Cell bottom line, it was galling for the network to see JWT take all the credit. Will United be used in a similar manner?

"That's been a very tangible area of success for us," Berlin says. "That's not our strategy, but we're opportunistic. If it comes to it, sure, we'll do it, but what we'd like to do most of all is pitch and win business as United."

UNITED THEY STAND - Berlin Cameron United, New York - HHCL United, London - Sra. Rushmore United, Madrid - Les Ouvriers United, Paris - WM United, Buenos Aires - LDV United, Antwerp - Cole & Weber United, Seattle - Red Cell, Milan (to be renamed) - Bates, Oslo (to be renamed)