BBH guards its ulterior motive

Rumours following the BA pitch of Bartle Bogle Hegarty leaving independent status behind have been scotched, or at least confused, by its creation of media dependant Motive. Jon Rees weighs up the implications of the move

Failing to win the world’s most glamorous advertising account shouldn’t add to your reputation, but that’s what has happened to Bartle Bogle Hegarty.

London’s leading independent ad agency managed to be the only player to come out of the British Airways/Saatchi & Saatchi affair with its standing enhanced. BBH, so the theory goes, really won the account but lost out in the politics surrounding it when BA’s chairman Sir Colin Marshall overruled his own marketing department and gave the account to M&C Saatchi.

The gist of the rumours surrounding BBH’s bid for the airline’s account – and there can have been few pitches which engendered so much rumour and so little hard fact – was that it would sell out to a network to prove to BA that it had the infrastructure to cope with the account. The stakes were probably high enough to make such a step at least conceivable – winning the 88m BA/Qantas account would have added almost 80 per cent to the agency’s 1994 Register-MEAL billings of 110.82m.

The suggestion of some sort of tie-up was hardly new. Not since the days when Prince Charles was described without irony as the world’s most eligible bachelor has a prospective “groom” been so constantly and eagerly pursued.

The rationale is that BBH

has reached a certain age and maturity, and so have the owners, so why not give them a pot of money and fold BBH’s reputation and ethos into an international network?

Ironically, the creation of a separately branded media dependant, Motive, whose launch was revealed exclusively in Marketing Week last week, does not make the situation any clearer. While allowing BBH to manoeuvre its way around one of the advertising industry’s fundamental problems – client conflict – it also provides a reason for the agency’s continued independence and boosts its attraction for other networks.

If you’re not part of a network, you avoid client neurosis, generally agreed to be increasing, about possible conflicts. Conversely, incorporating BBH into a network would allow that ad network to avoid possible conflicts by convincing clients their business was being handled by a standalone unit.

While a media initiative has long been expected, the heavy betting was on BBH tying up formally with an international network. In hindsight, this seems curious, given the agency’s love of independence.

Any agency creating a media dependant hopes to start a virtuous circle: increased billings bring volume benefits that give the media buyer the clout to negotiate better rates and in so doing attract even more clients.

The key question is about the critical mass of billings needed to make a media dependant viable in its own right and able to attract media-only business.

There are those in the industry who believe that as the media market moves from emphasis on buying and rates to greater concentration on planning, there is more scope for smaller-billing media departments to become dependants. Which is where Motive would appear to fit, with its estimated billings of 76m.

“The emphasis is moving from buying – although you lose your buying credentials at your peril – to more sophisticated research and planning,” says Mandy Pooler, managing director of O&M Media, which separated out of the main agency in 1992. “Media owners will reward volume but they’re not giving away massive discounts to the big buyers any more.

“One big client will go a long way to getting you market credibility. NatWest probably did that in BBH’s case [the bank centralised its media into BBH in January]. It is to do with being in all the media markets enough days of the year to know what constitutes a good deal,” she adds.

While getting a good deal is obviously fundamental, BBH wants to do more with Motive.

“It became apparent to us over the past few years,” says Motive managing director Mark Cranmer, “that there’s another market: media services. The aim it to put the brands back into the media agencies. We aim to bring to media the fresh approach that BBH brings to branding.

“Success for the buyers was about minimum figures and had little to do with communication. It’s about realising potential [for brands].” This certainly chimes with the trend noted by Pooler, who also sees benefits in changing the structure of the dependant’s management.

“There is a growing recognition in agency management that media people need to make their own decisions,” she says. “They need to be able to reinvest profits where they see fit, especially in things like bespoke research and people.”

However, for some in full-service agencies, the media dependant will always suffer from a fundamental dilemma.

“Either you are too closely associated with the main agency – like O&M Media – so that you don’t make it onto the client’s list of media-buying brands,” says one media director in a full-service agency, “or you are successful – like the Media Centre – in becoming your own brand, but compromise all the things you’ve told your existing clients in the past about the benefits of the full-service ethos.”

BBH is vague about prospective international arrangements, short of saying that the agency wants more control over the way international media is handled.

“The conventional wisdom is that we have to have a formal relationship with a worldwide network but if you look at other industries, like the airlines industry and BA, strategic alliances are accepted. Why shouldn’t that be so in the advertising industry?” asks BBH joint chief executive Nigel Bogle.

Certainly enough prospective agency suitors have been mentioned: most persistently Omnicom, which owns BBDO, DDB Needham and TBWA, and has a reputation for fostering creativity. While the agency did have “conversations” with DDB in 1988, it is not true, says Bogle, that it is planning to be part of the Omnicom group, or any other group, at the moment.

Becoming part of a group would not necessarily make the quality of the ads any better, says Bogle; and nor would the agency’s product necessarily be improved by going public – the other much-mooted theory. But agency sources say that BBH will have to develop more formal links in the US to maintain its development.

The agency made it on to the BA shortlist through the strength of its creative reputation. That a comparatively small standalone agency made it on to the shortlist at all will be seen in the years to come, together with the creation of Motive, as a significant turning point in the history of BBH.