Olivia Parker
Aug 9, 2018

Sorrell a 'very small dot in the rearview mirror': Superunion CEO

In Asia to see how his newly formed company is settling in, Jim Prior talks to Campaign Asia-Pacific about the agency's future, the impact of a pending trade war in China and how to avoid homogeneity in an age of mass digital transformation.

Jim Prior, global CEO of Superunion
Jim Prior, global CEO of Superunion

Martin Sorrell? “Honestly, we’ve moved on,” says Jim Prior, the global CEO of WPP’s seven-month old brand agency project, Superunion. Prior is in Hong Kong to see how well his newly minted company, which united five legacy WPP shops under one roof, is bedding down in the region. Though he worked with Sorrell for many years, questions about WPP’s former chief executive, whose new company S4 Capital has recently begun to hunt in the same woods as WPP, aren’t what Prior wants to talk about.

“We’re not spending our time thinking about what Martin is going to do or not do," Prior tells Campaign Asia-Pacific. "We’re focused on ourselves. It’s not up to me what happens in terms of the leadership of the company going forward, but we're in very, very good hands right now and I’m very, very supportive of that situation. We've got our eyes firmly fixed on the future, and I will say Martin is a long, long, long way behind in the rearview mirror now.”

From his current location in Asia, it’s easy to agree with Prior that Superunion, at least, is “moving forward at pace”, as he puts it. While the agency hasn’t quite doubled or tripled in size here yet, as Asia CEO Benedict Gordon predicted in an interview earlier in the year, Prior says the business is growing evenly across the region, from China and Hong Kong to Singapore and Thailand.

Every client that formerly belonged to the legacy agencies that now make up Superunion—The Partners, Lambie-Nairn, Addison, VBAT and Brand Union, which had the biggest individual footprint in Asia—has found the move positive, Prior claims. Moreover, the merged company has already picked up new work as a direct result of pooling its skills and services. Staff motivation is high, creative juices are flowing, he reports—and while there’s a limited amount of strictly Superunion work in the public domain as of yet, Prior has high hopes about filling the new company's cabinets with Lions and Spikes next year.

Prior is particularly confident of a shift in creative results from China, often stereotyped as lacking in originality when it comes to advertising. Superunion is as of yet a “relatively small” business in China, but Prior predicts the company will see its fastest growth there. This is thanks in part to a shift in attitude around creativity that he says is “perceptible” at the moment.

“It says actually, rather than being a following-type market, we want to be and want to be seen as a leading-type market," he says. "I think China has almost forced itself to make that choice as the economy has slowed a little, growth has slowed a little, as the horizons and opportunities for businesses go up. It can’t be a reactive market anymore, it’s becoming a much more proactive market.”

While Prior can’t comment on the rumours that WPP is in talks to sell a 20% stake of its China business to a consortium made up of Alibaba, Tencent and China Media Capital (“I know no more than anybody else on that”), he does state that Superunion will be helping both Chinese clients looking to grow within and outside China and non-Chinese clients hoping to move in.

He also thinks that the rapidly heightening threat of tariffs on trade between China and the US may in fact serve to highlight the need for companies like Superunion.

“If you impose a tariff on certain products, the businesses that will suffer will be those whose businesses or brands are commoditised," he explains. "So it increases the need for brands and branding to be done properly and thoroughly to look for points of distinction, competitive advantage and strong propositions that separate you out from a price based commodity product.”

Aside from impending trade wars, the main issues presented to Superunion by brands in the region at the moment tend to fall into two categories, according to Prior. The first concerns Asian brands asking how best to deliver a relevant offering to the outside world, a question Prior says he finds “fascinating”: “Is there a new China that can deliver itself, or a new Asia, that can deliver itself as a broader proposition than just a cultural one? I think too many companies trip up on the idea of culture in their brand. It’s not about Chinese culture, it’s about the relevancy of your brand full stop.”

The second issue centres on the timeless question of digital disruption, continues Prior, with all brands keen to understand the role of technologies in enhancing their propositions—and if everybody is going through the same digital and data-based transformations, it's about “how to become distinct within that”, says Prior. “The risk of digital disruption is that everybody ends up exactly the same in the same homogenous sea of Accenture-driven SAP-integration programme type of stuff.”

He believes that fear around this lack of differentiation means that companies are broadly more willing to take more creative, perhaps risky, approaches than they used to be: not long ago, he says, companies would ask him how they could be more like Apple. But when he’d tell them how to be more like Apple, they’d always shy away from the level of innovation required. These days, Apple is “old hat” in those conversations and the new questions are about how a brand can achieve the same levels of disruption as, say, Airbnb in the hospitality industry, says Prior. “There are few CEOs now who aren’t asking themselves that question.”

The same question, of course, is one that Prior is aware he’ll need find the answers to in his own business. The summary of his main challenge, he states, is to ensure that the boundaries of creativity at Superunion remain broader than those their clients can create themselves—and making sure that all works happens at breakneck speed. “Fast, fast, fast. Clients don’t want to sit down and go through a long ponderous programme of process-led stuff and get a Powerpoint deck at the end of it. They want things tomorrow, particularly in Asia...and our job is to make sure we do that.”

Campaign Asia

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