Last month The Martin Agency, a Richmond, Va.-based agency with no previous overseas presence in its 49 years, said it was joining many of its U.S. rivals in taking on a singular challenge: opening a London office.
"London makes the most geographical sense and we love the energy and the creative community in the city," U.S. CEO Matt Williams said. "Being a part of it will make us better."
But London also has a way of resisting U.S. arrivals. Last month CP&B gave its three-year-old London shop a dramatic management change, buying a year-old London-based agency called House Worldwide mainly to secure the talents of Richard Pinder, the former chief operating officer of Publicis Worldwide. Now Mr. Pinder runs CP&B London as part of his new role of CEO for U.K. and international.
A whole crop of agencies that began in the U.S., -- Droga5, Anomaly, McGarryBowen, and Brooklyn Brothers, to name a few besides CP&B and Interpublic Group of Cos.' Martin -- are determined to make an impact in London. Their agendas may vary, from establishing themselves as global micro-networks down to servicing a particular client or two. But London is hard to beat as a base for global business, Mr. Pinder said. "It's the most hugely international city on the planet, and it's a major advertising center," he said. "Every company flies people through London."
It's just a congested market in which to plant a flag. "It's no surprise it's slightly messy," he said. "You have to spend time working out what your model is and finding out what the market wants."
London natives such as BBH, Mother and Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO have no interest in accommodating a U.S. invasion. And with Adam&Eve/DDB crowned Agency of the Year at this summer's Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, the British advertising scene is enjoying a return to prestige, giving U.S.-based agencies in the city a higher bar to clear.
The benchmark for U.K. success is Wieden & Kennedy, whose London office, opened in 1998, is now thriving. But it took the agency a long time to get it right. An Ad Age cover story in December 2000 called "London Fog" chronicled Wieden's struggles back then. At the time, Wieden had just hired its third managing director in two years, and she in turn hired the agency's fifth -- and sixth -- creative directors.
"There's got to be something greatly wrong with an agency that starts with an asset like Nike and goes through as many creative directors and managing directors as Wieden has in the last few years," the CEO of one of London's largest agencies told Ad Age back in 2000. "There was a bit of a belief that all they had to do was open in London and be Wieden and business would come walking in."
But the shop hung in there, and in 2002 Honda came along. The next year's "Cog," which depicted a Honda assembling in Rube Goldberg fashion, won awards around the world.
"We made mistake after mistake in London," Wieden President Dave Luhr told an audience at Cannes this summer. "It was six years of making mistakes. We finally hired the right team, we won Honda and the rest is history."
Some of the more recent arrivals from the U.S. have already had their own top-level shake-ups. Ben Moore, a partner at Anomaly and ex-Sony client of the agency, is part of the second generation of management since it started five years ago. "I'm not suggesting Anomaly London has hit full stride yet," Mr. Moore said. "We still have to prove ourselves. But I've no doubt we've found the right team."
Rick Hirst is also second-generation management at McGarryBowen London, which changed its name from Dentsu London two years ago. "I walked in just as our biggest client walked out," he said, referring to Canon, "it could have been a slow painful death, or you could see it as liberating."
Mr. Hirst chose the latter option and has been energetically building the agency and winning clients this year. His priority is to make sure that McGarryBowen London is not just a paler version of its U.S. parent, but an agency that is relevant to the London market in its own right.
The determination not to be branded a U.S. agency is a driving force for many of these shops. "We are a network, not a U.S or a U.K. agency," said Jackie Stevenson, a founding partner of Brooklyn Brothers' London office in 2008. "Our strength is genuinely spread across the two. We were built with a foot on either side of the Atlantic."
Similarly, Mr. Pinder said, "We don't want to be a U.S. agency in London. That's exactly not my brief. It's not about exporting from the U.S. -- it's an international set up."
However respected it is, you can't expect the success of a U.S. parent company to open doors on its own, Mr. Hirst said. It's easy to talk about clients back in the states such as Verizon, Chevron and Maserati, he said. "But it doesn't mean a great deal to people here. You have to act as a start up. We take nothing for granted and scrap for everything we can."
On the other hand, agencies will use the advantages of being part of a U.S.-based network when it works for them. "I feel hugely supported by our U.S. parents," Mr. Hirst said. "Clients are often interested to know that we have resources and can scale up business quickly. It's like being the new kid in school who happens to have an older brother in Year Two."
London will always be an alluring but challenging target for U.S. agencies. Ad Age's 2000 "London Fog" article quoted a top Deutsch exec saying that agency hoped to open in London within 60 days, and was finalizing a management team. He added presciently -- because 14 years later, there is no Deutsch London -- " London needs another agency like it needs a hole in the head."