Editorial: United needs to articulate exactly what it stands for

Glancing back over the recent misfortunes of WPP's United group of agencies makes you wonder what black humorist suggested the name. United would be the last epithet most onlookers would apply to what has always been a disparate alliance that has never truly articulated what it stands for as a network, or what added value it provides for clients.

The expected imminent departure of the £75 million BSkyB account from United London will lead to speculation that, however it trims its wings, United just will not fly.

The problem for United has always been in trying to rid itself of the perception it was born out of opportunism and made up its raison d'etre as it went along. This flaw dates back to its origins in 1988 as Conquest, a network created in haste by WPP to handle Alfa Romeo's pan-European account. Jump to 1999 and the unveiling of Red Cell, the result of joining Conquest with other WPP agencies in the Far East and the US to become WPP's fourth global network.

Red Cell was billed as the group's answer to the relentless polarisation of global marketing communications that was threatening to marginalise modest-spending, but ambitious "challenger" brands. A fine idea, but never successful in practice, because it took the network into territory already colonised by the likes of BBDO, Wieden & Kennedy, Fallon and Bartle Bogle Hegarty.

Having morphed from Red Cell to United, the network has been looking exhausted. Also having to absorb some of the old Bates agencies undermined its aspirations to be a micro network, while subsequent attempts to slim down have seemed contrived.

With hindsight, it is clear that Conquest/Red Cell/United never stood a chance. It failed to establish a credible positioning and has constantly been blown off course.

Now, Jim Kelly and Robert Campbell, United London's managing partners, are said to want to go back to the beginning and run the place like a start-up. Not a bad idea. United London used to be Howell Henry Chaldecott Lury. It was an agency that always courted controversy. But at least everybody knew what it stood for.

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