Three years after launching a full-scale assault on the U.K. talent business, the William Morris Agency is retreating from the field without a victory.
WMA president and co-chief exec Jim Wiatt announced plans Monday to slash the London office by half, choosing instead to focus on the literary and TV packaging business.
The Old Blighty trimming had been anticipated for some time (Daily Variety, Dec. 20, 1999), coming on the heels of the recent slashing of the New York office after Wiatt took the reins.
“They had the right idea, just poor execution,” commented one top agent who described WMA’s new London digs as far fancier than its L.A. counterpart, and its management as ambitious but stretched too thin. “They just spent a lot of money on the wrong (things.)”
During the reign of erstwhile WMA prexy Arnold Rifkin, the company made what was, perhaps, the biggest-to-date investment for a U.S. agency in polishing its international profile outside the confines of Hollywood — a strategy that seems now to have been sacrificed for a more Beverly Hills-centric, bottom-line vision.
When WMA London talent head Sue Latimer left just before Christmas, many saw the departure as a harbinger of that office’s imminent downgrading.
Charles Finch, who joined in 1997 to spearhead the agency’s Euro offensive, is ankling with fellow agents Luc Roeg, Vanessa Pereira and Sophie Simpson to launch a management and production venture. Details have yet to be unveiled.
Steve Kenis, the veteran managing director of the London office, is also leaving after a very long tenure.
The role of managing director will be filled by Stephanie Cabot, head of WMA’s lucrative literary department in the U.K. Cabot handles the selling of U.K. and Commonwealth rights to authors such as Tom Clancy and Dean Koontz.
TV agent Hans Schiff and exec Philip Adler will also remain, while Tanya Cohen is moving to WMA’s office in Beverly Hills.
Wiatt said the London office will now concentrate on publishing, television, film financing, new technology and the Internet. It will seek a “complementary” relationship with other London-based agencies, instead of competing for their clients.
This finally brings to an end WMA’s ambitious attempt to beef up its underperforming London office in order to challenge the leading local players, including the U.K. arm of International Creative Management, Peters Fraser & Dunlop and Casaratto & Co.
Finch hired several new agents and moved from the Dickensian warren of offices overlooking Soho Square to swanky Mayfair digs near Green Park and the Ritz Hotel. The new threat from WMA galvanized its London rivals to sharpen up their performance but failed to deliver a rush of clients for WMA itself.
“What Charles was able to do in a short period of time was remarkable, but Duncan Heath at ICM had a very long 15-year head start,” Wiatt commented.
Brit TV imports
The one area where WMA did succeed in making a huge impact was in exporting British TV formats and producers to the U.S. networks. That business, pioneered by agent Ben Silverman, who is now based in New York, generated far more money for WMA than it could ever have dreamed of making in the conventional U.K. talent business.
“Our decision to restructure the London office was one we carefully considered,” Wiatt said. “It’s predicated on our board’s intent to take London in an entirely different direction. The adjustments we’ve made were based on domestic and international business projections for the next three to five years.”
WMA will continue to have a close relationship with Finch’s new venture, and they will share the existing WMA office for the time being.
“I am fully aware of Charles’ new business objectives,” Wiatt commented. “We are completely supportive of him and his plans going forward.”