Inside Superunion, the new WPP branding agency aiming to prove size and creativity do go together
After just five months in the making, WPP has today taken the wraps off Superunion, the behemoth branding business formed following the merger of its agencies Brand Union, The Partners, Lambie-Nairn, Addison Group and VBAT.
The new agency will be led by global chief executive Jim Prior (formerly head of The Partners) and executive chairman Simon Bolton (Prior’s counterpart at Brand Union) who have installed Greg Quinton, a 30-year veteran of The Partners, as chief creative officer.
With a combined staff of 750 in 23 offices spread across 18 countries, the new agency has the super-sized proportions to match its moniker. Coupled with its headcount, client billings in excess of $100m from a roster that includes Airbus, Bank of America, Diageo, Fifa, Tesco and Vodafone instantly place it among the biggest agencies of its kind in the world.
Superunion’s arrival follows a pattern of consolidation within WPP, the world’s largest marcomms holding group, which has similarly merged media agencies MEC and Maxus into new entity Wavemaker this month. But where a numbers game like media buying is already accustomed to economies of scale, there will inevitably be questions about whether bigger necessarily means better in a branding and design world where craftsmanship has typically been prized above salesmanship. As one wag put it on Twitter when The Drum first reported on this merger: “What the world really needs is a mega big brand agency, said no one, ever.”
Naturally, Prior would disagree with that assessment. “One of the things we firmly believe is that the days when there was a choice to be made between scale and creativity have completely gone,” he tells The Drum. “It used to be, certainly 10 years ago let’s say, that if you were a really creative agency you were by definition small because [if you were big] the expectation was that you’d operate in a more process-led way and you’d have less opportunity to be creative.” And now? “The demand from clients and the demand from audiences generally is to be more creative, to be braver, to be more innovative – and that is something that is being asked for at scale.”
Prior, who was a marketer for Converse before joining The Partners in 2001, refers to Superunion’s modus operandi as “big ideas for big business”. He is confident that the scale and greater market awareness promised by a single unified brand will elevate the new agency into the sights of the biggest clients in the world. “I’m anticipating a situation where any major organisation in a major market that’s considering engaging a brand consultancy, a design business or any kind of creative consultancy business is going to be aware of our offer and is going to consider us,” he says.
The ‘offer’, as Prior puts it, has been in the works since this merger was first announced in September last year. It’s been a “hyper-intense process,” he says, because “there are very few examples where five companies combine simultaneously”. Inevitably, there have been “daily” hurdles to overcome. One has been how to corral a dissociated array of managing directors, creative directors and strategists from five different businesses scattered around the globe into a single coherent structure without wounding any egos.
“The people who come out of the legacy businesses as leaders are all intelligent enough, motivated enough by the work they do and the clients they serve, to be able to manage that maturely and sensibly,” Prior says. “This is very much not an ego-driven business. People who would be concerned about whether they’ve got the most senior job title in the organisation would not fit with this organisation.”
The result is a company structure that Prior describes as more like a “partnership culture” where there are various staff of equal seniority. “The idea is to create a very collaborative environment in which lots of people could work together in sometimes unusual combinations. We’re not going to have a situation where someone runs a certain piece of business and works in isolation.” He prefers to frame the abundance of experienced talent as a virtue for clients rather than a HR headache. “Part of what we now bring to the table for clients is this really wide set of services and we’ll need, almost by definition, to have lots of people around the table at times when we serve those clients.”
Back in September, Prior insisted that no staff would be made redundant because of these changes, and he maintains now that he’s been true to his word. “There are some shifts inevitably in the precise responsibilities that people hold, but we’ve kept everyone and and we’re hiring in many parts of the world right now rather than subtracting.”
Likewise, the new agency has not resigned any business because of conflicts of interest, he says, although some safeguards have been put in place to mitigate issues of clients operating in similar sectors. “We’ve addressed any concerns that people have there. We manage that very carefully. We ensure there’s complete separation at an operational level between teams that are simultaneously engaged on programmes. In most cases they operate in almost entirely separate locations, so we’ve full procedures in place to ensure that client needs are not compromised in any way.”
Perhaps the most vexing challenge for the new branding business was deciding how to brand itself, a task made even more unenviable by the knowledge that its design-savvy competitors would be casting their judgement on the outcome today. “You can paralyse yourself if you worry too much about that,” Prior says.
Asked if creating a brand for his own business was harder than the same task for a client, creative chief Quinton bursts into knowing laughter. But the lack of time from announcement to launch stopped Quinton and his team from falling into the trap of too much naval-gazing. “There’s a risk, particularly with a branding agency, that you overanalyse,” Quinton says. “That’s part of the thing with having less time: you just do what you feel is the right thing.”
Superunion emerged after the new agency applied one of the tools it uses for clients who are going through a merger to its own businesses to assess the 'culture' of the companies involved and discover the sentiments their staff share. Prior says “a strong desire and enthusiasm to collaborate and work together” emerged and “we captured some of that in the name”.
From there, Quinton says the process of designing the identity and its associated marketing collateral became much easier. “What it did was it freed us up. With a name like Superunion you just can’t be average. And when you looked around at the competitor set it wasn’t particularly exciting and not particularly positive either. We wanted to do something that was less about our industry and more about where we wanted to go.” A puffer fish blowing bubble gum duly emerged as a visual metaphor for the “unexpected elements” that Superunion brings together.
Prior says the agency’s people, like clients, have been “really positive, really enthusiastic” about the changes, which have been bedding in since the start of the year. “I will be honest and say I expected there to be more emotional resistance, and there’s been very little,” he adds. A combined Christmas party in London gave the new teams an opportunity to break the ice with one another, but whether the harmonious mood continues as all staff relocate to much bigger and busier offices than they’ve been used to in the various old headquarters of Brand Union remains to be seen.
As the moving vans bring the last of the teams’ belongings to these new offices and the individual agency websites go offline, 150 years of combined agency heritage today becomes a thing of the past. But Prior is only looking forward. “Culture doesn’t come from the bricks and mortar of buildings, it comes from the ambition that’s set in the business and how that ambition is realised on a day to day basis,” he says. “We’ve no divine right for this to be successful – we’ve got to make it so. But I think we’re clear on what we need to do in order for it to happen.”
For Prior and his new team of 749, it’s time to think big.