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Creative Superunion VMLY&R

Design Bridge boss says merger with Superunion will spark renewed emphasis on craft

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By Sam Bradley, Journalist

April 20, 2023 | 10 min read

Chief exec John Morris tells us all about how he’s pitching the mega-design agency to clients.

Design Bridge boss

Design Bridge and Partners chief John Morris says the agneyc merger will provide skill at scale to clients / Design Bridge and Partners

The merger of WPP agencies Design Bridge and Superunion has created one of the world’s largest design businesses. Speaking exclusively to The Drum, Design Bridge & Partners chief executive officer John Morris tells how the merger will provide clients with considerable scale while underlining the importance of design to their businesses.

Morris, an evangelist for design, is taking on leadership of the combined business, with former Superunion chief exec Jim Prior remaining on board as chair. The merger, just a few years after Superunion itself was created by combining five other WPP design agencies, makes Design Bridge & Partners one of the largest design businesses in the world, with around 850 permanent staff and a floating auxiliary of freelancers.

It’s also the latest remix unveiled by the holding company, which finished blending together media shops Mediacom and Essence earlier this year.

Morris says the principal benefit to clients and the group will be its size. “You’ve got two great agencies. What you’ve got when you put the two together are these incredibly powerful complementary skillsets in design. It’s a massive opportunity to create a global powerhouse in design, focusing on the skill of design and really leveraging them at a global scale among global clients.”

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The 2018 merger of Superunion was successful in blending “the skillsets and attitude” into a product greater than the sum of its parts, he says, but Design Bridge’s more established brand name and client relationships mean it’s the ‘lead’ name in the new entity. As such the Superunion brand has been retired, not retained like with VMLY&R or EssenceMediacom.

Design Bridge

“We’re a new joined-up entity… a mashed-up name isn’t the only way to convey that. True, other agencies have ‘solved’ mergers in that way, but that in and of itself is a design choice. We’re trying to create a design partnership that works intuitively and collaboratively on core clients across each of the studios. We have to collaborate more as partners internally.”

He argues that most marketers still undervalue design, relegating it to an aesthetic afterthought. “Design is underutilized in the armory of marketers. That fact is an opportunity because design can play such a critical role. If you’re dealing with key challenges, such as how you keep relevancy in your brand, how you focus on ESG, how you think about value or how you think about your future, then design plays a key role in all of that.”

Selling the combination

Since the merger was first announced last year, Morris and his colleagues have been occupied with the practical side of things. In New York, Amsterdam and Singapore, Superunion and Design Bridge offices (or studios, as the design agency chief is careful to call them) have been condensed into single premises. Explaining the move to customers and talent has been high on their list of priorities in the lead-up to January when the new model functionally began operating.

Design Bridge holds some of the longest-standing client relationships of any WPP business – it has worked with Unilever for almost 40 years, as well as Diageo, Mastercard and British retailer Fortnum & Mason. The merged entity’s pitch to those clients has focused on its expanded range of services and sector expertise, says Morris.

He argues that a better understanding of design among marketers can help them steer their businesses away from irrelevant executions. “Design thinking is not just taking a brief. It is actually understanding what the problem is and then defining the brief. Consider relevancy – how do you keep your business relevant? If you just focus on communications, 12 months ago relevancy might have meant you created an NFT.”

In contrast, he says: “Design marries timeless and timely together. And once you take that conversation to clients, the penny drops.”

In implementing the merger, Morris and his team have learned from parent company WPP’s earlier program of big agency absorptions. Reception to those has been mixed; Grey and AKQA’s marriage had a frosty reception, but Ogilvy and VMLY&R have become some of its best performers.

Design Bridge & Partners

“The leadership team shared with me different kinds of playbooks so we could look at the things that worked and the things that didn’t. It’s the first merger I’ve ever led, but at the outset I said that this is not about making something smaller – it’s about design driving growth.”

One lesson Morris incorporated was to trail the change far in advance and avoid shocking talent and clients. Teasing the move last summer meant the team could get to work without any need for cloak-and-dagger tactics. “I realized I couldn’t have the conversations I needed to have with people without telling them. It was about going out there with honesty… and then spending six months understanding the strengths in the business and the leadership.”

Making sure that both Design Bridge’s and Superunion’s talent bought into the move has also been a key focus. Morris wants his colleagues to see themselves in the ‘Partners’ part of the new business and hopes its emphasis on the value of design will prove aspirational. “If you’re a designer, the opportunity to work in a company that is actually doubling down on positioning of design and taking design to a large and serious scale within organizations and businesses is quite an exciting proposition.”

He adds that, despite WPP’s group-wide crackdown on its freelancing bill, Design Bridge & Partners still make use of 85 to 100 freelancers at any given time. “The creative industry does need that flex, especially for skills you might bring in on a short-term basis.”

Competing with the future

According to Morris, Design Bridge & Partners has just about every other design outfit in its sights, from Pentagram to WPP’s own Landor & Fitch: “The competition is anyone who brings true design thinking and world-class expertise to the table.”

But the emergence of generative AI – especially visual tools such as MidJourney – might prove a bigger threat. Can Design Bridge & Partners’ emphasis on the importance of deliberation and craft hold the line?

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WPP’s policy so far, expressed by chief executive Mark Read at its most recent earnings presentation, is that the technology will be an aid, not an obstacle. Ross Clugston, Design Bridge & Partners’ chief creative officer in North America, certainly agrees and tells us: “AI will amplify creativity, thanks to its power to both set and implement creative vision, and can become a tool for design and creativity to continue leading innovation conversations at the C-suite level. But it’s also spurring a democratization moment for our industry, unlocking access by allowing more people to understand what’s possible, and it should be embraced not derided.”

Morris says it has been top of his mind and tells us: “I don’t think of it as a challenge. If you’re a global production company, I would say you might see some challenges ahead with AI because I think, as it stands, it is a production and reproduction tool.”

He says the agency has been utilizing it as part of the design process and notes that it has proven a cost-effective replacement for some early-stage ideation work. “When you drag through the soul and the substance and the quirks that make you slightly different and make a brand stand out, I think that’s the value we can bring versus AI.”

Creative Superunion VMLY&R

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