The United Network


United is a very loose grouping of separately branded creative agencies owned by WPP, of which the best-known are Berlin Cameron in New York and Sra Rushmore in Spain. The United concept is the most recent of several different but equally lacklustre incarnations of 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.

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Recent stories from Adbrands Weekly Update:

Adbrands Weekly Update 26th Sep 2013: WPP is making another attempt to kickstart its creative micro-network United, whose units include Berlin Cameron in New York and Sra Rushmore in Madrid. Matt Ryan, former co-chairman of Havas Worldwide New York, has joined the group as chief executive, replacing Ewen Cameron, who moves up to chairman. 


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Background

Free to all users | see full profile for current activities: 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 still operates 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.


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