Michael Baulk, Andrew Robertson and Peter Souter are probably the
subject of more envy than any other trio in the UK advertising
It is they who have inherited the mantle of Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO’s
founders, and who now run the agency at a time when it is indisputably
number one in the market.
To Baulk, in particular, this does a tremendous disservice. There is an
argument that before he stunned his former agency, Ogilvy & Mather, by
leaving to run AMV in 1986, the latter was still firmly in its nice,
classy, steady, middle-class, middle-sized pigeon-hole, and showed
little sign of the all-conquering period that was to lie ahead. While it
would be naive to lay this transformation at one man’s feet, he can be
seen as a catalyst for the change.
Baulk is arguably the most underrated man in British advertising in
every respect other than his remuneration package. He brought with him a
prodigiously restless energy and an unshakeable belief in the virtues of
enlightened capitalism. A showman who missed his true vocation as a
master of ceremonies, he in many ways fulfils that role for AMV.
He is the salesman extraordinaire, almost to the point of being unable
to help himself. It has led many to question whether he really believes
in what he’s selling. But this underestimates both his desire to be
doing something he believes is worthwhile and his frustration that he is
not actually a working creative. There are plenty of other agencies
where he could sell product more cynically.
He has some regret that he is seen first as a businessman not an adman,
whatever that may mean. There should be no regret, because there should
be no distinction. Of course, the numbers matter to him - and how - but
his stewardship of AMV has surely laid to rest the curious notion
peculiar to the British creative community; that creativity and
profitability are anathema to each other.
But having run the agency for 11 years, he has forged strong
relationships with senior clients who respect and trust his advice.
However, his schmoozing of clients and sweet-talking, tickling
persuasion of staff into doing his bidding have not always found favour
with everyone at the agency, since news he was to abandon his successful
partnership at O&M with Peter Warren and Don Arlett sent ripples through
A small minority find him just a little too flash. It’s an image, helped
by his idiosyncratic taste in the most expensive of suits, that is
impossible to resist. As a previous Campaign profile said of Baulk in
his O&M days: ’He was the barrow-boy of the team: young, energetic and a
bit of a street-fighter.’
Set against such criticisms should be the ranks of admen and women
who’ve worked for him at O&M and AMV who will tell you tales of Baulk’s
unquestioning personal generosity to them in times of crisis, and then
beg you not to write about it, for fear of embarrassing him.
In some ways it is a reputation similar to that of Sir Tim Bell - they
are viewed with suspicion by those who don’t know them, and inspire
unswerving loyalty among many who do. Baulk also fulfils a little
thought-about role at AMV that all organisations need: he draws the
flak, so that David Abbott can serenely get on with the job of being
Think of John Birt at the BBC, minus the extreme vilification, and you
get the picture. Or rather, this was the picture. Today, Baulk has
earned his position in the AMV pantheon. And, perhaps ironically, it was
the arrival from WCRS in February 1995 of Baulk’s protege at O&M and
chosen successor, Andrew Robertson, that allowed this elevation to take
Most people in advertising should have Andrew Robertson’s image
problems, but such as they are they involve being regarded as a Michael
This is a result of their long association, which dates from when Baulk
took the young media planner under his wing at O&M in the early 80s.
Robertson did model himself on Baulk and his management style, right
down to the obsession with the bottom line, the his-and-his Ferraris and
an equally flashy and idiosyncratic - if more acceptably contemporary -
taste in clothing.
However, they are also genuine friends who have always spent time
together outside the agency. Robertson has also always been mature
beyond his years, with an ability to exude calm in the face of adversity
evident throughout his twenties at O&M. He was marked clearly as a
future manager, and so the agency was miffed when, after a stint as
new-business director, he quit for J. Walter Thompson in 1989.
Robertson went to JWT believing he would run the agency one day, but a
year later, aged 30, he was lured by Robin Wight to the then
much-troubled WCRS to be its chief executive. There was also talk at the
time of Robertson starting up with the ousted GGT co-founder, Dave
A controversial four-and-a-half-year period followed in which Robertson
rebuilt the agency’s fortunes with a stream of new business. During this
time it was associated with notable work for the likes of BMW, the
Prudential and Carling Black Label, but was also famed for being riven
with internal politics and run on a relative shoestring.
When towards the end of his tenure major accounts such as Thomson
Holidays and the Prudential quit the agency only to be replaced with the
likes of Iceland and Bernard Matthews, private muttering about a
personal contract linked to the amount of new business won became
While the timing of his exit for AMV in 1995 may still rankle with some,
this criticism underestimates the scale of the achievement during that
period and the professional risk involved in taking the job in the first
WCRS was in big trouble in 1990: clients were leaving (19 in the
previous year), revenues falling and costs soaring. Perhaps worst of all
the staff turnover was an appalling 56 per cent in one year. The new
’nice-guy’ boss had to begin by making 32 people redundant. Small wonder
there has been a little griping since.
Both Wight and Baulk remained in no doubts as to his talents,
Wight was uncharacteristically crestfallen when Robertson first informed
him of his plans to leave, although he recovered to ask Campaign:
’Aren’t you going to congratulate me on becoming chief executive?’
Meanwhile Baulk had worked assiduously on manoeuvring himself and AMV
into a position where he could claim to no longer be able to hold down
both the chief executive and managing director roles, and to need a
younger foil; someone who would in time succeed him at the agency, as he
took on more of a group level role.
Baulk created the role for Robertson. This is both a huge tribute to the
latter and - to a lesser degree - a millstone. He has to prove himself
all over again, and he has done so, particularly through his involvement
in AMV’s spectacular new-business gains of the past two years.
Robertson should ask his new creative director and former WCRS
colleague, Peter Souter, about millstones. Try filling the shoes of the
most feted and universally respected creative director in Britain and,
arguably, the world.
What’s more, try doing so at a time when the creative department has won
more awards than ever, and is staffed by many people with more
experience and gongs than you.
Souter also suffers from the clone tag, and it will be harder for him to
shrug it off, because any changes he may introduce must surely be
Why change the most winning of formulas? It will be difficult enough for
him to try to tell Abbott, now an active copywriter, that his work is
not up to scratch.
Souter will have said yes to the job with a big gulp, but let’s be
honest, it’s a dream appointment. His problems lie in retaining top
talent, maintaining high standards and building on success. He also has
the new-business momentum of the agency behind him as he strives to make
his own mark in a job that he was marked out for two years ago when
Abbott surprised a few people by making him deputy creative
They shouldn’t have been. It’s been coming ever since he arrived to fill
a vacancy created by the only other person the agency thought would get
the job, Robert Campbell. When Campbell and his partner, Mark Roalfe,
quit AMV in 1991 for their short-lived Banks Partnership venture, it was
Souter and Paul Brazier who replaced them, fresh from their mammoth
Frank ’n’ Stein electricity privatisation campaign for WCRS.
Picking up Abbott’s mantle on the Economist and, for a while, Volvo, the
duo also took over from Campbell and Roalfe on the RSPCA. They have
since made their mark with work ranging from the Delta Air Lines
’synchronised flying’ commercial, to Pizza Hut and Sainsbury’s.
Like Abbott and his partner, Ron Brown, they began specialising on some
of the agency’s more troublesome briefs, turning them into
No surprise then that Souter, like Robertson, comes across as an old
head on young shoulders, such is his experience of major clients.
The agency will be hoping that Robertson and Souter develop the same
publicly recognisable rapport that Abbott and Mead and Abbott and Baulk
enjoyed before them. It would be surprising if this is not the case -
after all, they’ve worked together before, and are both imbued with the
values of their predecessors.
AMV has effected succession management in a manner that must be the envy
of most of its significant rivals in town. It would be ridiculous to
suggest that it has been glitch-free, but it’s been as near as anyone
else has got to it.
In their attempt to assert themselves, much now depends on the two
thirtysomethings’ freedom to manage. In Souter’s case, Abbott’s
intentions are clear, but Baulk for now remains very much in charge of
the agency. Wily fox that he is, he won’t mind Robertson taking flak for
So when, in trademark fashion, he yanks his sleevecuffs down to let his
cuff-links free of his jacket sleeves, and bounces into Abbott Mead’s
20th birthday party, Michael Baulk can be forgiven for thinking that
he’s got the agency’s future sorted.
He also knows that if it all goes horribly wrong he has innumerable
other strings to his bow - some of them business ventures with the likes
of Robertson. Baulk, like AMV’s founders, is a winner. His great
achievement has been to instil the culture of winning into Abbott Mead
It’s his biggest gift to Robertson and Souter.