Why do US agencies drift in the UK?

(Photo courtesy Paul Appleton via Flickr)
(Photo courtesy Paul Appleton via Flickr)

From Droga5 to Crispin Porter & Bogusky, ad firms have a hard time staying afloat when they cross the Atlantic

LONDON — The end-of-year merry-go-round of departing ad agency bosses spins apace and seems to show that the life of a chief executive is in danger of becoming, to quote Thomas Hobbes, increasingly nasty, brutish and short.

Kevin Dundas’ main crime at Droga5, it seems, was to be a safe, if unspectacular, pair of hands at an agency that clearly wanted to be something far sexier and running on a higher octane. And so, after just 18 months in the role, he has walked — or been made to walk.

We’ve seen this before, of course. Droga5 — much like Anomaly before it — has failed to replicate its U.S. success in London. And while Carl Johnson was honest enough to admit that he was to blame for Anomaly’s false start, Dave Droga tried to sugarcoat Dundas’ departure a little with platitudes that he was still "one of my favorite people in the industry".

Well, that’s all right, then. (Mind you, Dundas has form too – he tried to explain away the short-lived tenure of Thiago de Moraes at Droga5 in London by saying he wanted to focus on his "first passion" of book-writing.

In reality, he went back to the cozier surroundings of his old job at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO. But, from the outside looking in, the severing of a 15-year professional relation­ship between the pair can’t have been without some pain, which no amount of public niceties can cover up.

U.S. startups don’t have great form in the U.K. — Crispin Porter & Bogusky has endured a similarly stuttering experience to those mentioned above, while Creature London has only managed to gain momentum since cutting its financial ties and filial bonds with its parent Creature Seattle. Maybe you have to go back to 1998 and the launch of Fallon to find a U.S. start-up that made any impact over here — and even that hasn’t been enduring.

However, the issue of the tenure of the ad agency chief executive goes beyond these U.S. putative hotshop imports. It’s that time of year when agencies are forced to report back their figures and, with revenue growth still difficult to achieve (Publicis Groupe in the U.K. has just reported that it is the second-worst-performing market in Europe), it’s not unfeasible that we will see more heads roll before the year is out.

Not a cheery prospect for those involved nor, given the inevitable unsettling consequences, one that many others in the wider industry will find much joy in. Perhaps the modern-day demands on the agency CEO, combined with those of the increasingly unforgiving holding companies, make the job an almost impossible task. For those who manage to keep all the conflicting plates spinning, credit is due.

This story first appeared on campaignlive.co.uk.

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