LIVE ISSUE/WIEDEN & KENNEDY: Hugh Derrick’s resignation is symptomatic of a wider malaise, Jenny Watts says

Taking a job at Wieden & Kennedy’s London office has been likened by one industry observer to taking a sip from a poisoned chalice.

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

far.



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

market.’



But others maintain that W&K’s uncompromising US culture is the

problem.



’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,’

he adds.



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.’



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