World: Analysis - Naked gathers its forces as it prepares for launch in the US

Are US advertisers ready to embrace the Naked style of planning, Lucy Aitken asks.

Naked has been busy spreading its gospel. It has officially opened in Oslo and Sydney, complementing offices in London and Amsterdam. Naked in North America is under way and rumours about Naked Paris are circulating.

Last month, John Harlow, the co-founder of Naked, was in Beijing for the International Advertising Association Congress. His speech, entitled "The Agency of the Future", included a comparison between existing agency structures and black-and-white television.

Naked was not the first London agency to separate communications planning from media buying: it followed examples set by Unity and Michaelides & Bednash. It is taking a similar approach towards its North American launch, where it does not see first-mover advantage as the be-all and end-all.

"We don't want to bundle in there and make tits of ourselves," Jon Wilkins, another co-founder, says. "It's a big, scary market."

Naked's strategy has been to launch in cities that have a creative heritage and provide an entry into a specific region. So Sydney, for instance, can pick up business from Asia, Amsterdam from mainland Europe.

The overseas operations also provide a means of keeping the London office, which has grown from three people at launch in August 2000 to 33 people, at a manageable size. According to Wilkins, Naked has developed a "small but virulent niche".

Naked has not ruled out the possibility of creating partnerships with creative agencies overseas, a la Naked Inside with Clemmow Horby Inge in the UK. An agency in Tokyo is rumoured to have been wooing it with a similar arrangement in mind.

So how are its overseas offices shaping up? Jason Dawes, the former global media manager at Adidas, runs Naked in Amsterdam, where clients include Heineken, TDK and Unilever. It has also collaborated on London-based business including Orange and Viagra.

Dawes says: "Creatives love working with us and media people who get it from a creative point of view love seeing their ideas stretched and magnified." He adds: "Media folk think they can take on a much more strategic and objective approach but clients tell us that they can't."

Nonetheless, Naked still tends to divide opinion. Some think that its pioneering spirit in separating communications planning from media buying has been revolutionary. An alternative camp claims that it is all a load of adeptly spun hooey.

One of Naked's critics is Nick Emery, the chief strategy and planning officer at MindShare Worldwide. "Naked is OK on the creative side, but I look at what we do with Nike and that's ten times better," he says, adding: "What Unilever did five years ago is more revolutionary than what Naked does now. Everyone talks about communications channel planning, but it's not revolutionary to question why you're using TV. It's smoke and mirrors."

Emery also questions how Naked can run its business effectively on a per-project basis, although Wilkins claims that 80 per cent of Naked's business is retained. It is also striking up relationships with some heavyweight clients in local markets. In Oslo, it has won business from the drinks giant Ringnes, Norway's sixth biggest advertiser.

The agency launched in August this year and is headed by Eddie d'Sa. It recently hired Ronny Kjeserud, the head of planing at McCann Norway.

On the other side of the world, Naked opened in Sydney in September and it is already working on a retained basis for Emap, as well as undertaking project work for American Express and Tahiti Tourism.

"Creative agencies are delighted because experts in media are championing a creative cause," Mike Wilson, who runs the agency with Mat Baxter and Adam Ferrier, says. "People are falling over themselves to send in job applications." It's the same story in Amsterdam, according to Dawes. "We get so many calls from people working in media agencies who feel strait-jacketed."

In most territories where Naked has stuck its flag, some media agencies have not been very welcoming, perhaps because they foresee losing employees and morsels of business.

"Big media agencies feel threatened by us," Wilson states. "They say to their clients: 'We do communications planning; there's no advantage in going to Naked.' But, because their structures rely on media buying, they can't deliver."

Steve Allan, the group chief executive at MediaCom, however, is one media agency head with a balanced attitude. "Naked is a good brand but it has to prove that it can develop its positioning in other markets. The market dynamics of various countries will differ, but there's always room for a niche business offering a special kind of service."

Naked America, in particular, is launching at a critical time.

Carat and Starcom's shared win of Procter & Gamble's phenomenal $4 billion North American planning business in July exem-plified just how much commun-ications planning is creeping centrestage. So expect to overhear a few heated debates about Naked over lunch at Manhattan's finest eateries in the coming months.