Ex-RKCR/Y&R Duo Damon Collins and Richard Exon Open Joint London

U.K. Startup Took a Long Time, to Avoid Lawsuit From Former Employer WPP

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London's most hotly anticipated startup opens for business this week, when Damon Collins and Richard Exon, former executive creative director and CEO of RKCR/Y&R, launch Joint London.

Damon Collins, Richard Exon, Lori Meekin, Nik Upton
Damon Collins, Richard Exon, Lori Meekin, Nik Upton

The suspense has been building partly because WPP Group, whose CEO Martin Sorrell is a stickler for enforcing employment contracts, required the pair to stay on the job for six months after they decided to leave last September. Then they had to wait a further three months to be free to launch Joint London on June 1.

The name was chosen to reflect the ethos of the agency, which they say is about delivering creative and strategic expertise from an agile, collaborative standpoint. Without the baggage of a big-agency set up, Mr. Collins and Mr. Exon hope to avoid any fixed views about solutions, and instead offer clients a range of services by joining up with other like-minded, independent businesses.

"For us there will be no barrier to partnership with other companies," Mr. Exon said. "We will be able to work with anyone of any scale to get the right answer. Being lean gives you flexibility and the ability to shape-shift -- we will be able to operate at a speed that is fit for purpose in today's market."

Mr. Collins and Mr. Exon are joined by Nik Upton, Mother London's "head of all mothers" (an operations/impresario/project director role), and Lori Meekin, a former joint head of planning at RKCR/Y&R. All four are equity partners, with Mr. Collins and Mr. Exon owning a larger share of the business.

Mr. Collins and Mr. Exon teamed up in 2008 at RKCR/Y&R, boosting the London office of the WPP Group network into a creative and new-business powerhouse. Despite the recession, the agency shot up to the No. 3 slot in the ranking of U.K. agencies by billings compiled by Nielsen, from No. 7.

The duo took over at RKCR/Y&R from CEO James Murphy and ECD Ben Priest, who resigned in June 2007 to form their own agency -- Adam & Eve -- which they sold last week to Omnicom Group's DDB Worldwide for an estimated $80 million.

Adam & Eve's exit from the independent scene looks like good timing for Joint London. Mr. Exon said, "London is a good environment for startups in any industry. There's a density of creative people and a generosity of spirit around new companies. History shows that clients are interested in buying talented experts in new companies if they make their case strongly enough."

Mr. Collins established a reputation as a world-class creative while at RKCR/Y&R, in particular for work on the BBC, Lloyds TSB bank, and government fire safety and anti-knife crime campaigns. Entrepreneurialism runs in the family -- Damon is the son of Ron Collins, a legendary art director and the "C" in WCRS (now part of the Engine Group), a leading London agency in the 1980s.

"Richard and I both wanted to start our own agencies, but we probably wouldn't be doing it if we hadn't met each other," Damon Collins said. "I realized that what I needed was not just more creative people or more mates, but someone with a good business brain who has come across every business issue...and has a point of view and a way through that ."

Joint London will start out working from a friend's offices in Europe's biggest recording studio -- the place where popular singer Adele recorded her global hit album "21." They don't have any clients yet.

Mr. Exon was quick to point out that being "lean" doesn't mean "small." He said, "Traditionally agencies have grown up to have huge production implementation and delivery resources, fronted by a tier of creative people and planners, who are in the minority. We want experts and original thinkers to be in the majority."

By waiting until June 1 to open their agency, Mr. Exon and Mr. Collins avoided legal action by WPP. Their predecessors, Mr. Murphy and Mr. Priest, were less fortunate and were deemed by Mr. Sorrell to be in breach of their contract even before they opened Adam & Eve. He pursued them ruthlessly, and the case was settled only a week before it was due to be heard in London's High Court.

During the last few months, Mr. Collins has been working with the BBC and RKCR/Y&R on the BBC's Olympics coverage, even though he couldn't be paid for his time while on "garden leave," as the British refer to enforced time off between jobs to fulfill non-compete agreements.

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