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.

%d bloggers like this: