Everything but ads: Fusion 5 thrives on straight talk

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You might wonder what the folks at Fusion 5 are thinking. They tell clients their cars are worse than outdated, their beer isn't on consumers' radar, and their notion of youth is misguided. That candor makes WPP Group's strategy specialist stand out among today's agencies.

That it does. Fusion 5 is one of WPP's fastest-growing units, the holding company confirmed. Profits were up 40% in each of the last two years, according to the agency, which this year plans to increase revenue another 35%, go global and branch into the retail, high-tech and financial-services categories. As the marketing industry weathers its third year of retrenchment, Fusion 5 is looking to boost staff 10%.

While some of the growth comes from new business, the shop that does everything but advertising has managed a trickier feat. It's seeing increased business from existing clients and has been asked along when client marketing executives move on to other companies. Some have gone so far as to put Fusion 5 on retainer-a rarity in the sector. "They are like a drug. Once they get in with a client, [the client] wants more and more," said Mark Sherrington, group marketing director at SABMiller, one of Fusion 5's largest clients. "They have a pathological fear of being ordinary."

With its Westport, Conn., headquarters, six regional offices and a bevy of freelancers in a dozen major markets, Fusion 5 balances on the razor's edge of cool. It encouraged Ford Motor Co. to give about 100 yet-to-be-released Focus cars to assistants of celebrities so they would arrive in them to hip events-a powerful approach for an audience whose currency is being in the know. Fusion 5 was also the impetus behind Vanilla Coke's stealth pre-launch launch and masterminded the Coca-Cola slim can prototypes making the rounds at club openings and trendy boutiques. Fusion 5 also went to the edge with Miller Lite's racy "Spin the Bottle" promotion in Playboy.

Love it or hate it, just talk

"The idea is to get people talking about an endeavor, regardless of whether they love it or hate it," said CEO Patrick Meyer.

Mr. Meyer and Robin Austin founded Fusion in 1994 largely as a consultant to blue chips. It was sold in 2000 to London's Tempus, which in turn sold to WPP in 2001. Along the way, Fusion 5 expanded into just about everything but storyboards-research, idea pow-wows, strategy, events and urban know-how-as a means to help brands connect with buyers.

It set up youth-marketing practice for Ford (after letting it know teens and young adults considered its cars outdated) and DaimlerChrysler and guided Coca-Cola Co.'s repositioning of Sprite, Minute Maid and Powerade. Fusion 5 worked to boost SABMiller's viral marketing and helped seed Miller Lite's controversial "Catfight" ads on the Internet. R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. used Fusion 5 to light a fire under Camel, and the shop helped Procter & Gamble Co. establish a dialog with teen girls. It's now in the midst of projects for Gillette Co. and Timberland Co.

"It takes someone not so close to have a fresh perspective [and] say 'have you thought of this?'" said Jim Shroer, now Chrysler's exec VP-sales and marketing, who worked with Fusion executives since the late 1980s, first at RJR before bringing the shop to Ford.

Fusion 5's particular expertise is with teens to 30-somethings, the sweet spot for just about all marketers except those shilling cemetery plots. The shop takes executives on trips where they spend days with teens, learning how they eat, drink, drive, think and live. The agency also frequents events like the X Games to record everything from upcoming fashions to why products do and don't resonate with that crowd.

Yet it's still nimble after growing from 30 people to 70 since 2000. The staff is predominantly composed of brand managers, followed by 30% who come from R&D and creative backgrounds, and about 20% from agencies. There's even a Yale University astrophysicist consultant on staff.

"They have tools, techniques and processes that are truly innovative as they drive toward insights," said Peter Klein, senior VP-strategy at Gillette, who has worked with the Fusion 5 team for more than a dozen years. "They're very results-driven. If it can't translate into improved performance or results, they'll believe they've failed."

Fusion works with agencies to implement ideas. That mingling rankles some, prompting the epithet "Confusion 5" and criticism that the shop is all sizzle and no steak. Chief Creative Officer Mr. Austin acknowledged Fusion needs agencies to execute ideas, but clients say it does well there, too. Mr. Sherrington said he's seen an agency try to undermine Fusion in one-sided politicking only to be shot down by the client.

'Instrumental'

"Fusion never takes anybody's turf and never worries about anyone taking theirs," he said. "They are always supremely confident that everybody is going to see the value they add and they are going to get properly rewarded."

Rick Roth, worldwide managing director and president of the Los Angeles office of WPP sibling Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, works with Fusion on Miller and Coca-Cola Co. and said he wants to involve Fusion on more Ogilvy business. "They have an ability to build on a brand that is instrumental, not redundant," he said.

Mr. Sherrington, who was chairman of Tempus when it bought Fusion, said the shop is prepared to be controversial. "The failure of other agencies is they always are so pleased to get business that they make the best of what they've got. Fusion is pleased to get the business, but if they think they can [effect] change, they do."

contributing: jean halliday and jack neff

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