Why isn’t WPP scary in Australia?

I try and avoid the “Everything was better in London,” anecdotes if I can.

For one thing, it’s getting on for five years since I was there now, and for another, I can remember how irritating I used to find it when my Aussie colleague on Media Week in the UK used to tell me that everything was better in Sydney.  

But just this once, indulge me.

One thing I do remember was that when I walked into the WPP media agencies in London, they didn’t tend to take themselves too seriously, until it came to winning, and to delivering for their clients.  Then there was no sense of humour.

Mediacom (which was shortly to become a WPP agency at that point), Mindshare and Mediaedge CIA in particular had a slightly intimidating atmosphere about them. That vaguely menacing air that said we were all friends until you got in the way of them winning – or helping their clients do so.

As a result, I emerged with a lot of respect for them.

Yet here, nobody seems to quite be frightened of WPP’s Group M media agencies. As far as I can tell, people don’t groan slightly when they find themselves up against them on a pitch list – certainly not in the same way they do when they’re up against Mitchells. I’m told there’s nothing wrong with how they go about pitching for new business, but equally, the impression is that, certainly in 2009, they’ve lost more than they’ve won.

The thing that got me thinking about that was yesterday’s news that Mediacom has lost the David Jones business – following the departures of Westpac and Nokia earlier in the year.

That probably adds up to something like $80m in lost billings. Even adding in $8m or so for winning Canon, the books don’t balance.

That’s why yesterday’s promise from Mediacom boss Toby Jenner not to have redundancies seems a bit odd. Either the DJ business wasn’t being run profitably, or the agency intends to make less money.

I’m not sure there is any one reason for the WPP doldrums – which stretch to its creative agencies in Australia too. Perhaps it’s just distance from the centre. More than any other global marketing company, the Europe-based Sir Martin Sorrell is what keeps WPP on track.

There are individual success stories – Mediacom Melbourne’s strong local client based comes to mind.

And several of exactly the sort of people you’d put in your team if you were building an agency. I’m quite sad that former Naked boss Mat Baxter has been so quiet since switching to Mediacom.

What you can’t necessarily do is replicate what drove success elsewhere. Even internally, there are mixed views on Mediacom CEO Toby Jenner who came over after a successful run in London.

I gather that internally there are those who found him a bit too much when he first got here (a common  peril for the newly arrived from London) and later warmed to him, and those who haven’t been through the second stage yet.

I also hear tales of a culture where when the Group M agency bosses come together, whole meetings can go by without discussion of the client work. That can create a culture where when looking to do the next quarter’s numbers, cutting costs is the easiest thing to do.

Obviously Group M is bigger than just Mediacom, but after a fair chunk of time in this market, I struggle to tell you what they stand for.

These days I wouldn’t know how to differentiate Mediaedge and Mindshare other than size, while the only reason that I get the vague impression Maxus might be good at online is because the digital director Ben Shepherd writes an insightful blog.

Then on the advertising side, there’s the Y&R Brands family, which has been living under the weight of the George Patterson legal case. CEO Nigel Marsh would, I’m sure deny it, but from the outside it looks like he was given a huge hospital pass there.

Yet in all these agencies, creative and media, there are good people and decent clients, along with the backing of a fearsome global network. Yet for whatever reason, the formula is not equating to a fearsome local operation.

Tim Burrowes


Get the latest media and marketing industry news (and views) direct to your inbox.

Sign up to the free Mumbrella newsletter now.



Sign up to our free daily update to get the latest in media and marketing.