The World: Morel prepares Wunderman for digital impact

The direct network, which is being aligned with a digital specialist, is braced for the challenges of tomorrow.

It's probably pointless, but it's intriguing to ponder how differently things might have turned out had Daniel Morel's great, great grandfather not sold the land in Brittany upon which Vincent Bollore's forebears built their first paper mill.

Apparently, the water flowing through the area was of perfect quality for papermaking, the business upon which Bollore established the industrial empire from which he launched his successful bid for control of Havas.

Not that his fellow Breton has done too badly, either. As the global chairman and chief executive of Wunderman, the WPP direct marketing network, Morel has charge of more than 100 offices employing about 7,000 people worldwide.

Now that empire is growing bigger still with WPP's acquisition last week of the Vancouver-based digital specialist Blast Radius, one of the few remaining large independents of its kind. The company, whose client list includes AOL, Electronic Arts, BMW and Nike, will be aligned with Wunderman.

So, do Bretons drink up assertiveness along with their mother's milk? Undoubtedly, Morel, at 57, remains fiercely ambitious. So much so that some associates wonder how much longer Wunderman can contain him.

Indeed, there is speculation that the one-time French Navy diver might rise to the very top of one of the world's major marcoms networks. Massimo Costa, the Young & Rubicam EMEA chairman, says: "Daniel runs what many, including me, consider to be the best and most advanced marketing network in the world."

Morel compares the Bretons to the Scots. Both, he says, are set apart from the national mainstream, but often have a thirst for success within it. In the view of some critics, this has led to the New York-based Morel adopting a corporateness and hauteur that isn't to their liking. "He talks like a brochure," a former Wunderman senior manager remarks. "And he runs the place like he was Louis XIV."

Morel certainly doesn't see himself as the living personification of the Sun King. "It's not that I'm distant," he declares. "I just don't like breathing down people's necks."

Clearly, time defeated Morel's patience with Wunderman's London office, where client losses such as Vodafone, M&G and Star Alliance in 2006 were followed this year by the exits of the chairman and worldwide creative director, Steve Harrison, the chief executive, John Butler, and John Hiney and Suzanne Partridge, the joint managing directors.

"If things aren't working out, it's no good blaming the technology or the economy. It's the people," Morel says. "If you have the right ones in place, you can turn things around pretty quickly. We're not like a supertanker."

Nobody doubts the scale of Morel's challenge in articulating what Wunderman stands for, establishing a culture, raising creative standards and bringing focus and direction to the network created by WPP six years ago out of Impiric, the direct marketing arm of its then newly acquired Y&R.

It has not been plain sailing. For one thing, the creative track record of the London office is not mirrored elsewhere in the network. For another, there are the ongoing problems at Ford, a substantial contributor to Wunderman's global profits, but which last year recorded a $12.7 billion loss, the worst in its history.

Added to that is the question of whether there ought to be a closer relationship with the Y&R agency network and whether Wunderman will perpetually struggle to match the more clearly defined integrated positioning of its Ogilvy group stablemate.

Morel concedes that Wunderman "isn't an easy sell" because the sheer scale of what it can offer may deter clients with very specific problems. However, he suggests such scale can be advantageous when building a culture across the network. "I see it as a sign of strength when somebody cries for help because they think they're not performing well enough for the client," he says. "Suddenly, one person's problem becomes everybody's problem."

Creatively, Morel acknowledges Wunderman has a way to go. "There are some rays of brilliance, but the bulk of the work is middle-of-the road. We can only call ourselves truly brilliant when we're doing work that endures across a variety of channels."

And what about Wunderman's perceived unhealthy dependence on the beleaguered Ford? It's because the car-maker has been in such trouble that it needs all the marketing help it can get, he argues. And, anyway, it only accounts for a "low double-digit figure" in revenue terms.

As for the perceived contrast between Wunderman and Ogilvy and the charges that the network's ties with Y&R are insufficiently close, Morel insists like-for-like comparisons are invidious. Ogilvy and the Y&R group don't operate in the same way, he says. With Ogilvy, it's a 360-degree offering; at Y&R, it's "best in class". It's not that one system is necessarily better than the other. They're just different.

As far as the Y&R is concerned, he claims Wunderman co-operates with it on 50 per cent of its pitches, but that there are limits to what they can do together. Nor does he think it likely WPP will ever merge them. "Y&R has a lot of FMCG accounts which have no need of the data we deal in." he says. "A merger? I can't ever see it happening."

Meanwhile, Morel plans to drive Wunderman hard into the digital future. "Two years ago, digital accounted for 12 per cent of our business, now it's 50 per cent," he says. "At the moment, there's little entertainment on the net. But that will change. And when it does, I want us to be ready."

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