Boss of $100m WPP 'Superunion' Jim Prior on the trials of consolidation

 
Elliott Haworth
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At a time when the notion of union is being challenged on the international stage, a new one has been formed. Not those bastards who occasionally shut the Tube down with strike action. This one is super.

It’s the consolidation of five WPP brand consultancies into one, given the modest title of Superunion.

Leading the combination of Brand Union, Lambie-Nairn, Addison, VBAT, and The Partners, is former chief executive of the latter, Jim Prior. Overseeing $100m in client billings, Prior is now responsible for a network of 750 people spanning 18 countries, looking after clients from Diageo to Fifa.

“You do something like this, the eyes of the world are on you,” says Prior, two days before the launch of the new group. “It’s easy to promise at the beginning, but we need to make sure we deliver it as we go through. So the launch for me is the start of a new chapter.”

To operate under one name with a single bottom line was only decided upon six months ago, and implemented in four. Moving fast is part of the plan though, says Prior. “That pace of change forces you to move quickly and efficiently, to make the decisions that you need to make.”

While in the Netherlands, Superunion will operate under the previous brand name of VBAT, the consolidation is a complete integration of the five firms.

“Our view was that if we create an organisation that has a really unusually wide set of capabilities, and at the same time, has the reach, scale and presence in the market, and is brave enough to go out and assert itself in the market, then we ought to be able to do more work. Which has got to be of benefit to the clients, to the people that we serve,” says Prior.


Jim Prior, chief executive, Superunion (Source: Superunion)

Too many chefs

Rebranding a branding agency is quite meta – a working case study of practising what you preach, and an opportunity to “turn the lens on oneself”, says Prior.

The challenges of bringing five agencies together are numerous – each firm has an individual history, finances, clients, and practices. The millions dollar question is about leadership though. Was it a case of “too many chefs?”

“There are lot of chefs but not too many,” says Prior.

“There are a lot of complementary chefs, or a lot of chefs that are experienced and mature enough to understand that it’s better to work together than to fight against each other. It’s not a fusion built on big egos and a desire for control, it’s a fusion built on experienced people who understand the value in collaborating in working together.”

Since first announcing the intent to consolidate back in September, Prior has insisted that no jobs would be lost at any of the five firms. Good intentions are very well. But did it come to fruition?

“There hasn’t been a single job loss as the result of this combination. Our plan has always been to manage the organisation on a basis of growth, and obviously as it evolves, it’s going to organise itself in different ways to how it has in the past.

“You can’t go through a process of combining five companies and not realise there are some operational efficiencies in there. There are people whose roles are changing in nature, or they’re deploying into areas where there’s an opportunity for them to grow and develop in different ways. But we’re not doing this to lose jobs.”

You can’t go through a process of combining five companies and not realise there are some operational efficiencies in there

The consolidation is an interesting move considering the ongoing debate about scale in the advertising industry – but Prior insists big is beautiful.

“It used to be that scale could hold people back, but it was a conceptual barrier,” he says.

“There was this dichotomy that people had in their minds that, if you were really creative you had to be small, and if you were really big you were process-driven and held back by scale, chasing after poor quality business, just keeping the lights on. I think that’s out of the window.

Consolidate

The move comes at the end of a rough year for Martin Sorrell’s ad-giant WPP, usually a bellwether for the state of the industry.

Whether market uncertainty or tight budgets, Facebook and Google’s Duopoly, the misplaced ads scandal, or the ever-growing scope of management consultancies, the network’s share price plunged.

In response, and as part of a wider industry trend of consolidation, WPP has been shedding excess weight.

Last year saw Possible merge with Wunderman, Rockfish with VML and Neo Ogilvy into Mindshare. MEC and Maxus were joined to form Wavemaker, a new global media network under GroupM. It’s what Sorrell describes as “horizontality.”

“I’d say it’s in consideration,” says Prior. “That strategy is in place because it’s the right strategy for the market, and I think we identified that, in our area of the business, it made sense to do something akin to that. I wouldn’t say it was the driver, but when you see that direction of travel and ask yourself would that make sense to us, and in our case the answer was yes, so we thought ‘okay let’s do that.’ It’s good for us, it’s good for WPP.”

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