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WCRS | Engine Group (UK)

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WCRS is a highly regarded full service agency, based in London. Until 2004, it was part of the Havas-owned Arnold Worldwide Partners network. The agency's management team bought back their independence that year, and WCRS added to its resources with the acquisition of a string of marketing services companies involved in interactive, branded content, sponsorship and direct marketing. Parent entity Engine Group was created as the umbrella for these different units, and now operates as a broadly integrated group offering a complete range of interlinked marketing services. In 2014, US private equity investor Lake Capital acquired Engine Group, with a view to building up a new middle-tier marketing services holding company. This expansion has revived memories of WCRS's early history. For a while, in the late 1980s, the agency had aspired to become one of the world's largest marketing groups. The WCRS international network was later split out to form what became the entirely separate media services business Carat.

Clients

Click here for a WCRS client listing from Adbrands Account Assignments

Competitors

see ranking of Leading UK Agencies

Brands & Activities

WCRS's renewed independence after 2004 led to a startling improvement in performance. Creative work remains striking and often quirky, but the greatest change has been in new business. After a series of losses in previous years, the agency's marketing department was working overtime between 2005 and 2009. At the same time, WCRS greatly expanded its service, offering, launching or acquiring a string of marketing services subsidiaries through its corporate parent, Engine. Although these units remain standalone branding, they work closely with one another to provide what is effectively a seamless integrated service, depending on the requirements of individual clients. In 2011, WCRS changed its name to WCRS & Co to reflect its broader integrated offering. It dropped the & Co again a year later. In 2013, the group said that more than half of revenue was generated from clients using two or more Engine subsidiaries.

In reflection of that fact, Engine realigned its various operating units in 2017 into four divisions of Creative & Content, PR & Activation, Digital Transformation, Data & Insight and Engine Media.

From 2000 to 2004, WCRS served as the UK arm of Havas's second string network Arnold Worldwide Partners. In 2003, the agency's management team began talks with Havas to reacquire its independence, and a deal was finally agreed in April 2004. Havas sold a 75% stake in the company to management. The remaining 25% stake was bought back by WCRS in October 2005. Following the latter deal, WCRS established a new holding company under the name The Engine Group, which holds ownership of the agency and its various associated subsidiaries.

These corporate negotiations came at the end of what had generally been a rocky few years for WCRS. By the end of the 1990s, WCRS was regarded as one of the UK's most prestigious agencies, but from 2000 onwards it was rocked by a string of account losses, and comparatively few important new business gains. Nevertheless, creative work remained generally strong, and increasingly quirky. WCRS produced one of the most memorable campaigns of 2003 with its moustachioed 1970s-style runners for directory services provider 118 118. After regaining its independence, WCRS's growth was nothing short of spectacular. Buoyed up by the capture of Sky at the end of 2006, it added an astonishing £118m worth of new business during 2007, causing an 87% leap in billings to £254m, and a place among the top six UK agencies.

There was some attrition during 2008, and billings fell by more than 21% to £195m according to Nielsen, the biggest decrease among the Top 20 agencies, despite the fact that the agency lost no clients during the year. Recovery in 2009 was followed by a further decline the following year to the #11 position, despite the fact that the agency retained key accounts BMW and Santander following reviews. Despite only small account wins during 2011, the agency began moving back up the rankings again. By 2013, it had risen back to the #7 spot with billings estimated by Nielsen (in Campaign) at £210m. B&Q was an important win in early 2014, pushing WCRS into the Top Five for the year as a whole, with billings estimated at £227m. However the valuable and prestigious BMW account - which WCRS had held for 35 years - went into review at the same time and was later lost. Despite that loss, WCRS moved up another place in the annual ranking for 2015 to #4. Billings were estimated at £257m. Sky remains a key account, along with B&Q, Santander, the Ministry of Defence and Churchill Insurance.

The agency has widened its offering with a portfolio of specialist satellite businesses. The first of these was brand consultancy Dave, launched by a group of former Wolff Olins employees in 2003. Towards the end of 2006, Engine acquired sponsorship agency Karen Earl from rival group Media Square, and rebranded the business as Synergy in 2008. Also that year, various digital units, including Meme, DC Interact and Eyefall were merged to form Altogether. That business was subsequently merged into the main WCRS agency in 2010. In early 2008 the group acquired direct marketing agency Partners Andrews Aldridge (PAA), which absorbed the group's existing direct marketing unit, Personal. Communications planning specialist Edwards Groom Saunders was acquired in March 2009, and was also absorbed into the main agency. In May 2010, Engine rescued social media unit Jam from collapsed media agency i-level. Later that year consultancy Dave - which had previously been involved in a trademark battle with a UK cable channel also known as Dave - relaunched under the new name of Calling Brands.

In 2010, the group established its first foothold in the US, appointing two local luminaries to launch a new Engine USA subsidiary. Martin Puris, previously one of the names above the title in Ammirati Puris Lintas, was appointed as CEO, with John Bernbach, son of the legendary DDB founder Bill Bernbach, as COO. Their two acquisitions were New York digital agency Deep Focus and youth marketing agency Noise. However, progress was slow, and Puris subsequently left the group. Deep Focus expanded its footprint in 2015, adding a London office with the rebranding of Jam, and establishing a separate outpost in Los Angeles. In early 2016, the agency spun out its content creation unit as a standalone business Moment Studio under the group umbrella.

Investment company Loudwater Trust acquired a 10% holding in Engine in summer 2007 for an undisclosed sum, generating additional funds for expansion. In 2010, a new round of funding was secured from HIG Capital. That prompted consolidation of several other satellite units acquired or launched by the group over the previous two years. Corporate PR agencies Mandate, Hogarth and Penrose were all merged as MHP Communications, now partnered by consumer PR and events company Slice. However, corporate and financial advertising unit Totem, based around a small team imported from Publicis-owned Masius, was shuttered at the end of the year. Other acquisitions in 2011 included the PR company Mischief and the Shanghai office of design agency Identica (from Vision7), which also adopted the Calling Brands name.

In July 2014, Lake Capital offered to acquire 100% of the business for around £100m. That process was blocked briefly by ex-employee shareholders, who objected to being offered a lower price for their remaining shares than had been proposed to current employees. Agreement was reached after a week or two of negotiation. Lake Capital injected its existing US marketing-based investments into the group. These include creative entertainment agency Trailer Park and market researcher ORC. In 2015, Trailer Park hosted the launch of a second US office for Engine's existing Deep Focus unit.

A more recent addition to the portfolio is a dedicated media division, launched in 2016 and headquartered in the US, under the banner Engine Media. In 2017, the group launched new inhouse unit NuFu, which aims to develop personalised teams to work inhouse within client companies to handle marketing requirements.

Financials

Turnover for 2013 rose by 10% to £100.1m, on gross billings up 3% to £143.3m. The group reported pretax profits of £755,000, up 4%. That figure would have been even higher without a £3.6m accounting charge for two stock-based acquisitions in Asia. That followed two difficult years in 2010 and 2011, in which the group reported losses.

Engine Acquisition Limited is now the main trading entity for the group. Gross billings for 2015 were £100.5m, with revenues of £88.1m. The group reported a net loss of £7m, after amortisation and depreciation costs of £4.8m and one off acquisition-related costs of £3.4m. Adjusted EBITDA excluding one-off items was £8.7m, almost three times the year before.

Background

British advertising agency Wight Collins Rutherford Scott launched in 1979, a a breakaway from Euro advertising (later Lansdown Euro) formed by Robin Wight, Ron Collins, Andrew Rutherford and Peter Scott. The agency quickly generated a reputation as a hot creative shop as a result of work for clients such as BMW and Carling Black Label ("I bet he drinks Carling Black Label"). But in 1985, the agency lost two important accounts, Nabisco and Philips, because it lacked an international network. As a result, the partners came up with a bold plan to develop their own network on the back of a stock market flotation in 1985. The company quickly acquired several UK businesses including PR company Biss Lancaster and sports sponsorship agency Alan Pascoe Associates.

A year later, WCRS acquired US agency HBM/Creamer, which already handled several international accounts including Sheraton Hotels, as well as Della Femina Travisano, co-owned by legendary New York adman Jerry Della Femina. In 1987, the portfolio was bolstered with Australian shop The Ball Partnership and a 49% stake in Groupe Belier, the PR arm of what was then called Eurocom, a network controlled by French media group Havas. This added Belier's UK operation FCO Univas to the WCRS portfolio. In turn Eurocom took a 20% stake in the WCRS Group. Then in early 1988, the agency paid $120m to acquire a 50% stake in French agency SGGMD, already Europe's biggest media buyer. Shortly afterwards, that company changed its name to Carat Holdings.

By 1988, WCRS Group was the world's #6 advertising group with billings of $1.2bn. Yet as the world's other big ad agencies went on their own acquisition sprees over the following few years, WCRS began to slip behind. Crucially, agencies such as Saatchi, McCann or BBDO presented a unified global network, whereas WCRS was structured as a loosely-knit group of independently branded partners. It wasn't enough to attract the bigger multinational accounts. A more serious threat was the news that the group was being targeted by unscrupulous media tycoon Robert Maxwell. In 1989, in a set of complex interlinked deals, the company's advertising and media operations were split up into two separate businesses. The group sold its core WCRS advertising agency network to Eurocom, and then acquired the remaining 50% of Carat Holdings in France, as well as the pioneering British media independent TMD (The Media Department). The resulting group repositioned itself as a media-only business under the new name Aegis. Peter Scott moved to Aegis as chairman; his three partners stayed with the advertising business. (A separate group of WCRS group media directors split off to form the core of PHD).

As a new recession hit the industry in the early 1990s, Eurocom exerted increasing pressure on its newly acquired British agency and its small network, which traded under the unwieldy name of Eurocom WCRS Della Femina Ball. In 1990, the network was merged with another Havas subsidiary, HDM Europe. A year later, Eurocom merged with French rival Roux Seguela Caysac Godard to form Euro RSCG, and attempted to persuade WCRS to rebrand as Euro WCRSG. WCRS's directors refused and the agency was allowed to retain separate branding in the ensuing merger of all five London outposts of Euro RSCG. The rest of the short-lived Eurocom WCRS Della Femina Ball network was disbanded; Jerry Della Femina finally left his New York agency in 1992 after a bitter war of words in the press with the French group. His agency, by then named Della Femina McNamee, was folded into Euro RSCG's New York flagship MVBMS/Euro RSCG.

WCRS was effectively ignored by Havas advertising for the next four years, but it was finally given an enlarged role in 1996 with the creation of a second network, the loosely-knit Campus. However the agency found it hard to recapture its former magic, despite the continuing presence of flamboyant and outspoken chairman Robin Wight. In 2000, WCRS was hit by a disastrous series of major account losses including Rover, Land Rover, Sega and above all key accounts Orange and Carling. However by luck and coincidence, Havas was then in the process of digesting its new purchase, Snyder Communications. US agency Arnold Communications was handed the senior role in a revamped Campus, and the network gradually metamorphosed into Arnold Worldwide Partners.

The shift of focus to the US caused many observers to wonder if Robin Wight would take the opportunity to move on, but he remained in situ, presumably biding his time. WCRS bounced back in 2001, capturing a string of important accounts to replace those lost a year earlier. But that trend reversed once again in 2002 and 2003 as a further string of important clients walked out the door. With problems mounting within Havas by 2003, Wight and his fellow directors at WCRS took the opportunity to begin talks to buy themselves out of the French group. A deal was struck in early 2004. Following the buyout from Havas, founding director Peter Scott rejoined the company, becoming executive chairman of parent company Engine. Following the departure of chief executive Stephen Woodford in 2006 to join DDB London, Scott became group CEO.

Last full revision 22nd June 2016

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