CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE/SONY - Saatchis falls victim to Sony's corporate character. Are global brands too big for one agency to handle alone? Karen Yates writes

It didn't take long for Sony to develop a roving eye, it seems.

Only three short years after whisking a jubilant Saatchi & Saatchi down the aisle, Sony's consumer electronics division is making preparations to go courting again.

Maybe this isn't so surprising in the fickle world of advertising, but it is raising a number of eyebrows around the industry. Why? Because what seems to have gone wrong with the match made in heaven is actually one of the worst problems facing agency networks today.

Back in August 1999, Sony's range of audio-visual equipment, cameras and computers seemed a wonderful catch for Saatchis. Sony had a European war chest of £70 million and the promise - however far in the future - of a crack at the brand around the globe.

Better still, Sony had a history of achieving award-winning advertising through its agencies, as its previous relationship with DDB clearly testified.

Just as alluring were Sony's ambitious plans to shift its usual dogfight between brands on to a much larger stage. It wanted to tackle the computer industry head on.

The real battle, it felt, was between the entire entertainment industry and the world of computers. The real war would be fought to decide whether consumers of the future would all play their music on PCs, or all use their TVs to play computer games.

For this, Sony needed someone special. A brilliant advertising partner, who could create sexy work and yet be mature enough to translate the message across 39 European countries. Sony had dropped its last agency, according to those close to the business, for being too UK-centric, and Sony did not want to make the same mistake again.

For its part, Saatchis looked born for the role. An agency with a hot creative reputation and good experience of global business through the eminently respectable Procter & Gamble. Moreover, it made no secret of its desperation to find a client the size and looks of Sony in order to brush up its international credentials.

Best of all, Saatchis wowed Sony's director of marketing communications, Barbara Haase, and her senior advertising manager, Tim Kaner, with a concept that seemed to embody all they were trying to do - "Go create".

"Go create was a campaign that promised to unify Sony's big message - that its technologies talk to each other - with product information at a micro level, and Sony duly adored it. Sadly, however, three years on, the world has seen little of this brilliance. A smattering of adequate but not stunning commercials, a modest press campaign and some blipverts (Campaign, July 2001), that's all. Something had obviously gone seriously wrong.

Sony, of course, never promised to be easy. "We know we are an awkward European client, Kaner and Haase are fond of declaring, according to those close to the business, "but this doesn't mean we want awkward European advertising. The Japanese giant also has a penchant for massive reorganisations, which take its eye off the ball and leave its partners to deal with the upheaval.

In this case, Sony did exactly that. The old country-by-country way of marketing was torn down in favour of a centralised marketing department run from Berlin and London, and the old national selling groups were disbanded to make way for so-called "product silos".

Thus, advertising was commissioned by a central point, but then had to be "sold internally to a host of different, product-oriented departments.

A nightmare? Yes, of course. But not, insiders say, much worse than before, and, in any case, it is a common problem with any multinational conglomerate.

Perhaps the issue was that the concept of "connectability was too complex to use as both a branding theme and for selling product. Or maybe the Sony range of products was too wide for a single campaign? But other diverse empires, such as Virgin or Nike, have coped with the challenge, so why should it have flummoxed Sony?

As often happens in situations such as this, both sides are reluctant to go on the record. However, privately few can deny that the daily grind of simply getting ads approved and aired has taken its toll on Saatchis.

The series of big name account people who have come and gone on the account - Derek Bowden, John Rudaizky, William Leach and now Julie Bower - are testimony to that. On top of which, of course, there's the un-named legions of creative talent lured to the account by the promise of big advertising only to sink in the mire of big company politics.

In short, although brave promises were made at the altar, it is tough to squeeze stunning creative from a series of committees and re-writes; and it is nigh on impossible to deliver a complete network on the ground in every single market in Europe.

What Saatchis and Sony may have found, insiders say, is that sometimes the two just have to be separated. Some think that Sony is, in fact, calling a pitch because it no longer wants to work with a network, but instead hire one or two agencies and use its own technology to distribute and adapt the advertising.

Another option is that it will choose one shop for its creative, and another network for distribution. In other words, it's looking to make some cost savings.

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