"A plan is under consideration to have the remaining accounts of United London and the people who work on those accounts become part of [WPP's] Grey," said Andy Berlin, the chairman-CEO of United.
That's the latest chapter in a saga that started nearly 20 years ago when WPP Group CEO Martin Sorrell created a fledging network based in Milan, Italy, called Conquest Europe to handle Fiat's Alfa Romeo account and avoid a conflict with WPP's Ford business. Years later, Mr. Sorrell tried to reshape Conquest into a global network by adding a WPP Asian network called Batey Ads, buying U.S. agency Berlin Cameron and rebranding the whole thing under the name Red Cell.
Mr. Sorrell has helped -- and maybe sometimes hindered -- the development of the entity called Conquest, Red Cell and now United over the years. By some accounts, it was his decision to dump into the Red Cell network more than 30 agencies that were part of Bates Worldwide, a network very different from Red Cell, after WPP bought Bates parent Cordiant Communications. The agency's next repositioning, to United from Red Cell, involved paring the number of offices to nine.
"It is my belief that Martin will not abandon United as long as it is profitable and as long as it is doing good work," Mr. Berlin said.
United London's problems have been high profile during the past year, including losing the $140 million Sky satellite-TV account that accounted for 70% of U.K. billings, and WPP's disagreements over the office's direction with United London's Joint Managing Partners Robert Campbell and Jim Kelly (both men are expected to leave). These issues loom large because it is important in the agency world to have a strong London presence, a goal Conquest, Red Cell and United never achieved despite multiple acquisitions and restructurings.
Now United looks more like a random collection of creative shops. Of its nine offices-probably soon to be eight-all but a small Buenos Aires, Argentina, startup are located in the U.S. or Europe. After WPP moved the Alfa Romeo business to Y&R last year, United's only shared business was the Georgia Pacific paper products account in Paris and London. The company's website (group-united.com) introduces itself thusly: "We are the WPP advertising micro-network." But Mr. Berlin called that an "error" and said United isn't a network.
Individually, some of the agencies are doing well.
"Every day we get more good news," said Laurence Mellman, United's chief operating officer. He said the Milan office recently won Vodafone, and Berlin Cameron picked up Heineken Light, Vitamin Water and the relaunch of the Fiat 500 in Europe and the car's debut in Asia. In Spain, WPP bought a majority stake in one of the country's top creative shops, Sra. Rushmore, Madrid, two years ago and paired it with United.
Mr. Sorrell referred calls about United's future to Mr. Mellman and Mr. Berlin.
"WPP is very committed to making United work," Mr. Mellman said.
Eventually, United will start over again in London, and buy or build another agency there. "Losing London doesn't destabilize any of our current clients," he said. "We'll take our time to find something."
"Our future will be to continue to develop quality talent and do more and more outstanding work in these separate offices while seeking opportunities to collaborate on international accounts that are attracted to our standards and unique abilities," Mr. Berlin said.
Contributing: Emma Hall