CLOSE-UP: NEWSMAKERS - Can adland's new odd couple last beyond the honeymoon?

Langdon and Wnek have enough savvy to succeed, Francesca Newland writes.

There are some cruel, funny and unprintable jokes doing the rounds, inspired by Campaign's news last week that the infamous Ben Langdon and Mark Wnek are setting up an ad agency together. But laugh at your peril.

Their combined experience and talent means they'll be a dangerous competitor on the ad scene from their launch next January.

The pair's reputation for cruelty to staff is legendary. It means that few people have a kind word to say about either and since last Thursday, Campaign's phones have been humming with guffaws at the idea of "the bastard brothers" going into business together.

The strength of feeling against them is daunting. One senior advertising figure summarises the opinions of many: "They're pretty unpleasant characters. Neither have a massive following and both have a litany of upset people behind them. And in this business your past is your future."

Wnek and Langdon, the astute businessmen that they are, predicted this response and came prepared to this interview.

They point out that they have needed to be ruthless as they have both been doing turnaround jobs, Langdon at McCann-Erickson and Wnek at Euro RSCG Wnek Gosper Partners. Wnek says: "I walked into a toilet." Langdon adds: "McCann was number 14 - you have to get some shit done."

Importantly, they are happy and excited. The idea is that they are now doing what they want to do and so will be easier to work with. Wnek is keen to return to doing some creative work. "I'm a creative who has been a business manager for the best part of a decade. I'm going to shock the pants off people. I'm going 1,000 per cent balls out for creativity. I've been side-tracked a bit and I'm looking forward to surprising people. It's time for a copywriter to make a come back. It turns me on."

However, some believe that because Langdon was forced out of McCann he's not doing what he wants to do, but the only thing he can do. This is harsh. He exhibited entrepreneurial spirit when he suggested that McCann London be renamed McCann Langdon, a move that led to his ousting from the network.

The pair have yet to hire a planning partner; a tall order for any headhunter. The candidate must be a great planner, unafraid to work with two of the industry's toughest operators, able to counter their image with one of being cozy and approachable, and, hopefully, able to keep the two of them working in harmony.

Langdon and Wnek, accustomed to highly paid assistants and bottomless expense accounts, don't fear the leaner days ahead. Langdon proudly points out he drives a Fiat Punto and cites his experience of Chris Still at Still Price Lintas as important: "Chris made money because he was the kind of guy that repaired the air conditioner on a Sunday morning." Wnek, for his part, is resigned to sacrificing his lunchtime table at The Ivy (although it's tantalisingly close to their new West Street premises).

The pair, who are funding the venture themselves, are building a new agency model. They are looking to do a deal with a media network that will enable them to roll out global campaigns without the cost of setting up overseas. A deal with Carat is still on the table.

They intend to rapidly build regional operations, then healthcare, CRM and packaging facilities. This is a clear nod to what helped make McCann profitable under Langdon. Over the next year, they will back into existing agencies giving them early bulk and profit.

In terms of structure, the agency will follow traditional lines, with planners, creatives and account handling, but there'll be one difference: no middle management. This'll reduce costs, but also keep clients happy with constant access to top management. Langdon says: "We will only employ brilliant senior people or brilliant junior people; 60 to 70 per cent of costs go on what's in between." Wnek adds: "We'll never hire an £80k account man. They don't come up with ideas to help your business."

However, it's their ability to impress clients that is their greatest asset. Sara Weller, the deputy managing director of Sainsbury's, knows Wnek from her days as the Abbey National client. She can't get enough of him: "He was passionate about the business when I worked with him on building the Abbey National campaign. He fought with absolute integrity for what he believed, but was also very open to hearing and responding to good argument. It's a hard time to be setting up an agency with the business environment still this tough, but he'll make it work. He deserves to be successful."

Weller is not the only fan. Two of the most prominent entrepreneurs in the business today believe Wnek and Langdon have what it takes. Garry Lace, Grey's chief executive, says: "Mark is one of the most talented people I've ever had the pleasure to work with. It's a proper grown-up start-up, with two people who've always been close to the client. That's a great recipe for success."

Johnny Hornby, the managing partner of Clemmow Hornby Inge, adds: "Ben has a reputation for being fierce but he's charming and engaging. He's extremely bright and will always win business because he's relentless."

Wnek and Langdon have "a couple" of clients in the bag, but won't reveal who they are. Clients won't be a problem, however. There's only one factor that makes the agency vulnerable to failure and that's Wnek and Langdon's ability to get on. They've got two of the biggest egos in town and are a match for each other. This could end up being a recipe for runaway success or an unmitigated disaster.


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