Is UK restructure a backwards step for Carat?

Horler and de Groose, happily united?

So Rob
Horler is no longer managing director of Carat, but then neither, yet again, is
deputy MD Steve Hobbs, what to make of it all?

A restructure
in the UK, announced at the
start of the month
, catapults long-time consultant Tracy de Groose into Carat’s
hot seat, while Hobbs
becomes director of media operations for Aegis Media.

The
decision to change group dynamics yet again, little more than a year after its
last major shake-up, when Horler was drafted in from digital agency Diffiniti,
asks more questions than it answers.

Cast your mind back to the summer of 2009 – it was raining… Gordon Brown was
still in power, Chelsea had won the FA Cup, and
Horler was hailed as an industry pioneer, after becoming the first digital
specialist to climb to the top of a UK agency.


“A sign of the times,” came the cry, and Carat wallowed in plenty of praise and
the widely held belief that finally here was an agency that had put its money
where its mouth was, rather than just talking the talk about ‘putting digital
at the heart of its business’.

I remember sitting in Horler’s new office for more than an hour hearing about
his plans for the place upon arrival; they amounted to no less than a
fundamental agency overhaul and shift in the way it operates, encompassing everything
from how accounts were serviced, clients billed, and teams organised, to,
ultimately, the very business of media itself.

He was passionate, articulate and considered, and with the business becoming
increasingly commoditised, promised a welcome step change at the UK’s largest
independent media agency.

So why, 15
months later, is 41-year-old Horler moving to pastures new, and leaving the
direction of Carat in the hands of de Groose, better known by her maiden name
Tracy Darwen, who is by all accounts a very shrewd operator?

The
official line is that Aegis’s amiable chief executive Nigel Sharrocks needs
help and support in handling UK
group operations. To be fair with Carat, Glue Isobar, iProspect, Posterscope
and Vizeum now all in the mix, stitching it all together at group level can be
no easy task, but why Horler and why now?

As he himself acknowledged upon arrival, establishing the right sort of team
ethic was going to play an essential part of his role. Running a business such
as Diffiniti with less than 100 staff is very different to running a business handling
around £700m worth of billings and some 400 people.

Evaulating his performance today,
Horler is not helped by his own work motto: “You are only as good as the last
thing you did.” On paper, the facts of Horler’s short tenure make for uncomfortable reading. Carat
has failed to win any major pieces of business since the departure of former MD
Neil Jones.

In his first six months in the role, Horler’s time was largely consumed by the
looming behemoth that was the COI review. Undoubtedly the media account consolidation
of the year, it was one that would have been an ideal showcase for Horler’s new
regime, with its emphasis very much on digital innovation and integration.

Failure to win it, and in the process losing the multi-million pound billings
from the COI’s TV and cinema accounts
which the agency had handled for the
last five years, would have hit hard. Once you throw in the cruel £55m loss
of Vodafone less than a year after Jonesy’s team had won it, you realise the agency’s back has been firmly pinned against the wall.

During the period, Carat’s greatest
achievements amount to extending relationships with British Gas and retaining
Alberto Culver. The agency has picked up smaller pieces of business, including Travelodge
and PayPal, but hardly substantial enough pickings for an agency of its size. Billings must be more
than £100m down year on year.

Unfortunately, I think the
prevailing economic climate has not lent itself to awarding innovation and
free-thinkers in the business. The bottom-line has been top of mind in most
media reviews throughout the past 18 months, and Carat has paid the price.

De Groose, of Naked and Starcom
fame, comes with strong media credentials, and a good understanding of how
Carat operates. As a woman MD, her appointment does mark another first for
Carat, which for years has been a hive of testosterone.

It will be interesting
to see if Horler’s plans for a more consultancy-led approach to the business are adopted, adapted
or abandoned in the coming months.