Seven years after Interpublic attempted to shore up its struggling Lowe office in the UK with its £28m purchase of DLKW, history appears to be repeating itself with 101 being courted as its latest acquisition target to beef up MullenLowe London.
While the deal has not been finalised – it’s currently in the hands of the lawyers and bean counters – it reveals as much about the challenges of running a small independent agency as it does about the aspirations of MullenLowe.
For 101 co-founder Laurence Green, who – like so many of London’s brightest and best – started his career at Lowe when it was still a creative beacon, there is a residual element of affection for a brand that is in need of burnishing. While he declines to comment on the MullenLowe deal, Green says: "They’re a people and a brand we know well."
While DLKW helped plug a revenue and client gap at Lowe – and provided the agency with a personality that had perhaps been lacking – the departure of all but Tom Knox and the loss of Morrisons means a further reboot may be in order. Just last month Knox, the agency’s chairman, admitted that the London outpost was not the flagship of the network that he wanted it to be. Its reliance on Unilever, which is cutting its spend, also leaves it looking exposed.
Moreover, the departure of executive creative director Richard Denney and chief creative officer Dave Henderson has left a void in the creative department that has been filled by the expedient appointment of global president of MullenLowe’s creative council Jose Miguel Sokoloff as chief creative officer in the UK.
These client and talent gaps look very 101-shaped. The independent agency will provide MullenLowe with a healthy smattering of domestic clients – such as Drench, Dole Foods and Zoopla – as well as considerable planning and creative heft. Although what that means for MullenLowe's recently installed top team is yet to be made public.
As one of the more successful and distinctive boutique agencies to launch in recent years, 101 has been an obvious acquisition target for a network with a problem or seeking to regain its creative mojo. "We’ve been flattered to receive a number of approaches over the years, from holding groups and emerging players alike," Green confirms. "That’s coincided with a determination on our part to create our future rather than just letting it happen to us." Sources suggest 101 has been proactively looking for suitors.
The recent loss of 101’s Costa business to Bartle Bogle Hegarty and its failure to win Britvic and Green Flag must have wounded – although not as much as the acrimonious split with Kettle Chips for which Green provided one of Campaign’s most memorable quotes: "When creative ambition dies, good agencies walk away. So we have." It also shows the limitations that are frequently imposed – rightly or wrongly – or experienced by those that operate in the independent sphere.
Green says that being part of a network would round off its offering to clients – both geographically and in capability – and give its people a bigger stage. It’s difficult for a boutique agency of a few dozen people to offer those elements, such as shopper marketing, media and digital, that clients now demand – and that’s even before the march of the consultants has been added to the mix.
Dale Gall, group chief executive of MullenLowe, was not available for interview on the putative purchase but admitted last month that an acquisition could be the way to "augment" its services. But Green says that talks between 101 and MullenLowe had advanced further than with other potential suitors because it provides it with a bigger footprint and offering as well as being "proudly entrepreneurial and ‘boutique’". "More importantly," he adds, "there’s a common mission to write great ideas and land them wherever they’ll work hardest: both inside and outside organisations."
With the ink not yet on the paper, let alone dry, Green isn’t going to declare that the days of independents are over – he has written before how 101 was not created to be quickly flipped: "I believe that the future remains bright for independents." With Mother, St Luke’s, Joint, Creature, The Corner, Now and Krow still happily ploughing their own furrows, it’s too early to write off this sector (as has often been done many times before). But Green counsels: "In today’s marketplace indies will have to be properly commercial as well as joyfully creative entities, and highly specialised or brilliantly connected as they see fit."