Opinion: Perspective - How an agency can be castrated by its network

McCann Erickson has swept the board at a creative awards show. I'll say it again, because those of you who weren't there will need some convincing: McCann Erickson has swept the board at a creative awards show.

The agency's "sliced bottle" ad for Heinz ketchup won five gongs at this week's Campaign Poster Awards, including the top honour: Best Individual Ad. But for an agency to whom creative awards are as rare as a public sighting of its chief executive, it was an acutely bittersweet victory: McCann was forced to resign the Heinz business earlier this year.

You'll probably remember the story, it was painful. Nestle is a significant global client of the McCann network and voiced concerns in New York about what it described as a "technical conflict" between its Magi soups and sauces brand and Heinz.

No matter that the only Nestle business currently handled by McCann London is Nescafe (hard to see a conflict there), the order came down from on high that Heinz would have to go. So go it did, extremely reluctantly; Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO scooped up the business.

This week's creative coup picks at the still fresh scab of the whole affair. It certainly highlights the powerlessness of local management in the face of network might. Perhaps McCann HQ is confident of extending its Nestle relationship here and was employing sound financial judgment. Perhaps Nestle is just too important a client to risk upsetting for the sake of the feelings of one McCann office. Either way, Heinz and McCann London seemed shoddily treated.

The story says so much about the issues McCann has always struggled with here. McCann Erickson is a global advertising powerhouse, arguably the best; but locally (in the UK at least) it is smothered by its international credentials. The agency wins little local business, rarely troubles the awards podiums and has no discernible local personality. It's been hard to see why a UK advertiser would willingly walk into the McCann black hole. But with Heinz, McCann has put itself on the local creative map.

Of course, great advertising and great agencies are about much more than winning creative awards. But this year the agency has grown in confidence, the new creative/planning partnership of Simon Learman/Brian Fraser and Nicky Crumpton is starting to shape a new identity and the arrival of Brett Gosper to run Europe has given London an ambitious backbone. The lovely work for Heinz this year has captured this new energy and this week's awards should have sealed it.

Now it's proved it has some creative spark, the agency desperately needs some new-business momentum: more business for which it can produce good creative work (which will, in turn, attract more new business). Or the fledgling signs of local life will be snuffed out.

"Whatever happened to Hurrell and Dawson?" someone asked me the other day. A new agency cannot afford to go quiet even for a few months (there are a few start-ups over the past 12 months that disappeared from view immediately after the launch fanfare; RIP).

In fact, H&D has done a pretty good job of maintaining a steady stream of modest wins (Auto Trader, IPC website, Garrard), but Hurrell and Dawson are two real industry heavyweights who promised so very much. But until the agency's landed a sizeable, coveted creative account in a tough competitive pitch, it will not have lived up to the hype.

Well, at least the hiring of Greg Grimmer as the Hurrell and Dawson media supremo suggests they're back on the right track. Grimmer is, perhaps, not the slickest or smugly intellectual media man, but he has exactly the right sort of digital/DM-centric media experience, underpinned with a real grounding in traditional media, to set Hurrell and Dawson up nicely for the new communications future.

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