The engine driver

Peter Scott is an ambitious man, relishing the task of turning WCRS, the agency he co-founded, into Engine, a communications group that is 'good at everything'. Don't bet against him.

Peter Scott's ten-year self-imposed exile from the ad business seems to have lessened neither his appetite nor his ambition. Nor, for that matter, what has always been seen as a merciless management style.

Indeed, he even takes a mischievous delight in his infamy. "Somebody once called me a relentless bastard," he grins. "It was the nicest thing anybody has ever said to me."

Last summer, Scott's ever-increasing presence and influence at Engine culminated in his switch from non-executive chairman to chief executive. His predecessor Stephen Woodford, had watched the newly empowered Scott with growing discomfort, and a realisation that his consensual approach was never going to coalesce with Scott's autocracy. He quit in July.

Does Scott deserve his reputation? "No. I'm not ruthless, but I am determined," he declares. "I won't tolerate people who are dishonest, or who don't want to be part of a team. I'm a hard taskmaster because I'm never satisfied. But I'm just as hard on myself as I am on other people."

Few dispute that the task confronting Scott is a formidable one. For it involves the evolution of WCRS, an agency he helped found in 1979 as Wight Collins Rutherford Scott, but which, he concedes, was rapidly approaching its sell-by date, into Engine, an all-round communications group more in tune with the modern marketplace.

Scott has set about the job with a vigour that belies his 59 years. In the three years since WCRS completed its £20 million buy-out from Havas, the agency has morphed into a holding company with ten majority owned subsidiaries - some mature businesses, others organic start-ups - ranging from digital and direct marketing specialists to a brand consultancy and a sales promotion outfit.

At the end of last year, Scott extended Engine's reach still further by bringing the digital media consultancy Brand New Entertainment and the sponsorship agency Karen Earl Sponsorship under its wing.

Now Scott, the group's biggest individual shareholder, plans to draw all the companies and more than 300 staff under one roof later this year. Meanwhile, he is plotting to take Engine into areas such as research, healthcare and communications and media planning, as well as establishing a central planning function for group clients.

Publicly, at least, the newly arrived satellite companies admit to liking what they find at Engine. Adele Biss, the boss of AS Biss, now Engine's public affairs consultancy, says: "There is a real energy about the place which comes from Peter."

The story of Scott's return to the industry front line says a lot about the man. Originally brought back in a short-term consultancy role, he admits never being able to come to terms with a backseat role at Engine.

His comeback began with lunch at The Ivy in 2003 with his erstwhile agency partner Robin Wight. Scott had effectively severed his links with the business in 1992, when he stepped down as the chairman of Aegis and chief executive of its Carat subsidiary. Since then, he has diverted his energies into setting up a ski business and a mineral water company that he later sold to Danone.

Wight, the WCRS chairman, was not his usual ebullient self. His agency, once one of the great names of UK advertising, was still producing some memorable work, particularly for Orange, but was limping along on modest revenues of £12 million. "Four years previously, the figure had been £20 million," Scott recalls. "If WCRS had remained in Havas, it's doubtful if it would exist now. It was a one-dimensional creative agency which was getting past its prime."

Scott questioned Wight on why he did not buy the agency out of the struggling French communications giant. Wight said he didn't think Havas would sell and, even if it did, he couldn't imagine how WCRS would go about doing a buy-out. Scott suggested he could negotiate the sale.

"Originally I was going to do the deal, take a fee and go back to doing other things," he explains. "But it turned out to be a long discussion - the best part of a year - and I was asked to become the non-executive chairman of WCRS. Then my two days a week turned into four, which turned into five. I'm not cut out to be a non-exec. I can't sit back. I have to influence and change things."

Undoubtedly, the buy-out process involved some tricky calls by Scott. Not least when, six months into the process, Camelot, then WCRS's biggest client, called a review of its £24 million account. Scott refused to repitch for the business (now at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO). "If we had bought the revenue stream, and the business had walked, we would have been dead within six months."

Nevertheless, there are some concerns among analysts that the cost of the buy-out and Engine's subsequent voracious acquisition policy has left it with a very highly geared balance sheet.

At December 2005, the group owed more than £16 million to a mixture of banks, vendors of acquired companies and shareholders. Some 90 per cent of Engine's stock is held internally. That includes the 12 per cent owned by Michael Spencer, a friend of Scott and the chairman of the City company Icap. Of the £16 million, £7 million must be repaid within three years.

Bob Willott, the editor of Marketing Services Financial Intelligence, says: "Engine's ability to reduce its debt mountain will depend at least in part on how much profit and cash it can generate in the next few years."

Scott is adamant that Engine is not overheating. For example, it has no interest in establishing outposts beyond the UK, unless driven by specific client needs. "We set ourselves comfortable targets in terms of debt and we will never overgear," he promises. "We're a cashflow business, and that's never comfortable, but our debt is modest in the context of our size."

What is clear, however, is that having brought such a diverse stable of specialist operations together, Scott must establish a synergy between them and a common culture.

This can only be done if Engine establishes itself as a credible holding group, capable of adding value to its operating subsidiaries, and not just as "WCRS with bells on". "Maybe some long-standing WCRS clients might see Engine that way," he acknowledges. "I don't think others will."

The group does not have what he calls a cross-selling mentality. "Twenty-seven of our clients work with two or more of our companies, and that figure will grow as they see the benefits of it," he predicts.

He is heartened by last November's capture of the global brief for Nokia Siemens Networks, which will be handled by WCRS, Meme, its digital associate, and Dave, Engine's brand identity specialist. But he is wary about forcing the pace of co-operation.

"You can organise all the away-days and training sessions you want," he says. "But at the end of the day, people will only work together on the basis of mutual respect." Biss agrees. "We are really wanting to do it," she claims. "There is a belief in the common goal."

In effect, Engine is Scott's answer to the seismic changes that have overtaken the marcoms business during his absence - the huge degree of fragmentation; agencies losing their grip on media planning, as well as buying; the business as a whole being pushed further down the food chain as the power of marketing directors has been eroded; clients having their fate determined by hedge fund managers and private equity companies.

"The old business model of the straight-down creative agency is past," he proclaims. "My arrival has brought the kind of business discipline which had been lacking."

But how will Scott's agenda for change play with Wight, now 62, who is Engine's chairman, but remains a mercurial throwback to adland's extravagant yesteryears.

Having worked together for the first time more than a quarter of a century ago, the pair make an odd couple. Most obviously because of their respective backgrounds - Wight, the Cambridge-educated son of a brigadier, Scott, who despite his refined accent and trappings of wealth, is the son of a North London retailer who left secondary modern school at 16. Odd, admittedly, but also complementary.

"Sure we have our rows, but they're no more than five-minute squalls," Scott insists. "Robin may have mellowed and matured a bit, but I've yet to see anybody who can match his enthusiasm for the business.

"He has an amazing ability to shrug off despair and disappointment. I know that if all of our clients walked out tomorrow, and we were all about to hurl ourselves from our office windows, it would be Robin, the eternal optimist, who would be talking us down off the ledge."

Whether or not Engine can deliver on Scott's ambition for a truly solution-neutral and fully integrated communications group remains to be seen. Scott sees it as a logical, if not necessarily the only answer to a marketing environment that is undergoing enormous upheaval.

Even communication supergroups such as WPP are having to adapt their offerings for changing times, he says. But he does see a more interesting contrast between the way Engine is evolving its offering and how the US hotshop Crispin Porter & Bogusky is meeting a similar challenge.

"I've a lot of admiration for Crispin Porter, which is going the holistic route and offering to do everything for a client. But we prefer the 'best-in-class' approach," he says. "We want to be good at everything we do, not just good at some things and average at others."

But what of WCRS, whose previous travails turned out to be the catalyst for Engine? Scott is full of praise for what he says has been the success of Debbie Klein, the chief executive, in "grabbing the place by the horns".

Certainly, Klein's team could not have ended 2006 in more spectacular fashion, capturing Sky's £75 million creative account and thwarting Sir Martin Sorrell's best efforts to keep it within WPP.

"WCRS is humming and looking like its old self again," Scott declares. "The BMW work is the best it has ever been." And even if the agency's Weetabix work has been derided as looking more like an infomercial, Scott insists the brand's sales figures attest to the campaign's success.

"The world doesn't revolve around D&AD," he says. "It's nice to win creative awards, but the most important thing is that you deliver for clients." On this point, as on most others, Scott will brook no argument.


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