SUPER TROOPER

Barraclough Hall Woolston Gray is a classic victim of its own success.

Barraclough Hall Woolston Gray is a classic victim of its own success. In the past 12 months it has added 11 new clients, handled 60 projects, boosted its income by 60 per cent and hired 100 people. The appointment of Dennis Kerslake, former managing director of below-the-line agency Carlson UK and, as of this week, managing director of BHWG, is an admission that the growth has to be managed. He has been taken on board to sort out the problems caused by this rapid growth. Rivals have called the agency a “sweatshop”, but that may well amount to jealousy of a client list which includes Volkswagen, Alliance & Leicester, BAA and BT. Kerslake calls it a place with growing pains. With one eye on publicity, he says: “You don’t go from being an agency billing 60m to one billing 94m and with 100 additional staff taken on in one year without having some fall-out. My job is to tighten the reins.” More precisely his job is to put the brakes on the six-year-old agency’s rampant growth, both of staff hired and accounts won. “This is a very ambitious agency and we want to keep growing. Consolidation does not necessarily mean slowing down on new business, or just sticking with what you have got. It’s about using resources more efficiently,” says 40-year-old Kerslake. In February, the agency moves out of its river front offices in Hammersmith, where people work in every cranny and corridor, and moves in with sister agency Abbott Mead Vickers.BBDO in London’s Marylebone after parent AMV plc bought it for the princely sum of 12m in 1996. It is not an easy job. Elly Woolston, who was promoted to managing director from client services director less than a year ago, could not handle the unruly child. She has now been given the title of vice-chairman and will head client services. BHWG is very anxious that Woolston’s move is not seen as a demotion. Creative director Chris Barraclough snaps: “In the past she was doing both jobs but now we have grown so big that she needs to concentrate on clients alone. She has not been moved anywhere.” Kerslake says he will concentrate on developing three areas – creative work, data and planning. It is also believed he will take the agency into sales promotion – his background is at Carlson and before that, a nine-year stint at LGM – although Barraclough denies this. There are also client gaps, including airlines, that will be a priority for Kerslake to fill. In common with all below-the-liners, he prefers the tag “integrated”. “We could have a discussion about above and below the line, but it would be a very dull one,” he says. As part of his quiet revolution Kerslake will pay more attention to changing the way the agency re-cruits and trains its staff. Too often, he says, graduates are hired and after a year are expected to be experienced account handlers. “We chuck people in at the deep end. Training needs to be more systematic. “In the past, we have concentrated totally on our clients. We need to focus on ourselves for once.” BHWG now sits alongside Craik Jones Watson Mitchell Voelkel, the direct marketing agency bought by AMV in October for 2.4m in cash. There are no signs that AMV has any plans to merge the two. Kerslake will have time to stamp his style on BHWG before the four partners reach the end of their earn-out period in the year 2001. One source says: “When the earn-out happens, I think a couple of them will jump ship.” Kerslake describes himself as a good all-rounder. His reputation in the industry is as a trooper, a pragmatist rather than a visionary. He is smooth, capable, likeable, he has all the right answers: “We will work smarter not harder.” He will not set the room alight with ardent charisma. As someone who knows him rather cruelly puts it, he’s a “perfect number two”. But this is precisely what the agency needs – a straight guy to play against the boyishly flamboyant chief executive Simon Hall, art director Duncan Gray and Barraclough himself. Kerslake is used to being the sensible one. For nine years he worked with industry pitbull terrier Graham Green, at sales promotion agency LGM. Of Green, Kerslake says: “He is loud and he can be difficult. But he is very genuine and he ran a very good shop. His bark is worse than his bite.” Sadly Green was not available to give his view of Kerslake. When talking about Carlson, Kerslake is less guarded. He calls it dull and lacking in direction. “Basically it is a completely different business in the US – the Americans really do not understand what is going on in the UK. They come over once a year and try to interfere. In the US it is all to do with bulk.” He says he took the Carlson job because, predictably, it was a challenge. It was the bringing together of three different companies – FKB Carlson, MHA Carlson and Carlson Loyalty Marketing. “I feel I did a good job and that was with 400 people so I shouldn’t have any problems with the 200 people here.” But fulfilling his brief effectively made him redundant when the business restructured in September and the board was pared from 15 people to just three key players. Kerslake left by “mutual consent”. “My style is very open. I am good at listening. I am decisive. A lot of colleagues and clients who worked with me in the past would like to work with me again.” He might add “conceited” to the list following this comment, but he is highly regarded. Kerslake clams up on the subject of the BHWG second-string direct marketing agency, Kite. He says the agency is operational and claims it has more clients than just the one everybody knows about – Volvo. Until a managing and creative director have been found for the agency, it will be kept quiet in the same way the Government has only recently acknowledged the existence of the MI6 building on the south bank of the Thames. Before Carlson, Kerslake was a client – first at SmithKline Beecham and then at Scottish Courage where he launched Miller Lite. He also spent three years at sales promotion agency IMP, where he worked on clients including Allied Bakeries, United Biscuits and Colgate-Palmolive. BHWG is building the business by pitching for small packaged goods accounts – effectively going for any business available – so his background is perfect. This fits with a wider belief that the best way to expand business is to introduce direct marketing virgins to the discipline through projects. It is a strategy Kerslake has inherited but one which he says he fully supports. But BHWG does do some things differently. For a start, Kerslake will have to lose the suit and adopt the self-consciously casual attire of the rest of the BHWG management. The agency, famed for its parties, says it wants to add some glamour to the direct marketing business. It’s a corporate culture that seems to ill accord with Kerslake’s hobbies of playing golf and hockey and his daily commuting from Buckinghamshire. But he does not lack ambition. When asked who he sees as the agency’s main competition, his suggestions range from J Walter Thompson to management consultant McKinsey & Co. Presumptuous may-be, but he does admit, with a smile, that the feeling may not yet be reciprocated by JWT and McKinsey. It is Kerslake’s job to make sure that changes.

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