The deal that takes Dave Trott's CST out of Cagney's embrace and into the arms of Media Square has left a few industry sceptics wondering if the agency has swapped the frying pan for the fire.
Some suggest the sale smacks of desperation on both sides. For Cagney, which is selling an agency it paid more than £3 million for four years ago for just £430,000. And for Media Square, which is eager to have a creative star such as Trott raise its less-than-stellar profile.
Yet neither Trott nor his long-time creative associate Gordon Smith are contracted to stay with the new regime for any specified length of time. "This doesn't seem like a well-thought-through decision," Bob Willott, the marketing services sector analyst, remarks. "It's not a deal I would have done."
Peter Reid, Media Square's chief executive, begs to differ. All that's stopped CST realising its potential has been an often unstable management, a struggle to win new business and a lack of resources, he argues. Media Square is committed to changing that.
Future events will be the judge of who is right. What's certain is that CST and Media Square have both had problematic pasts and look to each other as a passport to better times.
Media Square was at risk of going bust when Reid and the executive chairman, Roger Parry, took over in 2007. It was a ragbag of 42 agency brands acquired by Incepta during a disastrous 90s spending spree and sold by Huntsworth to Media Square for £63 million after Huntsworth's 2005 merger with Incepta.
Parry and Reid closed some, sold some, merged others and pared down the group into a more manageable ten operating companies.
However, the turmoil may not be over. Parry, who is expected to look for a buyer for Media Square once its profile has been raised, doesn't have a management style that's to everybody's taste. "He can be a bit pompous," one industry observer declares. Indeed, some shareholders requested a general meeting at the end of last year to vote on removing him from the board.
The threat has been seen off for the time being but some onlookers suspect the dissidents will try again. Parry became the non-executive chairman at the beginning of this year.
For its part, CST has never lived up to its promise.
When Cagney, then under the command of the former Ogilvy & Mather chief executive Paul Simons, acquired it in early 2006, the expectation was that it would become the operation's creative engine room. But the high hopes were never realised. Simons, who had been expected to provide some much-needed leadership, found himself too heavily preoccupied with running the Cagney group. His son, Nick, was installed as the managing director but stayed in the job just 19 months. In the end, Cagney opted to offload CST.
"The trouble with CST was that it never had a youthful focus," a former senior executive says. "We should have been competing with the likes of Wieden & Kennedy, Fallon and Beattie McGuinness Bungay, and doing lots of nice work for domestic clients but we never managed to do that."
Some cite Trott's way of working as the reason. "Dave has a very strong character that permeates the agency," an ex-CST staffer says. "He has a say in everything and, sometimes, that's stopped the agency doing the things it should."
Another says: "Dave's confidence was badly bruised by what happened to him at GGT and Bainsfair Sharkey Trott and he can get very defensive about things."
So has Media Square acquired a once bright creative star that's now faded too much? "We're aware that Dave is in the twilight of his career," Reid acknowledges. "But we expect both him and Gordon to stay for some time. They just love creating ads and they want to get CST back to where it should be."
Trott, 62, says: "You go where you think you can do the best work. And we've a better chance of doing that within Media Square than we did before."
Media Square's plan is to align CST, whose clients include Enjoy England and Crusha, with its existing agency The Gate and have it share resources at the latter's offices in London's St Katharine Docks. Philip Gregory, The Gate's chairman, will become CST's chief executive.
The Gate is a financial and press specialist whose clients include Aviva and Friends Provident. "That's an area we don't do," Trott says. "What's more, we'll get access to the IT systems and the management we don't have. We've been like a circus without a ringmaster. I'm happy running the creative department but I don't want to run the whole agency. I think we could be the missing piece in Media Square's jigsaw."