TBWA/Worldwide looks to bring breakaway into agency network

Eyebrows were raised when its was revealed that Beattie McGuinness Bungay, a start-up just over three years old, is in talks with suitors over selling some or all of the agency. And that BMB’s biggest suitor is TBWA/Worldwide, the Omnicom-owned network the founders left has further added to the intrigue.

Insiders suggest that Trevor Beattie, Andrew McGuinness, Bil Bungay and a fourth partner David Baine have held talks with a number of parties, including private equity, over recent months. Any such deal would give BMB the ammunition to extend in the UK or abroad – Beattie has previously alluded to outposts in his home city Birmingham and in Australia among others.

Meanwhile, TBWA, the once lauded agency, has been floundering in the three and a bit years since the BMB team left TBWA, say observers. It may have clung on to the Nissan, Muller and Sony PlayStation accounts that make up the bedrock of its business, but it has leaked other accounts, and seen a merry-go-round of executives who have failed to gain the impetus Omnicom expects.

This, and the fact that the talks between TBWA/Worldwide and BMB have excluded the UK management, has further unsettled an agency in need of stability. Sources suggest that should a deal go ahead, UK president Tim Lindsay – in post just over a year – is likely to leave and other senior executives would also consider their positions.

Meanwhile, the industry is questioning the timing of BMB’s need for a cash injection. The agency is supposed to be on a roll, having added more than £60m in billings this year already, outgunning every other London agency, and counts a staff of 80-plus.

Although Bartle Bogle Hegarty and CHI & Partners gave up almost half of their equity, and Abbott Mead Vickers sold some, and then all, of its to BBDO, they did so after some considerable time. Similar deals involving Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy and Cossette, and Delaney Lund Knox Warren and Creston also took time to conclude.

One executive suggests BMB is looking to sell “while the going is good”. But another suggests that the basis of BMB’s success is its anti-network approach. It is understood that BMB would be reluctant to give up total independence, its name or its culture.

Unrealistic expectation 

But that, according to one executive who sold his start-up to a network, will be an unrealistic expectation. He says that Omnicom, although not on an acquisition drive, would want to buy the senior team and not a mere bolt-on to the TBWA/UK offering.

He says: “What TBWA wants is the names to revitalise the London office. It doesn’t want an autonomous agency sitting alongside.”

However, Beattie, the outfit’s most “sellable” name, has made little secret of his disdain for the network system since leaving TBWA. Another source adds that Beattie believes he has not made as much money as some of his peers despite being, arguably, the most “famous” of today’s admen.

Other names in the frame to buy BMB include Publicis and Havas’ Euro RSCG network, particularly since Euro global chief executive David Jones last year made a serious play for CHI before it sold 49.9% to WPP. But both have been keen to distance themselves from the association.

However, the industry noise surrounding the talks and reaction by clients may yet scupper any deal.

BMB set out with the ambition to change the way advertising agencies operate. How ironic, says one former Omnicom agency head, were it to return to that which it sought to escape.

Catherine Turner

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