BBH loses faith in Cadbury’s culture

BBH’s decision to resign from Cadbury’s 6m roster has surprised many in the industry. But a breakdown in the client/agency relationship, coupled with a reduced spend, seems to have made it ‘unworkable’.

One of Britain’s most acclaimed advertising agencies split from one of the country’s most famous brands last week. Bartle Bogle Hegarty resigned nearly 6m of Cadbury confectionery business rather than continue to work with a client who did not seem to appreciate its efforts.

Some industry sources believe the reason for the split was BBH’s desire to get on the Mars roster – although Mars has only recently rejigged its agency roster, something it does extremely rarely. Most agree, however, that BBH had no reasonable option but to move.

BBH secured its first Cadbury account – Roses – six years ago. Since then it has picked up other brands, including Boost, Picnic, Buttons, Dairy Milk and Wispa. Most recently it was charged with the launch campaign for Wispa Gold – a caramel version of the bar – soon to be launched to counter disappointing sales, say insiders.

Whatever was wrong with the relationship, it had evidently become unworkable. This is surprising since two senior people at BBH, joint chief executive John Bartle and management representative Steve Kershaw, have themselves worked at Cadbury.

Spend on the brands is understood to have fallen steadily and is likely to fall still further next year: there are about 19 brands in the portfolio covered by a total spend of about 25m. BBH is thought to have been consistently unhappy with the work Cadbury was commissioning from it. Some sources suggest Cadbury had, on a number of occasions, commissioned ads which never ran.

The final straw came with Cadbury’s insistence on introducing an umbrella branding campaign for its ads, involving a three-second shot at the end of all ads emphasising the Cadbury identity. The work seems to have been given to another roster agency, GGT.

After meeting Cadbury marketing director Alan Palmer a few weeks ago, BBH decided no progress was being made, or was likely to be made. “It is quite a principled agency and evidently decided both the client and itself were being damaged, so it was time to make a clean break,” says one agency source.

What went wrong? BBH has had run-ins with clients before and smoothed them over – most recently, WH Smith was lured back after a split, while NatWest Bank gave it another chance to hang on after some unhappiness a year ago. BBH is quick to point out it has produced work acknowledged as excellent on other packaged goods brands like Häagen-Dazs and Boddingtons.

Sources with experience of the client suggest the problem lies with Cadbury rather than with BBH. All stress the change in culture at the company.

“BBH has had a ghastly time over the past few years, trying to produce great ads for Cadbury. It has been unable to persuade the company to run good work and, frankly, I think it is embarrassed to have the Cadbury ads on its showreel,” says one agency executive.

Those involved with the company in the Seventies remember a climate where the client would give the agency a much freer rein; the ad was almost invariably approved by the client and made. Each side knew its role, and neither tried to step into the other’s province.

It is not clear why the Cadbury philosophy has changed: analysts still call it a marketing-led business and stress it is performing well. Last week it was reported to be the subject of a possible takeover bid by the Anglo/Dutch food and soap company Unilever, though the likelihood of this taking place seems to have diminished in the past few days.

Certainly, the City says Unilever would be prepared to pay a hefty price for it. Cadbury is still in the process of absorbing its Dr Pepper soft drinks purchase from March and after making a 30m provision for this, its half-year profits to June rose only slightly, with 40 per cent of the profits coming from the US. But business volume rose five per cent and underlying profits went ahead, which pleased the City.

Despite these results, some agency sources insist that over time advertising has become institutionalised. Too many people at Cadbury believe they understand how to construct ads.

This, they say, particularly applies to Alan Palmer, marketing director since July 1993. Palmer is described by some sources as quite aloof from the day-to-day run ning of the account but is understood to keep a tight rein on the work. It leads to frustration on the agency side as a result of delays and indecision. And no agency likes to be told how to make ads – least of all one with a reputation like BBH’s.

“Cadbury used to be one of the great advertisers. If you look back over the reels there has been some tremendous work,” says one agency source. “But the people who commissioned that have moved. I get the feeling that the people there now don’t really care about advertising in the same way.”

Cadbury refuses to comment on the reasons for the split or to say whether the accounts are likely to be handed over to Cadbury’s other two roster agencies, EURO RSCG Wnek Gosper and GGT. Such speculation is premature, it claims. There is already talk within agencies that Cadbury will appoint from outside its roster.

It is possible that BBH has started a trend. After all, no one pretends client/agency relationships are always, or even predominantly, smooth. So there is a chance that other agencies will be inspired by BBH’s example and tell their clients where to get off.

This is only a possibility and, admittedly, not a very strong one.

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