Dell's DaVinci Project Yet to Be Decoded

Startup Being Launched by Dell and WPP Is on Track, Leaders Say

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Late last year, when Dell consolidated its gargantuan marketing account at WPP Group and asked the holding company to build it a custom-made, global agency network, there was more than a little hand-wringing in adland. Agency chiefs used to managing long-established brands were especially worried other big marketers would come asking for potentially disruptive bespoke solutions.

Since then, though, much of the buzz around "Project DaVinci," as the agency is now known, has waned. Six weeks after its self-imposed deadline of March 1, the agency still doesn't have a CEO or a permanent name, nor has it filled out its rank-and-file. Moreover, the PC-maker and WPP grew tight-lipped, and details about the shop have been slow to emerge, leaving the industry to merely sit back and wait to see if the new model gains any traction.

Halfway there
All in all, the unprecedented initiative is plodding forward. It's nearly halfway to its goal of hiring 1,000-plus staff to service the agency, said executives close to the matter, and it might have an unusual chicken-and-egg sort of talent problem on its hands.

"Talent attracts talent, and without talent in place, it makes it more difficult," said one industry recruiter. "If you start with the leadership everything else comes ... a couple of stars make a big difference."

Although it is creeping closer to making the big announcement and though it's installed a number of other C-suite executives, such as Chief Creative Ken Segall and Global Chief Financial Officer-Chief Operating Officer Joe Scangamor, the absence of a chief to lead the charge has hindered the pace of hiring in the ranks below. (Mitch Caplan, interim CEO, transitioned out effective last month.)

"It's always hard to attract people to a new idea," said Laura Ries, president of Ries & Ries, Atlanta, a marketing-strategy firm. "If you don't have a leader of a company, someone who is known and strong, it's almost impossible."

"The clock is ticking here. ... It is not a good sign that they have been having trouble attracting talent, but part of that lies in that they haven't been able to exactly tell people who they are going to be working for, and what their future is going to be" Ms. Ries said.

No cause for alarm
DaVinci maintains the agency is on track.

"There have been many hires, and there will be many more," said DaVinci spokesman Peter Himler. "Would we want a CEO in place, and a name for the agency? Sure. But an important distinction about this agency is that it's really being organized in a collaborative way, so the implication that not having a CEO in place means that it's running rudderless [is wrong]. It's moving in the direction it was intended to move in."

"What Dell and WPP are working together to achieve is different than anything that's been done before," a Dell spokeswoman said. "It's a very unique partnership, and the scale of what we're trying to achieve means we have a lot of work ahead of us. But we've already seen a world-class leadership team coming together quite well."

Other questions yet to be answered include the location of international hubs (rumored are London and Singapore), the full-spectrum of agencies that DaVinci will contract with to service Dell's account, and when and if other clients will be serviced by the shop. This last one is particularly important. While Dell has said the WPP agency will be allowed to handle other clients, it's unclear how long it will need to absorb the Dell responsibilities, something it will have to do before it pursues new business. A broader client base will be vital in retaining talent since one of the benefits of a job at an agency is the freedom to work on a variety of client businesses.

Given the many uncertainties, many in the industry may perceive decamping for an agency that has a lot of kinks to iron out as "a risky move in a bad economy," noted Ms. Ries. "There are certainly people looking for jobs," but for those who already have them, the opportunity to work at DaVinci could be a tougher sell. "They'll be congratulated if it does work and blamed if it doesn't -- that's terribly fearful for people," she said.

No shortage of applicants
To be sure, the allure of a startup where one can be at the forefront of an agency-model reinvention has drawn interest. WPP insiders report a flood of resumes to DaVinci's attention, and hundreds of hires that have been made to the agency from within the WPP and beyond.

Another former WPP executive expected to join DaVinci's leadership team is Jeffrey Wilks, who most recently served as president, IBM Brand Services at Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide. Down in Austin, Texas, near Dell's Round Rock headquarters, a handful from Omnicom Group's GSD&M Idea City have joined, executives familiar with the matter say. WPP's MediaCom, a Group M unit assigned to lead media strategy for Dell has hired about 50 people in the U.S. to work on the Dell account -- "a lot to do in a short amount of time," one MediaCom executive said.

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Contributing: Megan Mcilroy
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