Would you Adam+Eve what agencies call themselves these days?

October 5, 2010

The Assembly has just won the global account of big-four auditor Ernst & Young. Apparently, it produced a better ‘toolkit for accountants’ than anyone else. Ah well, you nod sagely, it’s obviously a B2B account – dull as ditchwater; no wonder it’s been won by an agency no one’s ever heard of before.

But you’d be profoundly wrong. In fact the pitch was highly competitive, handled by the AAR and featured about a dozen of adland’s finest – including BBH, Engine and Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy (MCBD). Perversely, The Assembly is probably the one name that wouldn’t trip off your tongue if you roll-called the whole longlist.

Sterling Cooper: When names were just names

Which brings me to my point. The Assembly is one of a crop of new agency names that vie with each other for esoteric distinction – but jeopardise their USP by being obscure and unmemorable. If the current name-game puzzles me, it must surely puzzle clients too.

How has this rash of self-indulgent agency nomenclature come about? Once upon a time it was oh-so-simple. Agencies were people businesses that recommended their brand through the charisma and usefulness of their founders. So, in the mists of time, we have J. Walter Thompson, Lord & Thomas, Ted Bates, Young & Rubicam, Ogilvy & Mather.

By the sixties, creativity has become the extra magic ingredient in the shingle. It put the Bill Bernbach into Doyle Dane, or for that matter the Draper into Sterling Cooper. Then in the seventies and eighties (a very British thing, this) comes the apotheosis of the planner: Boase Massimi Pollitt, Bartle Bogle Hegarty and Simons Palmer Clemmow & Johnson. It was rare that anyone tore up the rulebook. True, there was the odd alien intervention such as Mojo from Australia; and of course the inimitable Andy Law, who founded St Luke’s. But wackiness came at a steep price. Mojo quickly lost its, and Law was a lot less successful in his next incarnation, which by its very name set itself up for a fall. Boymeetsgirl became Boyleavesgirl after Law quarrelled with his creative director Kate Stanners, and she quit.

You’d think this might be lesson enough for eager young entrepreneurs, but no. Today weird names have become the orthodoxy, and I’ve no doubt it has something to do with digital fragmentation and the increasing difficulty of framing the creative challenge.

Now, I’m all for imagination as long as it means something. Mother, Adam & Eve, yes (doh, it’s all about creativity). Glue: clever idea, sticking it all together. Saint@rkcr/y&r, sort of: bit of a mouthful though. Th_nk? No th*nk you: however pithy, it’s a sub’s nightmare; don’t ever expect a write-up in the FT. Lean Mean Fighting Machine? Looks a bit tame and flabby now it has been fired by Coke (see Andy Law above). 18 Feet and Rising? P-lease. How are we to know this is an obscure allusion to the excessive height of the agency’s three founders – and, even if we do, who cares?

And so on. Which brings me back to The Assembly. Actually, for all its superficial resemblance to a political convention or a Pentecostal sect, the name is not without relevance to the agency world. It reflects a pooling of creative talent. I quote from the CV of one of the founders: “The Assembly’s membership includes 12 Executive Creative Directors and 10 Creative Directors of some of the world’s most creative agencies, London’s foremost women’s artistic collective, a Harvard and MIT professor of culture and consumption, the creative duo behind cult Italian and Swedish fashion brands, the ex-manager of The Rolling Stones, the PR person for rock stars and presidents, a couple of renowned urban artists, one of the world’s most acclaimed architects and the man behind one of the most influential style websites, to name a few.” Phew, manage that if you can.

Such, though, are the complex, chaotic demands of creativity these days. No wonder agencies are suffering from an identity crisis.

Cracks show as creative chief Roddy quits BBH New York

September 29, 2010

To lose one senior executive may be considered a misfortune, but to lose two begins to look like carelessness. Or, in the case of Kevin Roddy, chief creative officer of BBH New York, like an increasing inability to control a fast-unravelling situation.

Chairman Steve Harty was told to go, back in July. The surmise was that he had become too expensive a luxury in the wake of BBH’s sudden and unpredictable loss of the newly-won $270m Cadillac account.

Roddy on the other hand, who is well-respected and well-liked, has quit of his own volition. And clearly in uncomfortable circumstances, for John Hegarty – BBH’s creative doyen – has conceded that there were “disagreements” over the creative direction of the office – not the anodyne euphemism that routinely accompanies executive departures.

What these “disagreements” were is not entirely clear, although we may guess that lack of money  – and the constraint it is imposing on freewheeling creativity – was not entirely unrelated to the bust-up. It is known that a number of creative directors under Roddy have been discreetly looking around recently – testimony that the creative department has not been a happy working environment for some time. Roddy may well have been overstretched. After six years serving as chief creative officer, his duties were extended earlier this year to helping the new chief executive  – and former planner – Greg Anderson with the day-to-day running of the agency.

Interestingly, Roddy had this to say to Ad Age last week, before the storm broke: “Creativity used to be put on a pedestal, and I don’t think that’s the case any more. Creative people have become more of a commodity, and I think that takes the wind out of them. The creative ego is a very important thing, because it drives talent. But it’s also a very fragile thing.”

Like Harty, Roddy lent American credibility to what, in the opinion of critics, was too-British an operation. Roddy, however, is a much more serious loss.

Lévy makes waves in Brazil, but who’s making the profit?

August 26, 2010

“We believe this will be the decade of Latin America, driven by the Olympics and the World Cup.” Who’s this speaking? In fact, WPP chief Sir Martin Sorrell, referring specifically to one of his favourite BRIC markets; but it might just as well have been his indefatigable rival, Publicis Groupe ceo Maurice Lévy, who has been hoovering up Brazilian advertising agencies as if there’s no tomorrow.

He recently bought a smallish, but trendy, digital agency AG2 , which has been stitched onto Publicis Modem. His latest headline-grabber is a bid for Talent, a privately-owned creative agency that counts Sony, Timberland and Santander among its clients.

According to the Financial Times, which broke the story today, a successfully concluded deal will give Talent a sky-high valuation of $200m (it employs about 200 people), making selling out to the big networks a highly attractive option for other independent São Paulo agencies.

One of Lévy’s gifts as a dealmaker is his ability to seduce his acquisitions into the group as “partners”, leaving them a strong independent identity less liable to defection once the earnouts are paid. The stake in BBH, still 49%, is the most notorious example. With AG2, he has been careful to remodel the network name as AG2 Publicis Modem, in Brazil. At least for now.

The thinking behind the Talent deal is no different. I’m told it’s actually a disguised takeover, to spare the acquired agency’s blushes. Publicis will take 49% when the deal is initially concluded, 11% in 6 months and the rump-end 40% in 3 years’ time. Founder Julio Ribeiro plans to stay on, but he’s of Ed Meyer vintage (78 to be precise); and the chief executive is himself 58.

Talent is a decent agency, with post-tax profits of about $15m (swelled by the Santander account) on revenues of about $50m. But the deal – though a good headline-catcher – is not game-changing for Publicis in Brazil. WPP, which itself showed earlier interest in the agency, is the dominant force. Talent is 15th in the market ranked by billings (according to the latest IBOBE figures, which exclude other marketing services revenue). Publicis’ top Brazilian agency, F/Nazca Saatchi & Saatchi, is ranked 10th, Leo Burnett 13th, Publicis Worldwide 22nd, and Salles Chemistry 33 . But WPP’s Y&R is number one, JWT number 2 and Ogilvy number 3, with Grey trailing at 41. Aggregate score? WPP 1, Publicis (even including Talent) 3.

Why BBH had to let Steve Harty go

July 22, 2010

First it lost the $270m Cadillac account, then it resigned the foundation Levi’s business after no new campaign in nearly two years. Now we hear Steve Harty, eminence grise of its New York shop these past five years, is being let go. It looks, to surface appearances, as if BBH and its micro-network model, is in a downward spin.

None of this is good news, granted. But it’s not quite so grim as it first appears.

Commentators have been quick to place Joel Ewanick, GM’s maverick new marketing supremo, at the centre of events; and they’re not entirely wrong. The rabid Red Queen of marketing (“Off with their heads!”) – as he’s becoming known – certainly didn’t help matters when he pronounced the death sentence on BBH’s “Mark of Leadership” strapline. But easy come, easy go. BBH New York had only held the account for six months. The business wasn’t there long enough to qualify as a foundation client, like Unilever or Diageo.

The loss does, however, have a direct bearing on Mr Harty’s “future direction”.  Harty, previously the ceo of Merkley Newman Harty, was brought in about 5 years ago as chairman of the New York office, to lend an American accent to what was seen as too quintessentially British. Things had not been going that swimmingly under his predecessor Cindy Gallop – herself a British national of long-matured BBH London vintage. In the event, I’m not sure how well the Stars & Stripes card, of itself, worked in pulling new business; but of one thing we can be certain: Steve Harty came with a very high price tag.

Fast forward most of those five years to winter 2010. A senior management reshuffle at BBH New York left Harty looking vulnerable. Emma Cookson, the long-serving ceo who seems to have done much of the heavy lifting in the New York office, stepped up to Harty’s role while he himself became group chairman of North America, in charge of digital production, brand-creation operation Zag and new acquisitions. The reshuffle happened immediately after the Cadillac win; but just as importantly, in the wake of a new dictum from London HQ: that senior executives should spend more time servicing key clients. In Cookson’s case, the client was Cadillac. Which means, in theory, that she now has a lot more management time on her hands.

Subtract Cadillac, and Harty – nice guy though he evidently is – becomes the white elephant in the room. A luxury too expensive to maintain.

The end of a riveting tale – BBH resigns Levi’s account

July 15, 2010

It’s probably entirely coincidental that BBH’s resignation of the Levi’s account, which the agency serviced with distinction for 28 years, surfaced about the same time as the jeans manufacturer’s second quarter financial results. A constructive coincidence, all the same. If not exactly dire, the results graphically illustrate how far down in the world the Levi’s brand has come: the company compounded a multi-million dollar loss.

In its day – 15 to 20 years ago – Levi’s was a sobriquet for jeans, at a time when everyone of consequence thought it cool to wear jeans. Now they don’t. Or if they do, it’s 7 For All Mankind for upmarket, Gap for downmarket and Diesel for youff – with Levi’s perched somewhere uncomfortably in between. The market for nostalgic Americana has vanished, probably for ever.

Levi’s iconic status arose, in business terms, out of a structural imbalance. The company’s own retail presence was extremely weak outside the USA – even today it does not own all its outlets, leading to an impression of inconsistency. Advertising supplied the deficit, literally driving people into the shops to buy the stuff. That’s a relatively unusual situation in the rag trade; even more unusual is the idea of trusting the agency’s judgement in these matters. But Levi’s did, with astonishingly productive consequences.

You can view BBH’s contribution as a number of discrete, highly visual campaigns – from Launderette, Swimmer through to the Flat Eric vehicle and beyond. Everyone has their favourite. The magical insight, however, was not so much what they looked like, but what they sounded like. The estates of, among others, Marvyn Gaye, Eddie Cochrane, Sam Cooke and Dinah Washington (Mad About the Boy) have every reason to be grateful to BBH. A few years later, in the mid-nineties, the agency moved on from resurrecting the fortunes of dead artists to making the fortunes of new ones, such as Babylon Zoo in “Spaceman”  and Mr Oizo in “Flat Beat”.

Latterly, however, Levi’s seems to have lost faith in advertising and BBH in Levi’s. It’s not just that the jeans brand is becoming more penny-pinching as it tries to cope with commoditisation; BBH has, these past two years, found it a great deal more difficult (I understand) to get its creative proposals accepted. Even so, it must have been with a heavy heart that Nigel Bogle, BBH group chief executive, composed the letter firing one of his original, and signature, clients.

BBH director defects – but not to WPP

October 30, 2009

MahoneyI see the diaspora of talent from BBH has claimed another emigré. This time, it’s from the creative department. Mick Mahoney, a creative director, has quit to become ECD at Euro RSCG – which has been bereft of a creative chief since Mark Hunter went to TBWA\London, back in April.

At least Mahoney didn’t defect to a WPP agency. For a while, it was beginning to look personal; or, alternatively, as if WPP lacked imagination in the talent department.

Baillie and Hatton defection to Ogilvy creates ripples at BBH

October 14, 2009

Baillie/HattonWhat’s really interesting about the appointment of Hugh Baillie as chief executive of Ogilvy Advertising is that he’s part of a breakaway. And the break is away from Bartle Bogle Hegarty.

Former group business director Baillie is being joined by Rachel Hatton as group head of strategic planning, and planning director at the ad agency. Hatton was head of planning at BBH during what may come to be seen as its heyday, when it won all those awards, culminating in the IPA Grand Prix and Agency of the Year title in 2008. Baillie helped to win the global Johnnie Walker business and has led some of the agency’s key accounts, Axe/Lynx, Britvic and Surf among them. Both are BBH stalwarts, Baillie having joined from Saatchi & Saatchi in 1998, and Hatton from Boase Massimi Pollitt (BMP) in 2000.

So, this is a significant coup for Ogilvy and a significant set-back for BBH. Baillie and Hatton come as a team (for example, they both worked on Britvic). It’s a little like that buddy-buddy wrench at DDB London when Paul Hammersley, then ceo, and David Hackworthy, planner, quit to go to The Red Brick Road in 2005.

What makes this worse for BBH is that the defection of senior staff to WPP agencies is becoming a habit. Richard Exon, ceo of RKCR/Y&R, once occupied a similar position to Baillie at BBH. True, he was seduced across at managing director level, and got the top job only after James Murphy set up his own agency, Adam & Eve. But let’s not split hairs. There was also the unfortunate matter of John O’ Keefe, who sat in the BBH creative pantheon only one echelon below Sir John Hegarty. He decided to seek his fortune as global creative director at WPP. Then there’s Guy Murphy, head of global planning, and Russell Ramsey, executive creative director, JWT London. Why has JWT come knocking on BBH’s door? Well, who else’s? BBH is the one to beat in JWT’s competitive creative set, and has the most clients in common (Unilever, Diageo and Vodafone spring to mind). If you can’t beat them, get them to join you, you might say.

Nor is the BBH exodus confined to WPP. Derek Robson quit to go to Goodby, in the USA, as a managing partner; Penny Herriman is managing director and – some would say – soon to be ceo of WCRS; Chris Harris was poached as managing director of Leagas Delaney.

Swallows not making a summer? Well maybe. Any agency which has attained the status of BBH is fair game for the headhunter. In a  sense, it’s a back-handed  compliment that rival agencies feel the need to pillage BBH for top talent.

Nonetheless, another conclusion can also be drawn. And I would be very surprised if this did not condition the thinking of at least some of those senior people who have recently defected. BBH is now 27 years old and in the throes of generational change. It has greatly expanded (into a micro-network) – which in itself offers fresh opportunity for younger talent. And in fairness it has tried hard to bring on a cohort of younger managers – of which London chief executive Gwyn Jones is perhaps the most prominent example. This has not been enough to quell mutinous thoughts in the marzipan layer, a few to the point of defecting. Of course, some of these people may have been talented, but not talented enough. BBH, like everyone else, has had to make some harsh decisions about the size of its workforce, which has been, literally, decimated. One in ten has gone or is going. Nevertheless, I cannot believe that every one of the top-flight defectors has had an assisted exit. After all, it’s also the case that the route upstairs, managerially speaking, is now blocked; and for ambitious people that is a signal to start looking elsewhere.

It is hard to think of BBH without Nigel Bogle, Jim Carroll or Simon Sherwood. On the other hand, if they do not outline their retirement plans in the foreseeable future, the result will be rebellion or atrophy. BBH, at very best, will become less an agency, more a law firm overloaded with “partners”. Not an enticing prospect for the UK’s premier creative shop.

Unilever, P&G and the mystery of Publicis’ Pour Tout Vous Dire CRM acquisition

September 9, 2009
Nicolas Zunz

Zunz: What conflict?

I cannot have been alone in wondering why Publicis Groupe made such a hullabaloo over its acquisition of French CRM site Pour Tout Vous Dire at the beginning of the month. Coming after the $530m Razorfish acquisition, it’s a drop in the ocean. Worse, so much publicity seemed to magnify a potential conflict of interest.

Let me explain. PTVD – roughly,  “Everything You Need to Know” – is a customer relationship project aimed at mothers, which has been developed by Unilever – although only in France. A magazine, which accompanies the site, comes out three times a year, but reaches 2 million people. PTVD is a tiddly operation, with no more than 15 staff. Indeed, this seems to be part of its problem: it is under-resourced and Unilever does not have the capacity to develop it further. Publicis has agreed to take it off Unilever’s hands for an undisclosed sum (for which read peanuts) and relaunch the site next year.

Let’s reel back here for a moment. Unilever selling a site to Procter & Gamble’s bulwark agency group? All right, client conflicts are not what they used to be. WPP, for example, now handles both P&G (at Grey) and Unilever (at JWT). And Publicis Groupe has long since managed to ringfence Unilever business through its 49% stake in BBH. All the same, call me old fashioned…

Light has been shed on these mysteries in an interview given to AdWeek by Nicolas Zunz, co-president of Publicis Dialog in Paris. Zunz has been named chairman of the new acquisition; Muriel Hayat, a former Unilever CRM manager, will be his chief executive. The interview raises as many questions as it answers.

It seems that Unilever was in over its head. It had developed an interesting property, but lacked a sufficiently wide portfolio to create traction for the site. Publicis’ plan is to create an open-architecture site, which will be supplemented by content from some of its other packaged goods clients, such as Nestlé, L’Oréal and…P&G. Zunz sees no problem here: “The contract with Unilever is very clear about this. We can have some brands for Procter & Gamble if they’re not (direct) competitors with the brands of Unilever. So, it’s a huge opportunity for P&G…”! And Unilever? Well, Unilever may eventually find itself written out of the script, once its five-year licensing deal comes to an end. It will be “a privileged partner”, of course, but the Unilever logo is to be dropped with the next iteration of the site. Zunz talks confidently about taking the eCRM concept abroad with the collaboration of “a Nestlé or with Procter & Gamble”. No mention of Unilever there.

Curiouser and curiouser.

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