Has the tide turned at Western International Media? Throughout the
80s, under a series of classy media directors - Chris Morley was
succeeded by Mark Cranmer who passed the baton to the double act of Mike
Smallwood and Andy Troullides - the Lowe Howard-Spink media department
became the best in the business by a mile.
It was the Rolls Royce - or, as they preferred to say internally, the
BMW 8 Series (bigger on performance than heritage) - of media. But by
the time the department was ready to relaunch as Western in 1997, it had
managed to evolve into a Vauxhall Cavalier with fading go-faster
Western’s troubleshooter is Mike Tunnicliffe, who joined as managing
director last August. He’s spent six months fighting defensive battles,
like holding on to the previously unassailable Vauxhall account. Last
week, he announced that the renaissance had begun. He has poached
Carat’s new-business director, Lawrence Janes, to head Western’s
marketing and new-business efforts.
But lest you be discouraged from hanging up the bunting just yet,
Tunnicliffe hints that this is merely the start. More appointments will
follow and Janes’ signing (his immediate role will be to remind the
world of Western’s enduring strengths and virtues) speaks volumes about
the company’s determination to get back on track. Tunnicliffe’s vision
is for Western to become a sexy strategic communications planning
specialist in the New PHD or Manning Gottlieb mould.
Possible? The Lowe Group’s biggest mistake was its failure to admit that
the full-service agency died in the UK at about the same time that
Margaret Thatcher was forced from office. While other agencies began
spinning off their media departments as standalone specialist companies
with first-rate management commitment, branding and resource, Lowe not
only missed the boat, it let the tide go out too.
There were two reasons for that. First, arrogance - it thought that
being the best was good enough. Or at least it was more important than
notions of structure. Wrong.
But its second problem was (and perhaps still is) far more serious.
Senior management just didn’t understand the 90s media revolution. And
Lowe’s chairman, Frank Lowe, certainly wasn’t going to get a wake-up
call from his Interpublic bosses in the US, because independently
operated media planning and buying specialists have only just started to
creep on to the agenda over there.
So the Lowe Group’s more recent attempts to play catch-up have been
reluctant and somewhat weird. Botched attempts to buy New PHD and CIA
three years ago and, more recently, MGM, hit the credibility of the Lowe
Group management in the media world. There has also been on-off
speculation about whether Western really has a long-term future and
whether it will inevitably be swallowed up into a greater IPG media
So, until Western can prove that it really has unequivocal backing, all
bets will be off. Meanwhile, there will be more immediate questions to
be asked of Tunnicliffe and his new team. Can they really hope to play
in the same league as New PHD? After all, Tunnicliffe himself is from a
very different background - the CIA school of hard knocks but also of
hard-nosed business. And an injection of strategic planning talent must
go to the top of the agenda. There’s the respected planning director,
Robbie McIntosh, of course. But if excellence is to be built around him,
why doesn’t he already have a higher profile and greater status in the
Clients, both existing and prospective, will like to know the answers to
those and other questions. Most of all, they’ll be curious to see
whether it’s really possible to throw off the heritage of nearly a
decade’s worth of clumsy mistakes and missed opportunities.