The one thing that everyone at WPP is agreed on is Sir Martin Sorrell's ability to know what's going on around his group of companies, down to the most alarmingly small detail. It's one of his biggest, and perhaps most annoying, strengths as a leader. Yet the ad created by Y&R Buenos Aires, showing an Argentinian athlete exercising on a memorial to a British soldier, seems to have caught Sorrell surprisingly unawares.
He wasted no time condemning the ad and agreeing to donate any money made by the agency from the film to armed forces charities. Such a swift and decisive response drew a lot of sting out of the story. But it has been a fascinating, embarrassing and damning drama, exacerbated by reports that the idea for the film was driven by the Y&R team in Buenos Aires, which then touted it around potential clients before managing to sell it to the Argentinian government. If the reports are true, they propel the agency from mere servant of the government's marketing demands to aggressor.
For a subsidiary of a British company to produce an ad politicising the Olympics in the year we are the host nation is deeply embarrassing for WPP, for the British government, for the Olympics committee. Consider, too, that Y&R's London office is producing the BBC's own Olympics trailers - in effect, being paid to do so by British taxpayers. And that another WPP agency, JWT London, recently won the account for Army recruitment.
We can only, for the moment, imagine what conversations are taking place between WPP HQ and its Argentine subsidiary. But WPP must proceed with extreme caution now. The film will have many supporters in Argentina, for whom it expresses a strongly held belief in the country's sovereignty over the Falkland Islands. Viewed as it was intended - as an ad for Argentina and Argentinians, rather than (necessarily) for international consumption - the ad is perfectly tailored to its cultural climate. Dig around and every advertising network will surely find it has produced ads in one country that would be deemed offensive in another.
Producing an ad that causes such acute embarrassment to WPP on its home turf is perhaps unforgivable. And the ad's creators surely displayed a ridiculous naivety if they neglected to warn their parent company of the possible fallout from their work. But can WPP afford to send a signal to its offices around the world that there is a central, lowest-common-denominator arbiter of what's creatively appropriate? Not if it wants to reassure its people that they work for a company that respects local cultures, embraces creative flair and confers a degree of independence on its businesses, in spite of Sorrell's famously hands-on approach. WPP has already dealt with the farrago with a degree of elan externally. How it now proceeds to deal with it internally will be an important signal to its agencies of exactly what sort of parent WPP is striving to be.
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