BBH proves that size isn’t so important

It’s not often you see an agency’s reputation transformed in a week. All the more so when that agency is already on a creative pedestal and the change is upwards, rather than into the mire.

Simple arithmetic reveals that Bartle Bogle Hegarty must have increased its billings by &£160m in the past week (&£7m from Electrolux, plus BA and the lion’s share of Omo/Persil). Add that to last year’s Nielsen figures and we get a very conservative &£350m to &£360m total. Given that BBH has had a string of other wins (the &£17m global Vaseline business, Dunlop, Burton’s Foods, some Google) offset by few losses, the inference is obvious. BBH will soon be giving Abbott Mead Vickers.BBDO (billings last year, &£366m) a run for its money as the UK’s top agency.

Managing to ally an uncompromised creative reputation with maximum size, though no mean feat, is not unprecedented. Saatchi & Saatchi pulled it off in its heyday and AMV has risen to the challenge more recently. What’s uniquely interesting about BBH is that is has achieved this without the backing of a global network. Though nearly 75 per cent of BBH’s income now comes from international clients, its physical global presence is tiny: just five offices, in London, New York, São Paulo, Singapore and Tokyo.

Surely not?, you might object. Isn’t BBH part of the Publicis Groupe, enjoying all the plug-in benefits of a proper global network? It’s true that Leo Burnett, wholly owned by Publicis, has since 1997 held 49 per cent of BBH. This relationship has had important benefits, for instance in media buying and helping to run the global Diageo business. Equally, the pivotal Omo/Persil win succinctly demonstrates the point of retaining that vital majority stake, and with it managerial independence.

At the time of the Burnett sale, BBH’s partners took a deliberate and apparently perverse decision not to exploit the obvious benefit of being linked to a leading P&G global network. Instead, they would cultivate their fledgling relationship with P&G’s principal rival. The reward appears spectacular but is in truth the culmination of a lucid strategic vision, carefully and consistently executed: from Bertolli olive oil to Lynx, Impulse, Surf, Flora and most recently Vaseline. Indeed, careful consistency is one of the less hallowed hallmarks of BBH, echoed in the longevity of senior management; of clients such as Audi and Levi’s; and no less in the eventual BA triumph (BBH having been narrowly seen off ten years ago).

On a wider scale, it is tempting to see the BBH phenomenon as the rebuttal of an industry platitude. In administering a black eye to JWT and Lowe, BBH has proved that being in the middle, globally speaking, does not necessarily mean being squeezed. Brand stewardship of a global account is certainly a way forward for smaller agencies (as with Mother and Nitro). But the BBH model still has two demanding challenges to overcome. First, in Unilever it must prove it can handle a massively enhanced piece of business without the support of another network (for Diageo and BA, by contrast, it can rely on Burnett). And, further down the line, it will have to address the issue of full management succession, the acid test of any great agency.

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