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The United Network


The United Network was a very loose grouping of separately branded creative agencies owned by WPP, of which the best-known were Berlin Cameron in New York and Sra Rushmore in Spain. The United concept was the most recent of several different but equally lacklustre incarnations for what was originally WPP's "challenger" creative network Red Cell. That increasingly unwieldy international business was restructured in 2005, and a small collection of the most creative shops were spun off into a new group, which was blessed with the equally unwieldy name of The Voluntarily United Group of Creative Agencies. Following further changes, not least the closure of its UK arm, formerly HHCL, the network was given its current branding in 2008. However, it has never served as anything more than a loose shared badge, and there is little synergy between the individual units. Several units have either closed or been absorbed into other WPP-owned agencies.

Competitors

see International Agencies Index for other networks

Brands & Activities

The concept behind what became The United Network had always been to present a creatively-led micro-network along the lines of BBH or Wieden & Kennedy. However those good intentions were undermined by the same key flaw that had dogged the group since it was first created two decades earlier: namely an absence of important multinational clients. Added to that were the inherent problems created by its collection of highly entrepreneurial and independently minded managers. The group tended to present this as a selling-point, highlighting the fact that the constituent agencies are "united by our differences": "Our diverse cultures offer a greater range of divergent thinking and produce surprising creative solutions for our clients". That might have been true, but the result was that this was still ultimately a "network" in name alone. Its profile slipped steadily lower after 2010 to be almost non-existent by 2012. The arrival of new network CEO Matt Ryan did little to change that situation.

The two key units within the group were arguably Berlin Cameron in New York and Sra Rushmore in Spain. Berlin Cameron joined the network in 2001. A New York agency founded by tough-talking Andy Berlin and his business partner Ewen Cameron, it got off to a strong start, winning a lead role on the Classic Coke account. Although its creative output covered many bases, the agency also developed something of a reputation for provocative ad campaigns, often for alcohol brands, targeting a young male audience. (For that reason, widely read industry blog Agency Spy for years called Berlin Cameron "The Boys Club"). Like other group-owned agencies, notably Ogilvy and Wunderman, it was also occasionally been called upon to contribute to WPP's Team Detroit consortium, which handles marketing for the Ford and (until recently) Lincoln auto brands. However its profile has sunk steadily lower since the departure of Andy Berlin in 2008. However, a concerted attempt was made to eradicate that "Boys' Club" reputation with the appointment of a female management team. As of 2020, the six most senior managers under founder Ewen Cameron are all women.

Sra Rushmore is a widely admired creative boutique in Spain, although its status too has come down a couple of notches since a high point between 2000 and 2005. Rushmore's work often displays a slightly bizarre sense of humour, similar in style to that for which the UK's Mother was once renowned. The agency was established in 2000 by Miguel Garcia Vizcaino, Marta Rico and Roberto Lara, all of whom had jumped ship from Tiempo BBDO, where Vizcaino and Rico had been creative directors, and Lara was managing director. At BBDO they had been responsible for a number of highly acclaimed campaigns, including one for Pepsi, featuring an eccentric elderly lady. The new agency was named after that character, Senora Rushmore. (Sra is the abbreviation of Senora). Shortly after launch, the shop was taken under the wing of the Spanish outpost of McCann Erickson, with whom it agreed a non-equity alliance. 

Rushmore's first win was the account for local football team Athletico Madrid, and the shop picked up a number of additional pieces of business after that including Soberano sherry and Damm beer. But the real jewel in their crown was the capture of part of the Coca-Cola account, initially on the recommendation of McCann Erickson, which was then Coca-Cola's main agency in Spain. Sra Rushmore continues to handle special European projects for Coke and other group brands. Among the most significant of these have been the agency's appointment to handle advertising for Coke's sponsorship of the Euro 2004 soccer tournament, and a European co-promotion with iTunes in 2007. In 2005, Sra Rushmore became part of WPP's Red Cell network and was aligned with its successor United in 2006. (The McCann links were severed at the same time). 

Another international hub, United London, formerly HHCL, fell by the wayside in 2007 after the loss of a series of clients. Les Ouvriers in France closed its doors in 2013. The remaining shops were Cole & Weber in Seattle in the US, LDV in Belgium and BTS in Norway. Another outpost, 1861 in Italy, was merged in 2014 into the local office of Grey under the new name Grey United.

Advertising Age estimated worldwide revenues of $83m for the United Network in 2013. That figure included $18m for Berlin Cameron and $10m for Cole & Weber.

Background

The Red Cell Network started life in 1988 under the name Conquest. Initially that brand was created in order to solve a client conflict dilemma at Martin Sorrell's fast-expanding WPP empire. He was offered the Alfa Romeo car account by Fiat, but couldn't allocate it to the J Walter Thompson network he had just acquired because of the objections of Ford, a major JWT client. Instead, Sorrell moved the business into a small subsidiary of JWT in Milan, named Columbia. This was split off as a separate business under the Conquest name, and various service offices were established around Europe. JWT's second-string agency in London, Lansdown Euro, became the UK arm of the network under the new name Lansdown Conquest. For the next 10 years, Alfa Romeo remained the fledgling network's core client, although the London and Milan offices, in particular, also accumulated other accounts. Additional offices were established around Europe with the result that 1998 billings were around $411m, with the Milan and London offices contributing more than half the total. 

As WPP's lead networks grew ever more established, Conquest looked to be in danger of getting squeezed out, possibly sold or absorbed into JWT or O&M. Instead, WPP seized the opportunity to refocus Conquest as a specialist shop, coordinating a through-the-line gateway to other WPP group companies in design and new media. In particular the offering was aimed at medium-spend advertisers looking for international representation. The strategy paid off at the end of 1999 when the London agency picked up Bank of Scotland's consolidated �30m account, more than doubling its billings. However, although the 14 Conquest offices across Europe served some multinational clients, the network continued to lose out with bigger clients requiring coverage outside Europe. 

As a result, in mid-2000, Martin Sorrell announced that the Conquest network would be expanded to North America and the Asia-Pacific region. Singapore-based Batey Ads and US agency Cole & Weber, both already part-owned by WPP, were added to the network, which was rebranded under the Challenger name. Founded in 1931 by Arlyn Cole, George Weber and Mac Wilkins, Cole & Weber had come under the wing of Ogilvy & Mather during the 1970s. It retained standalone status for many years, largely as a result of its main account, aircraft engineer Boeing. However in early 2000, after more than 30 years with Cole & Weber, Boeing moved its business to McCann-Erickson because of the latter's broader global spread. 

Bolstered by its new international outposts, the network was relaunched in early 2001 with another new name, Red Cell. Conquest changed its own name accordingly, becoming Red Cell Europe. Perspectives, an integrated agency acquired by WPP in 1999, also joined the network, becoming Perspectives/Red Cell. However the rebranding failed to deliver the immediate results required, and the network was slow to pick up the major international accounts it was designed to handle. A serious blow came towards the end of 2001 when Red Cell's guiding light, chairman Luca Lindner, resigned in order to take up a new role at D'Arcy. The move cast a dark shadow over the future of the Red Cell concept, especially since D'Arcy already handled work for Fiat, the parent company of Red Cell's key client, Alfa Romeo.

After attempting unsuccessfully to persuade Lindner to stay, WPP found a new lead agency in New York independent Berlin Cameron & Partners. (Reportedly, Martin Sorrell had also attempted to persuade a string of other UK agencies, including Mother, DFGW and MWO, to join the fold). Andy Berlin, the original figurehead of Berlin Cameron, still has a powerful reputation in the industry, although he retired from the business in 2007. A renowned and tough-talking creative director, he was one of the original founders of what is now Goodby Silverstein, and later headed up DDB New York. He left in the early 1990s to set up his own shop with partner Ewen Cameron, and won the backing of DDB in early 1994 after winning the Volkswagen account. DDB pulled out when the agency, then named Berlin Cameron Doyle, lost the account in 1995. Instead Berlin recruited highly regarded Fallon to be his new backers in the renamed Fallon McElligott Berlin. But this deal also went sour, allegedly when Berlin proposed taking majority control of the shop. He and Cameron left to set up Berlin Cameron & Partners instead. 

The new agency was able to recruit a number of multi-national accounts and by 2000 was actively seeking some form of international network. Absorption into WPP's Red Cell network provided exactly that framework. The US agency became the new global HQ for Red Cell, with its experienced chairman Andy Berlin taking over the same role for Red Cell Worldwide. In a huge coup both for Berlin Cameron and Red Cell, the New York agency won the enormously prestigious Coke Classic account in 2003, developing the "Real" campaign later that year. (One ad featured Friends actress Courtney Cox stifling a belch). The work earned the shop the title of Agency of the Year 2003 from both Adweek and Advertising Age.

The group began looking for a stronger London presence as well. After months of protracted negotiations a deal was finally agreed with HHCL in 2003. Later that year Red Cell became a major beneficiary of WPP's takeover of Bates Worldwide, absorbing several Bates offices in continental Europe. In France, Steak/Red Cell was created following the transfer of several staff from Bates Paris (which was otherwise absorbed into JWT). However Steak was merged into Les Ouvriers at the end of 2004. Indian agency Equus, already minority-owned by WPP was transferred into the Red Cell network in 2002. The network opened its own office in Argentina in June 2004, Williams Mercado Red Cell. 

Following the absorption of several outposts of the former Bates network, Red Cell had become a substantial proposition by mid 2005, but also somewhat schizophrenic, composed of a handful of highly regarded creative specialists and a larger collection of more staid traditional agencies. There were also very few multinational clients to justify the existence of a unified network. By now the cracks were already beginning to show. Berlin Cameron lost the Classic Coke account after just over a year, and another new client Samsung also came and then went again. 

This prompted Berlin to persuade Martin Sorrell to consider a break-up of Red Cell. Berlin Cameron and eight other agencies were hived off into a new creatively-driven micro-network under under the banner of The Voluntarily United Group of Agencies, or United for short. A concerted push for new business led to another wave of high profile wins in 2006 and 2007, including Heineken, but like their predecessors these too moved on after a year or less. At around the same time, Berlin himself left the group to dabble in the drinks business. (He now makes Tears of Llorona tequila).

Following the spin-off of the United agencies in 2005, the remaining offices of Red Cell were mostly reallocated within WPP. Some, such as Campaign Palace, continued under the Red Cell brand for a while before being aligned more closely with other WPP networks. UK direct marketing agency Red Cell Response (formerly Perspectives Red Cell) was rebranded as Sharpen Troughton Owens Response but closed its doors at the end of 2006. Spain's Delvico red cell was absorbed into JWT. Batey Ads in Singapore also spent time under the JWT umbrella before being transferred to Grey. Red Cell Not Just Film in the Netherlands joined the local Y&R Group. Stenstrom Red Cell in Sweden operated as a standalone unit. Amanda Walsh, formerly Red Cell's group president, oversaw the restructuring of the network, but stepped down in May 2006 to join Lowe London, at which point the Red Cell concept was finally put to rest. The United network has struggled on, but it too has gradually shrunk as component agencies close or are absorbed into other group businesses.

WPP made a new attempt to revitalise the United Network in 2013, recruiting Matt Ryan from Havas Worldwide to become CEO. His predecessor, Berlin Cameron's Ewen Cameron, became chairman, in addition to his role as CEO of Berlin Cameron. He passed the role of chief creative officer to Roald van Wyk in 2013.

Last full revision 18th December 2020


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