Why DaVinci Is Still a Work in Progress

NEW YORK It took five months and change, but WPP Group has finally succeeded in luring a leader to run the new agency it’s building to service the global Dell account.

Last week, Torrence Boone, president of Digitas’ Boston office, was named worldwide CEO for Project DaVinci.

So far, the recruiting process for DaVinci has been less than a work of art. The search for a CEO, during which WPP is said to have considered at least a half-dozen executives, illustrates the obstacles the holding company faces as it attempts to create a 1,000-person global shop from scratch.

Chief among those challenges is convincing potential candidates to buy into a strict diet of Dell. That focus around a single client is also seen by many to be a precarious situation for one’s career. Plus, the absence of an established culture at the shop has complicated the recruiting process, said sources.

The hiring of Boone came two months after WPP missed its publically stated goal of having 1,000 staffers on board by March 1. As of last week, the head count hovered around 600. True, WPP CEO Martin Sorrell’s goal, set in December, was ambitious, but the shortfall has many industry observers saying that working for DaVinci is a tough sell.

“Lack of a culture, lack of variety, lack of a career path. And then on top of all that, this specific client,” said one executive of the recruiting issues. “It’s not like you’re talking IBM or Microsoft here, in terms of stature, intellectual firepower.”

Eventually, the agency intends to pursue other clients, with the blessing of Dell vice president of global marketing Casey Jones, the central figure in the review last year that led to the Dec. 2 hiring of WPP. For now, however, the focus is on Dell, whose business generates an estimated $100 million in annual revenue.

Dell has a history of becoming restless, having worked with Lowe, DDB, BBDO and Mother since 2001, which leads some to wonder if the client will still be at WPP in three years, when an initial contract expires. “WPP is committed to it and Martin is committed to it. The question in my mind is, is Dell committed?” said one source.

Jones was not available for an interview last week, but a company representative addressed the questions about client commitment and agency recruitment.

“We have entered into this unique partnership and obviously have put in a lot of time and effort to help make this work,” said corporate affairs manager Caroline Dietz. “We believe that simplifying the engagement process between agency and client is a critical element of how we do marketing and branding going into the future. There’s no question that we’re committed to the model.”

As for WPP not hitting its March staffing goal, Dietz said Dell was more focused on the caliber and performance of the staffers than head count. And with the addition of Boone, who starts in June, DaVinci’s top management team — which includes chief creative officer Ken Segall, Consumer Solutions Group president Stephen Sonnenfeld and Business Solutions Group president Jeffrey Wilks — is now complete.

“It’s not about the number of people that they have in place by a certain date. It’s about the performance and the work that we’re seeing from them,” said Dietz. “Work did start March 1 in terms of transitioning some of the existing creative work.” She added: “To put it in context, this is an unprecedented speed and size of an undertaking that WPP and DaVinci are working toward. And from the Dell perspective, it has been a smooth process.”

Previously, Dell worked with more than 800 shops of all disciplines in different regions around the world. DaVinci — the agency’s temporary working name — is operating in four domestic cities and nine overseas, with plans to add more. With the help of WPP’s Landor Associates, the shop is close to selecting a permanent name. Synarchy is among several names WPP is considering, a DaVinci representative confirmed.

“Building a new model requires new talent. And sometimes it takes longer than you would like for that type of talent to be sourced and brought in,” said Sonnenfeld. “We’re hiring content-orientated people. We’re bringing in a lot of analytics people, a lot of interesting [customer-relationship management] people.”

“Also, we’re going outside the industry,” added Wilks. “We’re tapping clients for their resources because they understand the challenges, the totality of the marketing issues, often to a greater extent than the agency people, who work in specific disciplines.”

One candidate for the CEO job was intrigued by the entrepreneurial opportunity to create something new on a grand scale but was skeptical about its chances for success. “Your odds of success are very, very slim,” said the candidate. “It’s a gamble, but if you [succeed], you’ve pulled off something that no one has ever done before.”

Boone, 38, is described by current and former colleagues as likeable, upbeat, proactive and analytical. “He’s best known for being a good manager of people,” said a source. Another said of Boone, a former Bain & Co. senior manager, “He’s really smart and has good experience.”

Boone, who has an MBA from Harvard and a bachelor’s in economics, spent seven years at Publicis Groupe’s Digitas, working in Chicago and Boston. Before that, he was general manager of the New York office of Avenue A. His client experience ranges from Whirlpool, Bayer, Home Depot and Sara Lee at Digitas to L’Oreal and AstraZeneca at Avenue A.

In a news release, Sorrell cited Boone’s “deep experience across multiple marketing disciplines and his reputation as a developer of innovative marketing programs.” He added that Boone is “ideally suited for this critically important leadership role.” In the same release, Boone mentioned his desire to play a leading role in shaping a multi-disciplinary agency that has the potential to redefine the client-agency relationship. He declined an Adweek invitation to comment further.