You might think that in agency circles, the collapse of a rival business would set the champagne corks popping – after all, that’s one less to worry about on the pitch-list. If so, the demise of Campaign’s one-time ‘Agency of the Decade’ would demand the dusting off of a very special vintage.
However, when news first broke of the collapse of Rapier, it’s fair to say the celebrations were slightly muted, with the first thought of many agency bosses more akin to ‘there for the grace of God go us’. For WDMP chief executive Gavin Wheeler, the collapse was even more personal.
As a former client of Rapier while at Cable & Wireless (now Virgin Media), Wheeler still goes for the odd ‘sherry’ with Jonathan Stead and former creative chief John Townshend (who recently co-founded the agency Now), and has been a long admirer of their work.
He explains: “I was always impressed and inspired by what they had built, so I guess I’ve always tried to replicate everything that made them successful – clever thinking, a true understanding of customer insight and journey planning matched to great creative. They both gave me a lot of advice when I started WDMP.
“Equally, I think there’s learning to be gained from their downfall, you must keep listening to your clients, ensure that you remain relevant and deliver results.”
So does the fear of ‘doing a Rapier’ keep Wheeler awake at night? “Agency life can be quite a fickle business; you can, through no fault of your own, be only two phone calls away from disaster,” he stresses. “Thinking about how we can continuously strive to improve our business, get closer to clients, keep delivering – especially in a recession and as an independent – is more than enough to lose a few hours kip.”
The early years
Born and raised in Buckinghamshire, Wheeler moved to London in the early Eighties to study for a business studies degree and found a natural affinity with marketing, although this may have been instilled at an early age as his father worked in marketing for Rank.
Having graduated, he got a job at AGB Nielsen Media Research and then joined agency Promotional Campaigns. One of his former bosses – deputy managing director Andrew Orbell – says: “Gavin has a very open and inclusive style that endears him to both colleagues and clients alike – you’re never far from an honest point of view or a laugh!”
Within a year Wheeler had switched client-side to become brand manager at Toyota, taking on the role of area sales manager after three years. By 1997, he had joined Cable & Wireless as head of acquisition marketing, where he stayed for six years through its transition to NTL. Having started as the sole marketer, Wheeler was instrumental in building the marketing department to a 50-strong team during this period. He also won numerous DMA Golds, courtesy of – you guessed it – the guys at Rapier.
In November 2001, he moved to Amazon.com to develop its pan-European CRM strategy, but within a year he had hatched a plan with his younger brother Craig – who once joked on LinkedIn that he was quantum physicist but who had actually followed his sibling’s lead and worked at IMP and The Marketing Store – to launch their own agency. In October 2002, Wheelers Direct Marketing & Promotions opened for business and these days counts Tesco Bank, Freeview, Philips and Starbucks among its client list.
Keeping it in the family
So, what did he take from his client days to make WDMP a better agency? “The most valuable thing I learned, and something that is instrumental to our business today, is that the client is always more important than the agency process,” Wheeler says. “Put simply, clients have problems and agencies should be there to deliver solutions. For a client, managing your agency should never become one of the tasks on a never-ending list of things to do – we are there to add value, not create issues.
“I spend a lot of time telling junior team members just how unimportant they can be in a client’s day. They don’t spend all day staring at creative and waiting until 5.30pm to tell us to make the logo bigger. They have greater challenges to deal with – not least of which is sales delivery. Account teams can learn a lot from understanding the pressures clients are under and just quite what being ‘brave about creative’ means in a corporate environment.
He also has little truck with the egotists. He adds: “Where do I think agencies go wrong? In a word ‘arrogance’ – thinking that clients read our own trade publications like Campaign, believing their own PR and hype and thinking that they are more important than the client. An agency is only as good as the results of its last campaign.”
Challenges for agencies
And with digital now such as large part of any brand’s marketing, Wheeler recognises there are huge challenges for agencies. “All agencies, especially direct ones, must be fully conversant with all things digital and indeed mobile, but more importantly they must understand which channels will truly deliver to a client’s objectives, both short and long term.
“There are far too many distracting digital vanity projects going on which, although look great, drain ever-valuable budget, time and resource and actually do nothing to help deliver objectives or achieve the required results.”
And clients have their own issues. As Wheeler explains: “Clients could do better investing more time in providing high-quality briefings and in building long-term partnership relationships with their agencies.
“The closer you allow your agencies to get to your business, the greater the understanding; the more time you invest with them the better the work, and ultimately, the results you achieve. It is often that one golden nugget of information that can turn a good campaign into a great campaign. Finally, you need to pay for quality.”
Where is the expertise?
Where does he believe the expertise lies now, within client organisations or agencies? “I think it’s a bit of both really – there are some great client organisations doing fantastic things in digital,” explains Wheeler. “However, in most cases, with client pressures tending to be more about delivering short-term sales from within their own silos, it’s agencies who have the breadth of marketing experience and are able to take a step back, look at the bigger picture and longer term view.
“This means they can share best practice from a variety of sectors without being impacted by the internal pressures and politics. This is definitely one of the areas where I believe we can truly add value.”
Yet he does recognise that not all clients see it this way. Wheeler says: “With many services such as email campaigns and social media being taken in-house by clients, the big issue for agencies is how to continue to show their relevance and identify how and where they can truly add value.
“This problem will become increasingly pressing as clients begin to take the whole range of agency services in-house, as Jaguar has done.”
Where does this leave agencies, five, ten or even 15 years down the line? Do they have a future? Wheeler believes so. He says: “I recently wrote a paper for the DMA on the agency of the future titled ‘Evolve or Perish’ where I came to the conclusion that, despite the plethora of new media opportunities, whether bought, earned or owned; it is still all about memorable ideas that engage.
“It is therefore the role of the agency to make sense of all the new digital communication opportunities and help clients commercialise them. We need to become true business partners with our clients and perhaps should look at how to reflect this in how we remunerate ourselves, sharing in the risk and the reward.”
What about his own future? “Last year I spent some time teaching sport in India and met a remarkable man who has built a successful educational business – the profits from which provide free education for over 15,000 kids a year. Social enterprise is definitely something that I would like to explore next.”
Yet with three pre-teenage children, Wheeler admits that home life can be pretty hectic: “I come to work to relax,” he jokes.
As a self-confessed fitness nut, Wheeler is often found pounding the streets. “I always try to find time to train for something, be it a duathlon, triathlon, marathon or road race. I have managed to weave much of my training into my commute – cycling and running to and from work. I also coach, referee and help organise Mini Rugby for London Irish. Occasionally I sleep.”
And Wheeler’s self-deprecating and personable style has obviously earned him the respect of his peers. As current client, Freeview head of marketing Owen Jenkinson concludes: “Gavin is one of the good guys. But he’s also great fun and a genuine pleasure to work with.”