The BBH vision thing

With British Airways and Unilever handing their business to Bartle Bogle Hegarty last week, BBH is on a transformative winning streak. So how does a medium-sized agency manage to implement global strategies, bed down new business and still maintain its creative flair? asks David Benady

Bartle Bogle Hegarty (BBH) last week continued its long run of new business success by reeling in the British Airways and Persil accounts. This has led cynics to ask whether the gold rush of new clients heading for BBH is capable of taking the gleam off the agency’s creative output as it beds down hundreds of millions of pounds of new business.

Even so, it has been an amazing week for BBH. First the agency prevailed in the battle for the &£60m global British Airways business, one of the most highly prized accounts in the UK and the subject of fevered pursuit. It fought off incumbent M&C Saatchi, whose relationship with the airline had broken down, as well as DDB Worldwide and JWT. Two days later, Unilever awarded the agency “global stewardship” of the E200m (&£137m) Omo business (Persil in the UK). The next day, Electrolux handed BBH its E10m (&£6.9m) Zanussi business across Europe.

For the agency’s chief executive Nigel Bogle, creative director John Hegarty (the founding B and H of its initials) and chief operating officer Simon Sherwood, the recent run of success vindicates their strategy of building stability through a homegrown workforce.

Last week’s wins come after the agency was awarded Unilever’s $30m (&£17m) global Vaseline business last month and a European assignment from Google. This year it has won Dunlop and Burton’s Foods; it has won a place on the Central Office of Information roster and expanded its role on the Diageo roster by winning the Smirnoff Ice business.

In fact, BBH has landed almost two dozen new business wins over the past two years, including Vodafone and Baileys. Last week’s wins alone will see the agency challenge Abbott Mead Vickers.BBDO at the top of the annual billings table with a projected figure of more than &£350m, compared with AMV’s 2004 billings of &£366m. BBH’s 2004 billings were just short of &£205m.

One source says: “BBH is an advertising agency with incredible integrity and principles, which sounds like an oxymoron. But they have values and a great sense of quality control. I mean, when was the last time you saw a bad BBH ad?”

However, another observer says creative work coming out of BBH recently has been less great as it has bedded in new clients, some of which do not lend themselves to spectacularly creative ads. Ads this year for KFC, Impulse, Flora Pro-Activ and J20 have been dubbed “turkeys” and panned as dull, wooden and weak. The agency counters that it makes 186 television ads a year, and for a handful of people not to like four of them does not indicate a slip in creativity.

International brands, local ties

But the striking thing for a medium-sized agency such as BBH is its ability to land global accounts. Nearly three-quarters of BBH’s income comes from international clients, yet it has only five Paulo, Singapore and Tokyo. From these it implements strategies for global brands through tie-ups with other agencies’ offices in local markets.

Still nominally an independent agency in a world dominated by consolidated networks, in 1997 BBH sold a 49 per cent share to Leo Burnett, now owned by Publicis Groupe. The remaining 51 per cent is owned by staff.

One source says its tightening grip on the Unilever business stems from the time of the sale, when it took a solemn strategic decision not to leverage its Leo Burnett connection to become a Procter & Gamble (P&G) agency but decided instead to build a global relationship with Unilever. It has gone from Bertolli olive oil to Lynx, on to Impulse, then to Surf, Flora and Vaseline. But Persil – which crowns Unilever’s detergent business – is the ultimate triumph of this strategy.

On accounts such as Diageo’s Johnnie Walker whisky, the agency has used the Burnett network worldwide to implement advertising in markets beyond its global hubs. It will use Burnett’s network to implement and execute its BA campaign. But as Burnett is a Procter agency, BBH will work with other agencies to implement strategies for P&G’s arch-rival Unilever.

One idea sans frontieres

Some wonder whether the globalised BBH approach, where one idea is pushed worldwide, will lead to bland global advertising. It may be cost-effective, but does it build brands in every market or will some be left behind? Still, many see this approach as the future of advertising – having one powerful idea that traverses borders and works across different media.

That a “micro-network” with just five offices around the world should snatch the Omo account previously handled by Lowe (with 82 global offices) and JWT (with 322 offices in 149 cities in 88 countries), is evidence of a fundamental shift in attitudes by global marketers, according to Bogle. “It is different from very large networks where you’ve got 60 to 70 offices,” he says. “The staff just don’t tend to get as many opportunities and occasions when they’ll be working together because big agency networks tend to be looking at what is different between countries and therefore working more individually. The whole BBH global ethic is to look across borders at what unites people.”

BBH will focus on implementing Lowe’s “Dirt is Good” strategy in Omo’s 50 markets. Sherwood says: “Our pitch was about how you get consumers to really empathise with the core of that idea. People say: ‘How does that play in India where dirt is cholera’? But the idea came out of Brazil where it has worked the best so far. So even for women who do the washing in a bath or tub or in a river, the idea – if expressed in the right way – is still a powerful one. Because it is not an idea about dirt, it is an idea about life, about children engaging with the world and in the process getting dirty – which parent is going to deny their child that?”

An important question is how BBH will accommodate so much new business and the effects of adding to its 550 staff. Will newly hired employees be as highly motivated? Some wonder whether BBH risks becoming like the bland global networks against which it so successfully competes.

United they stand

Even so, clients are still flocking to BBH and Hegarty says: “This is the culmination of a great deal of effort put into how we have run this company for the past 23 years, a culmination of everything we’ve believed in and everything we’ve built for. It is about the long term, not the short term, and building structures which sustain that. We’ve built a strong, stable company that offers opportunity to people that stay within it. We spend all our lives telling brands to create a vision and then people will come to them. Well, we are also a brand: we have to create a vision of what BBH is about.”

BBH’s stability can be seen in its long- standing client list – Levi’s and Audi have been with the agency since it was founded in 1982. It also means there is a wealth of second-line managers waiting to succeed the agency’s principals. One source adds that the maturity of the agency’s top management is also appealing to a lot of clients who are themselves “grown-ups”.

Strategy comes first

One of the company’s principles is not to show creative work in pitches, but simply to outline strategies. How closely it sticks to this is a matter of debate. But Hegarty says that in the BA pitch, it helped flesh out the airline’s strategy of having strong service going through every element of its proposition. That can be summed up by saying “upgrade to BA”, though he claims this is not the strategy.

“We said that everything about BA should be about an upgrade and that goes all the way through the people you hire, the experience, the feeling when I am on the airline. It’s about how I feel when I travel with BA, that as soon as I’ve made that decision, I feel upgraded as opposed to short-changed.”

In a similar fashion, clients also appear to feel they have been upgraded when they hire Bartle Bogle Hegarty. The challenge for the agency is to keep pumping out high-quality creative ads as it becomes a brand that is almost as big as those it promotes.

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