NEW MEDIA: SPOTLIGHT ON WUNDERMAN DIGITAL - Parkinson sets out to improve digital profile of Wunderman

Lack of recognition despite strong clients hampers the agency, Alasdair Reid says.

According to Stewart Pearson, the chairman and chief executive of Wunderman Europe, the agency effectively has "one of the leading digital agencies in Europe" embedded within the various units of its network.

We're talking about a network of some 300 people, spread across the organisation, but clustered in four centres of excellence: Amsterdam, London, Paris and Zurich.

Strange, then, that no-one in the UK digital market really knows much about it, hasn't come up against it in competitive situations or can point to any notable work that it has done - even though Wunderman can boast seriously enviable clients such as Ford, Land Rover, Vodafone and Motorola.

Strange, too, that Wunderman rarely appears in digital agency league tables.

This is a leading agency with a radar-busting, studiously low profile when it comes to digital. There may well be good reasons for that (which we'll come to later), but in any case, that situation might just be about to change because the agency has just appointed a new managing director, digital - the former Universal McCann chief executive, Pru Parkinson.

Actually, that isn't quite accurate. Parkinson has been given the role of managing director, digital, at The Young & Rubicam/Wunderman Alliance, for Europe, the Middle East and Africa. The Alliance is a unique entity - a committee-like structure (the official line is it is a "mechanism") that is designed to ensure clients of either or both agency networks can get access to a coherent through-the-line communications product.

Most executives with Alliance responsibilities have day jobs at one or other of the two networks but, perhaps tellingly, Parkinson is to be employed directly by the Alliance, as is another recent appointment, Simon Milliship, who is the digital creative director. This might lead one to speculate that the Alliance is about to evolve into something more substantial than a "mechanism", but that's an issue for another day.

Very much for the present day is the issue of what Parkinson's appointment means for the digital fortunes of Y&R and Wunderman - and, indeed, for the services the agencies are able to offer to clients. This is about something more fundamental than the cross-selling of services and expertise.

It's about the Wunderman mantra, which is, of course, "integration". It boils down to making sure everyone across both networks knows what is available and knows how to tap into it; and it's also about drawing together special teams to solve particular problems or to take part in pitches.

"Pru's arrival will allow us to be a key player in the more mature market that the online space is settling into after the bursting of the dotcom bubble," Pearson states. "And no-one is better qualified than Pru. She has always championed integrated solutions at all her previous agencies and to underline the point, her most recent role has been running her own online communications agency with a number of blue-chip clients."

The agency in question was Online Visibility, the optimistically titled company she spent a year at after her departure from Universal McCann. Aside from Online Visibility, her career has mainly been in media departments (at J. Walter Thompson and Ammirati Puris Lintas) and media agencies (Western and Zenith). Parkinson is undoubtedly a big hitter - but then this is, arguably, a difficult assignment.

Observers say that if there has been a problem in the past then it has essentially been a problem of the Wunderman culture. And this is mainly Wunderman's issue - Y&R's digital brand, Y&R 2.1, chips in a bit of expertise but it's very much the junior partner here. The problem with Wunderman is that, while it delivers some pretty impressive stuff for its clients, it has been chronically bad when it comes to telling the world about what it can do.

Wunderman actually has a very clear proposition here. It comes at the digital space from a customer relationship management angle and Wunderman's heritage in that discipline is second to none. In practice, this means building and making the best use of all contacts that you have ever had with the customer and using the data gathered to find the best ways to draw them into the digital domain.

Once they are there, it's about developing the relationship even further, through the functionality you provide on websites, but also through other channels, such as interactive TV platforms, e-mail marketing and SMS.

But in recent years, Wunderman has been an organisation that has flirted on the edge of self-parody - a hangover from the period a few years back when it rebranded itself as Impiric and briefly believed that it was really a management consultancy.

You will search in vain on the Wunderman website for any simple, idiot's guide about what it is that it actually does. But, on the other hand, the site does feature the company's nine-cell trademarked programming matrix, a matrix that lies at the heart of the company's "unique process".

It comes complete with an illustration that looks remarkably like a bullshit bingo card and there is more MBA-style gibberish and McKinsey-type obscurantism on the site than you can comfortably shake a stick at.

It's daunting stuff and it's tempting to relate Wunderman's lack of profile in the digital marketplace to its own impenetrable persona in the digital medium. Is that going to change?

Pearson says that the lack of profile is arguably an illustration of how true the Alliance continues to be to its integration philosophy. "We haven't aggressively been pushing (digital) as a stand-alone capability because it's not," he says. But, he adds, there should be no doubting the extent of the Alliance's ambitions in this sector and Parkinson's appointment is as clear a signal of that as you could wish for.

Parkinson is certainly looking forward to the challenge and says that the most striking thing about the network is the immense amount of digital talent that it boasts. So is one of her first jobs going to be to convince people that it is possible to be integrated and have a strong personality too?

Perhaps, she concedes. "The aim is to be able to deliver excellent digital solutions and be a more integrated part of the Y&R and Wunderman offering to clients. But if we don't have a profile in the digital space then we're not going to be able to achieve what we need to achieve," she says.