Loss of independence can affect work quality

It was inevitable that Wolff Olins would eventually strike a deal with a global network, despite protestations that it intended to remain independent. It had to extend its worldwide reach to compete fully with the likes of Interbrand, now its stablemate within the Omnicom Group, FutureBrand and Enterprise IG.

Wolff Olins could, as managing director Charles Wright has said, have gone it alone, merely seeking backing for its expansion plans. Lloyds TSB Development Capital had a 33 per cent shareholding in Wolff Olins following the 1997 management buyout (since bought by Omnicom), so the consultancy’s management team is used to finding cash. It could have created its own network, via organic growth, acquisition or through the collaborations it already enjoys. It has, after all, successfully launched outside Europe – in New York, San Francisco and now Tokyo – under its own steam.

But all of these measures would take time and energy at senior level. And with the top team’s eye diverted from a group’s main focus, the first things to suffer are usually staff morale and the quality of the work. As Wolff Olins prides itself on quality – and is respected for its consistently high standards – it is a risk it couldn’t afford to take.

The challenges facing it now though are probably as great – to retain the autonomy Wright says comes with the Omnicom deal, and to mesh its quality-led culture across a growing global network. It has to be perceived as Wolff Olins wherever it lands.

This second point is common to all groups entering the global arena. The dangers are that having built up a reputation for fantastic work, the offer becomes watered down as the group expands, or that a strong culture that works in the UK is imposed in countries where it doesn’t.

To hang on to their values, founders of global independents such as Deep Group or The Attik are constantly on planes, travelling between international offices. Others, such as branding superstar Mary Lewis, prefer to remain small, possibly opening a small European office, as Lewis Moberly has done in France, but often just to serve a particular client. They make a conscious decision not to over extend themselves to keep their integrity intact.

There is no one way to maintain creative standards. Each consultancy has to find its own route. It is encouraging though that Wolff Olins has put high quality and harmony at the top of its agenda. Like The Partners, now part of WPP Group, and other ‘jewels’ of corporate design, it must fight for quality and not let financial performance become the overriding cause. It will be interesting to see how it does it.

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