It’s a tribute to the creative energy and international importance of so small a company as Bartle Bogle Hegarty that the appointment of a new group chief executive should make a major splash in the Financial Times this week. After all, the company is not even publicly quoted, and the one scrap of information that might be of general interest to the capital markets – a 49% stake held by Publicis Groupe – was, in fact, entirely overlooked.
But that’s part of the mystique of BBH. It’s nearly half-owned (the “nearly” being crucial) by one of the world’s biggest marketing services groups, yet acts as if it were still the highly entrepreneurial, privately-owned organism that its founders set up as a breakaway from TBWA in 1982.
And good luck to BBH, because the formula manifestly works: 25 consistent years, mostly at the creative pinnacle, 16% growth in group income last year and a network spanning six (soon to be seven if we include Mumbai) international centres is a colossal achievement for any marketing services organisation.
But the real test comes now, and it is called management succession. The second generation is where many enterprises cease to be entrepreneurial. In their favour, the partners have a track record of clever organisational innovation. The Publicis deal is widely lauded as an example of having your cake and eating it – acquiring the money for international expansion and further growth, yet retaining organic independence. How well will they manage to finesse the bigger challenge of succession?The first thing to note is that this is the slowest management evolution in history. John Bartle began the process of disengagement in 1999, yet is still to be found hobnobbing at BBH headquarters from time to time. In recent years, Sir John Hegarty has taken on the more relaxed role of global brand ambassador. Yet, a bit like Cincinnatus tending his olives, he is ready for recall to pitched battle should, say, the $350m (£177m) LG account demand it. But there is no disguising the defining moment of Nigel Bogle, one of the most respected operators in the business, handing the chief executive’s mantle to Simon Sherwood.
Luckily for BBH, in Sherwood it has a shadow partner comparable to Chris Powell in the glory days of Boase Massimi Pollitt. Like most of the group’s senior management, Sherwood has been waiting in the wings an awfully long time, having joined as a graduate trainee in 1982. Other prominent examples are the ex-New York chief and new chief operating officer Gwyn Jones, and former Asia Pacific chief Ben Fennell, now London managing director.
Bogle and his colleagues have assiduously abided by the maxim that success is not about scale but skill, and their long-term employment of some of the most talented people in the creative business is glowing testament to that. They have also built one of the most admired (if so far pretty inimitable) agency models in that business.
As Bogle relinquishes his grip (as at some time he must), the challenge will be to regenerate that talent, in what – for everyone – is likely to be a far more difficult and unpredictable future.
Stuart Smith, Editor