15 Jan 2018
Steering the Superunion
Jim Prior, CEO and lead architect of WPP's new global brand consultancy, Superunion, is interviewed by Alexandra Garrett from The Wire.
Few CEOs have a coveted D&AD Black Pencil to their name, as Jim Prior does. He won it at The Partners with a campaign for London’s National Gallery called The Grand Tour, which took replicas of 44 paintings and hung them on the streets of London. “The brief was how do you get more people coming to the gallery? Our idea was that if you can’t take the people to the gallery, we’ll take the gallery to the people,” says the dapper Prior.
As someone who fiercely rejects the notion of siloes and divisions within agencies, it’s the most natural thing in the world to roll up his sleeves and get stuck in. “I am very hands on – I have an opinion about the work and I think everyone should,” he explains.
Prior is CEO of WPP’s latest baby, Superunion, the ‘next generation’ brand agency forged from the combination of The Partners, Brand Union, Lambie-Nairn, Addison and VBAT. He’s proud of the name. “It’s a super-charged union of businesses, and the underlying proposition behind it is that it’s the union of people and business that makes strong brands. We had an incredibly rigorous process to choose the name – we involved people from around the network and all the companies.”
The decision to bring together a number of branding and design agencies was made last year by Prior and Simon Bolton, previously CEO of Brand Union and now Superunion’s executive chairman. “We looked at the skills, capabilities and overlaps within the agencies and where they were distinctive, and we were firmly of opinion that we could achieve more in unity than in competition,” he says. “There’s an ever-increasing demand from clients for more joined up, holistic services.”
We were firmly of opinion that we could achieve more in unity than in competition.
Global CEO, Superunion
Size was also an important factor. The Partners, for one, missed out on opportunities because it didn’t have the necessary scale and awareness in the client world, says Prior. With 750 people in 24 countries, Superunion will be the clear No.1 among brand agencies in the UK and Europe, both in terms of size and breadth, and can focus on strengthening its position in markets like the US and China.
Superunion also claims to have devised a new agency model, one in which client relationships are led by senior practitioners with revenue responsibility, akin in some respects to a management consultancy. The agency aims to be less hierarchical than its antecedents, and will nurture C-suite level relationships at clients, seeking to develop deep understanding of their issues. The individual brands (with the exception of VBAT, still bedding down its acquisition of dBOD) will disappear immediately and their people be mixed together in a complete and thorough integration.
The benefit for clients will be access to a wider range of services in one agency, and one that is more strategic to boot. For Superunion’s people it will be exposure to a wider range of client opportunities in different sectors and geographies. London will be the biggest office with 250 people under one roof, and Prior says it will be “buzzing, like a beehive.”
And lest anyone worry that creativity will be a casualty, Prior promises that “the creative ambition of the business is at least the same – in fact higher – than it was in The Partners or any of the legacy companies.”
Superunion’s capabilities will embrace the established strengths of its legacy companies – motion graphic and video skills, brand strategy and innovation, packaging and retail design, identity and more – but will venture into advertising when it is relevant. “We are increasingly creating content that is more like advertising content,” says Prior. “We’ll never be an agency that produces fast turn fmcg product-led advertising, but if it’s brand-led purpose-driven work, we do a lot of that now.” Brand-building has evolved significantly in the digital age, he believes, and is of necessity much more accountable. “We have systems that allow us to manage the way brands get delivered, globally across all touchpoints and allow us to assess all the activity and strategy of a brand and to adapt, adjust, reset and re-purpose. Managing brands is less about command and control. They are now a feedback loop.”
"With 750 people in 24 countries, Superunion will be the clear No.1 among brand agencies in the UK and Europe"
Adopting a more scientific approach to brand building is unlikely to faze Prior. He studied Physics at university before starting his career in the unlikely setting of a textile mill in the north of England. Having learned about manufacturing processes, he then moved into fashion, first with Pepe Jeans, and subsequently co-founding a new label – Duck and Cover – with a couple of partners. “We built it quickly, and it was well received but we had no idea how to run a business so it went bust within two years,” says Prior ruefully. His next stop was at Levi Strauss UK where he became head of merchandising, and then onto shoe brand Converse, first as head of apparel, subsequently as head of marketing for EMEA. When the owners put it up for sale, Prior had 12 months to find a new job – and that’s when he realized that what he really wanted to do was work in a creative agency. He joined The Partners in 2001 and subsequently became CEO, adding Lambie-Nairn to his remit in 2014.
There’s no doubt he has grand designs for Superunion. “In three to five years’ time my ambition is to double or treble our size,” he says. “But size alone won’t be the real measure of our success; that will be our influence on the world.”
"Managing brand is less about command and control. They are now a feedback loop"
This article featured in the Q1 2018 edition of WPP's The Wire