Opinion: Perspective - Why taking advertising to court is bad for business

It's been two-and-a-half years since James Murphy, David Golding and Ben Priest resigned from Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R to launch their own agency.

Since Adam & Eve officially opened in January 2008, it's grown into one of London's more interesting and successful independents.

The work is getting better (look out for the John Lewis Christmas campaign that breaks on Sunday evening), the agency's client list includes some covetable brands (John Lewis again, the Telegraph) and the founders remain well-liked and respected among their peers.

Over this success, though, has hung a WPP-shaped cloud. There is an issue about whether the A&E founders reneged on their WPP contracts during their gardening leave and through the launch of their agency.

I have no inside track beyond rumour and hearsay and with a court date now set to decide the matter, it's inappropriate to debate what might actually have happened. But one thing's for certain: whatever the outcome of the court case (or settlement), there will be no real winner from this drama.

Advertising is a business where most agencies have few real assets (no Intellectual Property rights, no brand assets). Their contracts with their clients and their staff are pretty much the most valuable things agencies (and their parents) own, so it's obvious that those contracts need to be respected and defended.

But this is also a business whose glorious heritage is built on an entrepreneurial determination that inevitably took some licence with the rules (and no doubt the letter of the law) along the way.

As one of the UK industry's founder fathers said to me recently: "I think many of the best entrepreneurs probably took some liberties with their previous employment contracts when they resigned to start their own agencies. Some of our best agency brands are here today because of that."

Whatever your view, it won't ultimately serve anyone to have this come before the courts. Of course, if it does, it will provide Campaign with some interesting copy, but it could also inflict some damage.

My gut feeling is that the case will expose some naiveties and might make future agency founders think more carefully about the manner of their resignations. But it will taint both A&E's and WPP's reputations among the London advertising and marketing communities and will do nothing for adland's efforts to present itself as a professional business. And with a lot of sympathy for the cases of both parties, it's hard to imagine that the victor will be able to take much comfort from the result.

What's perhaps worth noting before things get even messier is that, post-A&E, Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R is thriving. It's overcome the management upheaval with elegance, whatever behind-the-scenes firefighting was required, and has emerged stronger than ever. Two years on and RKCR/Y&R is one of the more impressive agencies in town. It's not lost any clients this year, and despite having a client list peppered with the sort of brands at the sharp end of the recession (Lloyds, Marks & Spencer, Land Rover), the agency seems to have deepened those client relationships.

What's more, in a year where great creative work is hardly endemic, the agency has produced some of the best ads of 2009 (for the BBC, for COI, for Virgin Atlantic, for Virgin Media). Indeed, it's not hard to argue that the departure of Murphy, Golding and Priest has actually given RKCR/Y&R a fresh momentum and a new determination. And I suspect that, under other circumstances, RKCR/Y&R (itself partly the result of a brilliant start-up by MT Rainey, Robert Campbell, Jim Kelly and Mark Roalfe all those years ago) would take pride in the successes of its sons at A&E.

It might deprive Campaign of some juicy headlines, but I do hope the WPP versus A&E drama is concluded, sensibly and with dignity, off-stage.


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