How do you grow but keep creative control?

News that The Partners has struck a deal with US advertising group Young & Rubicam has sent remarkably few ripples across the design world.

News that The Partners has struck a deal with US advertising group Young & Rubicam has sent remarkably few ripples across the design world. The London consultancy has long been considered ripe for takeover, with founding partners Aziz Cami and David Stuart now of “a certain age” and the group’s reputation for blending business sense with outstanding creativity very much intact.

Even its internal shake-up some four years ago, with help from independent troubleshooter Ian Cochrane, wasn’t taken as a sign that The Partners had sold out. Having “suits” on board and moving into new areas such as digital media was made all the more respectable as a result.

If award-winning creative stalwarts Cami and Stuart – respectively past and future presidents of British Design & Art Direction – could take a new, businessy tack without compromising creativity then there would be a new role model to which others in the industry might aspire. It has worked, as both Design Week’s Top 100 (DW 31 March) and forthcoming Creative Survey (to be published next week) attest.

Now The Partners looks set to create a new model for creative groups that might have shied away from being bought by bigger outfits better known for their commercial strength. The Brand Union arguably led the way, when it struck a deal with WPP Group late last year – ironically, The Partners, which is said to have considered WPP too commercial for its taste, also now falls within Sir Martin Sorrell’s empire, following his acquisition of Y&R while this latest deal was on the table.

The big question now is which group will be next to sell (see VoxPop, page 11). The clever money was on Wolff Olins. As the only major corporate identity independent, it needs to have a global presence to continue to compete effectively against WPP’s Enterprise IG network, Omnicom-owned Interbrand and Interpublic Group’s FutureBrand. But reports are that it has shelved the notion of a merger, on the one hand, and that its price is too high to woo buyers, on the other.

Mergers are popular to achieve expansion, geographically and in expertise, but are they the only way? In the late 1980s consultancies such as Fitch expanded through flotation on the stock market – and a couple of digital media groups are toying with this, despite the exacting financial obligations to shareholders publicly quoted companies face. But there are those still bent on going it alone, a stance which hasn’t damaged their reputation. Pentagram is the classic case, but then there are the likes of The Attik and Deepend, both of which have spawned global networks. Are they ready to sell out? I think not.

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