The month in advertising: Love, sex, intelligence

All the big issues in adland this month...

"Love sex intelligence. Comin’ through in the things you do to me." So sang The Shamen in their 1992 electronic dance classic.

It’s an appropriate theme for this month’s Intelligence (maybe sex not withstanding). The sentiment of love and the consequences of divorce and separation appears repeatedly in the pages within, as does the question of how to intelligently deal with this.

This pain of separation after a long-term relationship is most evident in the fact that one of the most recent and long-standing of advertising couples to part ways – Adrian Rossi and Alex Grieve who split when the former dumped his Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO partner after more than two decades together to join Grey – would not participate in the Creative Divorce feature. It’s "too soon" – the eternal cry of the emotionally wounded – apparently. That said, there is also evidence of residual love between former partners: the mutual respect and affection that continues to exist between Trevor Robinson and Al Young years after their partnership from HHCL dissolved is quite touching.

It would be nice if Michel Barnier and Theresa May could have learned from Robinson and Young. It being March, no column can also ignore that this month is expected to mark the UK’s own divorce from the European Union after a 40-year-relationship that’s endured ups and downs over the years. As acrimonious break-ups go, it’s right up there with the worst of them – this is no "conscious uncoupling" of the type that Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin underwent. With negotiations set to go to the wire (and maybe beyond), this is not proving to be particularly helpful to UK business – and its impact on the creative sector is no different.

Over to WPP, which has recently announced its preliminary results. While they weren’t as bad as investors feared, economic uncertainty over the future closeness of the UK’s relationship with the EU resulted in a fall in the company’s sales with annual net sales falling 0.5% in the UK. Compared with the situation in other parts of the rest of the world, however, this wasn’t too bad. WPP’s North American operations are proving particularly troublesome, with its decline in net sales worsening towards the end of 2018. With further account losses still to kick in – including the bulk of Ford’s creative business and the GSK media business – its chief executive, Mark Read, warned that 2019 is going to be even worse.

He described these as "headwinds" and they aren’t helping Read’s plan to turn the WPP supertanker around from a holding company to a "creative transformation company", which he says is at the start of the journey that is making "good initial progress". His decision to position WPP under the "creative transformation company" moniker, first revealed in December, seems an intelligent one, and there are many people who will also welcome his decision to banish the word "digital".

And so on to our final jilted lover. Sir Martin Sorrell still seems to be struggling to come to terms with his split from WPP – although he probably views his relationship with the company as more that of between a father and child than one of equals. Nearly one year after he was defenestrated following allegations of personal misconduct and that – among other things – he visited a sex worker, something Sorrell denies (oh, we did manage to get sex in here in the end), he still acts as though vengeance is at least part of his motivation behind S4 Capital.

Whether Sorrell jumped or was pushed is now purely academic but the opening of the new London office for his MediaMonks outfit (which he outbid WPP for, remember) in a building directly opposite AKQA seems mischievous rather than malevolent. But his recent outbursts that the "bumpy year" that the global political and economic climate is expected to endure in 2019 provides an opportunity for his company seems to be another barb at the trials and tribulations that will impact his former employer, in particular.

With S4 Capital apparently plotting more acquisitions across the world to boost its 14-strong network, the shape of this company is beginning to appear at a rate similar to that Read has managed since he’s been in charge at WPP since September, which he claims is "more client-centric and easier to manage" than under his predecessor. Sorrell has acknowledged that he needs to build deeper relationships with existing clients in order to hit organic growth targets. In this respect, Sorrell will need to use his famed networking skills to convince clients that he can offer them a more integrated solution with the fairly sparse resources on offer. In this respect, Read’s rival company has a clear advantage over the S4 Capital set-up, which lacks a breadth and depth of offering whereas, to paraphrase The Shamen, WPP’s are good.

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