Taking a job at Wieden & Kennedy’s London office has been likened
by one industry observer to taking a sip from a poisoned chalice.
The departure of W&K’s managing director, Hugh Derrick, announced last
week, has once again put the agency on red alert. His name is the latest
to go on a well-documented list of exits that includes the former
managing director Mike Perry, the former planning director Alison Hoad,
the former senior creative Nick Gill and the former client services
director Rob Forshaw.
There is no questioning the creative excellence of the US agency: W&K in
Portland picked up awards for two Nike spots - ’beautiful’ and ’the
morning after’ - at Cannes this year. But the strong cultural ideals of
the agency don’t seem to be working in London.
So far the London office has not made an impact on the UK advertising
scene. Although the agency is making a concerted effort to win local
business (it recently won Virgin Interactive and is on the Time magazine
shortlist), accusations of Portland’s heavy-handed intervention have
been widely cited as a defining factor in the agency’s performance so
Observers say the London shop is a wholesale export of its Portland
parent, rather than an outpost that adapts to local conditions. ’We’d be
the first to admit that we haven’t been perfect in London,’ Dave Luhr,
the chief operating officer and partner of W&K Portland, says.
He puts the problem down to management. Luhr maintains that the success
of the other W&K offices has been down to the staff. ’The environment in
the London office is where we’re failing. Our goal is to find a
management team that clicks.’ Luhr admits that he has said this before,
but he adds: ’Before we didn’t understand the complexity of the UK
But others maintain that W&K’s uncompromising US culture is the
’You have to export standards while being sensitive to local customs,’
Bruce Haines, group chief executive at Leagas Delaney, says. He has set
up local outposts of his agency in the US and across Europe. ’What they
have tried to do in the British market is export the best of Portland,’
Luhr is aware of the criticism surrounding the heavy hand of Portland,
but says: ’We’re addressing that issue.’
The new managing director, expected to be announced within the next
couple of weeks, will need to be strong enough to stand the agency on
its own two feet while coping with the pressure from Portland. ’Wieden
is a pretty flexible brand,’ Luhr says, implying that the agency will
allow the new talent to form its own agenda.
Luhr insists that he is not going to close the UK office and defer to
Amsterdam, W&K’s original and more successful European outpost. ’The
easy thing would be to close the office, but we’re fully committed to
our operation in London,’ he says.
The mess in the UK will not have caused irreparable damage to the W&K
brand, although Luhr admits that it’s not good news. A lighter touch
from Portland may help the agency and its new managing director to
perform in the future. As Haines warns: ’Too heavy a hand on the tiller
is likely to end in disaster.’