The World: Can Cameron breathe life into troubled United?

Ewen Cameron will use his digital expertise to target luxury goods as he cuts his teeth on the network. John Tylee reports.

WPP's United network has tested Sir Martin Sorrell's patience as many times as it has changed its USP. Now it's Ewen Cameron's turn to lead an operation that has either defeated or totally frustrated his predecessors.

This month, Andy Berlin, Cameron's business partner of 14 years, steps down as the head of the network in favour of semi-retirement in Florida. Cameron, 43, extends his role as the chief executive of Berlin Cameron in New York to take command of United.

The personable Glaswegian is acclaimed as highly intelligent, naturally creative and an outstanding planner. But, having never run a network before, he might not have wished to cut his teeth on one with such a problematic history.

What's more, it's a network with no UK presence after WPP's decision to shut the ailing United London (formerly HHCL & Partners) a year ago after the catastrophic loss of its £75 million Sky account (it accounted for 70 per cent of the agency's income) and switching its remaining business into Grey.

Since then, United has largely kept itself to itself, not least because there hasn't been very much to shout about. Not even the change of leadership has been accompanied by much of a fanfare.

However, Laurence Mellman, 42, United's chief operating officer, insists it's been quietly putting its house in order. "There were people here who thought we would conquer the world," he admits. "Perhaps we've learned some humility. We're certainly profitable, and we're off the WPP blacklist. We're no longer having to concentrate on fixing problems."

Not before time, many would reply. United has struggled to carve an identity for itself since 1988, when it began life as the Conquest network to handle Alfa Romeo.

Subsequently, it morphed into Red Cell with an abortive attempt to become the champion of "challenger brands". Rebadged as United, aspirations to be a micro-network couldn't alter the perception of it as home to a hotchpotch of agencies acquired by WPP from the late 90s. "No thought was ever given to creating something with a cohesive strategy," Mellman says.

Today, United has slimmed down considerably with a nucleus of agencies on the US East and West coasts, Latin America, Spain, Italy, Scandinavia, France and Belgium. The fundamentals are in place, Cameron and Mellman claim. All that remains is winning some new business and the credibility that goes with it.

Whether United will finally provide Sorrell with the creatively led micro-network that WPP conspicuously lacks is an open question.

"It's been enormously frustrating for him that he has a group that includes JWT, Ogilvy & Mather and Grey, where creative standards vary, but he doesn't have a Bartle Bogle Hegarty-type offering," a source close to him says.

Cameron believes United's salvation lies in focusing heavily on digital. Berlin Cameron's creative department already has a highly evolved digital offering under Jacob Septimus. So also does United's Cole & Weber operation in Seattle. Cameron is eager that this should be replicated across the rest of the network.

Indeed, Cameron and Mellman suggest that if and when the time comes for United to re-establish a London presence, digital will be a priority.

"It's where some of the world's best digital creatives are to be found," Cameron says, while Mellman contends that a digital purchase would be in line with the coherent culture United is trying to create. "We don't want to shatter that with a large acquisition," he declares.

Meanwhile, Cameron has the network's sights set on what he calls "worldly brands" that have nothing to do with demographics or geography - such as luxury products - but are linked with a particular lifestyle and a likely to be heavily promoted online. Some who know him see a link with a working life that began in the music and fashion industries.

He cites United's work for Belevedere, developed in Poland as a luxury vodka and first introduced into the US in 1996. "This isn't an international brand, but one that appeals to a like-minded global audience," Cameron explains. "Its success won't be based on traditional local advertising. If we can tap more into that kind of business we can have a successful network."

Cameron and Mellman already see some growth opportunities. Berlin Cameron has been rebuilding its relationship with Coca-Cola since the drinks giant moved its $150 million North American account to Wieden & Kennedy in 2005. It was recently hired to handle global work for Vitamin Water, the energy-drink brand Coke acquired last year, and has been awarded other assignments led out of Spain and Latin America.

Meanwhile, Ford has also extended its link with the agency by having it work on its Lincoln brand. "I see my task as driving new business and, through that, building a collective culture across the network," Cameron says.

He expects Berlin Cameron to lead United's efforts to "internationalise" local assignments while the network continues to evolve into a "creative engine" for some of WPP's major clients.

For Cameron, a philosophy graduate, it's far cry from his early days as a planner at the then Boase Massimi Pollitt. He moved to New York in 1995 to work with Berlin, first at BMP's sister agency DDB and, later, at their own agency.

Mark Rapley, the headhunter who worked with Cameron at BMP, remembers him as someone "who wore his ambition on his sleeve but not in a way you could object to". Chris Powell, BMP's former chief executive, recalls him as highly intelligent and as good a creative as he was a planner.

Does all this stand him in good stead to run United? Ross Barr, another former colleague, says: "The only doubt is whether he'll get bored and frustrated by the job. But he's clever enough to do it. Of that, there's no question."

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