NEWSMAKERS/BARKER AND RALSTON: Has the fairy tale ended for Barker and Ralston?

The agency’s link-up with McCanns spells the close of an era. By Richard Cook.

The agency’s link-up with McCanns spells the close of an era. By

Richard Cook.



In a way, the agency has always been quite unlike the decade that gave

birth to it. For a start, everything seemed to come too easily.



Barker and Ralston opened its doors for business at the end of 1990 -

the beginning of that terrible economic and adland recession that saw

the word ’rationalisation’ relentlessly percolate the national

consciousness.



Yet, ten days after opening its doors for business, Barker and Ralston

was celebrating beating the likes of J. Walter Thompson and Publicis to

the pounds 13 million Abbey National account. And that, as your parents

might say, was in the days when pounds 13 million was a lot of

money.



The irony is that the agency that seemed immune to growing pains in its

infancy has started to experience them in adolescence. First, there was

the loss of the more glamorous TV side of the Abbey National business to

Euro RSCG Wnek Gosper, then last summer Saab (which it won in 1994) went

off to Lowe Howard-Spink following a global realignment. Most recently,

there are serious worries about the remaining chunk of Abbey

National.



Barker and Ralston is starting to feel squeezed out. And so, last week

(Campaign, 7 February), the agency whose corporate culture was and is

all about the absence of hierarchy, about the fact that no-one has job

titles, this little oasis of heterodoxy, was obliged to make public that

it was having talks with McCann-Erickson and its managing director, Ben

Langdon, about some sort of as yet unresolved joint venture

operation.



Is this what Derek Ralston and David Barker hoped and dreamed of when

they thought about setting up their own shop?



Derek Ralston was then serving a second stint at Geers Gross, this time

as chairman. He was helping smooth over its acquisition by another

former employer, Publicis, and was talking earnestly of escape. He was,

in fact, all set to go into business with his brother, a marine

biologist, who proposed to use heated water from the power generation

process to create a tropical fish farm and grow a tasty Jamaican fish

breed for Tesco. But the lure of adland, even a recession-weary shadow

of its former self, proved too strong.



Ralston’s reputation was, and still is, that of an intelligent and

engaging man whom clients trust. Not someone who necessarily understood

the meaning of the word schmooze, but an honest charmer for all

that.



David Barker was then working at KHBB as executive creative director and

was responsible for award-winning work for clients such as Pernod, Saab,

Carlsberg, the AA and E. J. Gallo wines. His creative credentials were

and remain out of the top drawer. His jet fighter campaign series for

Saab, for example, both looked good and worked. Saab’s UK sales, based

around the same models, the same dealer networks and the same adspend,

improved from 9,000 units a year to 14,500 in just two years.



Any question marks attached to his name are certainly not about his

creative skills. They are more, according to otherwise respectful former

colleagues, about his ability to organise a creative department and as a

businessman.



He had worked with Ralston at Geers Gross and broached the idea of a

start-up. Ralston says there is no-one else with whom he would even have

considered launching. Conversations were held, banks and backers were

wooed and the name decided on.



There was a clear business proposition, too - the agency would look to

enlist between eight and ten clients, one in each of the product areas

with which the pair were acquainted. ’We haven’t veered away from that,’

Ralston says, ’but then they include cars, wine and beer, which aren’t

bad sectors to be evangelical about.’



They also include financial services, as well they might. For it was

this sector that launched the agency with a fairy-tale conquest and is

now at the heart of discussions about the agency’s future.



The bare facts are well documented. Barker and Ralston had taken

temporary office space in Chelsea. There had been a credentials mail-out

and, providing the business plan was achieved, there were funds for a

year-and-a-half - in which the agency had to carry off a couple of

decent bits of business.



Ten days later, the agency had won Abbey National.



True, Ralston had worked a little on Abbey in his days as a joint deputy

managing director at Publicis, but it was really his colleague, Andrew

Mitchell, who had responsibility for the brand. Anyway, the pitch was

the work of a brand new marketing director who didn’t know him at

all.



I think it’s fair to say we were the wild card on the pitch-list,’

Ralston remembers, ’but we won because we had the right proposition at

the right time and because the marketing director was prepared to take a

chance.



We spotted that Abbey had invested pounds 50 million in its brand equity

with the ’Abbey habit’ and moved on from there.’



Other wins followed - Saab, Ernest and Julio Gallo, Beck’s Bier - and

the legend of an agency that had side-stepped all the problems

associated with striking out on your own was born. ’I’m a fan of both of

them,’ Andrew Mitchell, who worked with Ralston at Publicis, says, ’but

their beginnings were like a fairy tale.’



So Cinderella made good. But what of Barker and Ralston’s future

marriage of convenience to the sturdy, but hardly glamorous, McCann

Erickson? ’I’m sure that strategic alliances are the way forward,’

Ralston says, ’whether you are BA linking up with American Airways or

whoever. Companies are increasingly looking at tying up with other

companies rather than going to the expense of buying them. Of course, it

is important that the corporate culture is similar.’



And this is the point where observers start to raise their eyebrows.



’This is my problem with the whole deal, however it is worked out,’ one

former colleague of Ralston confesses. ’McCanns is going through all

these huge changes itself. There has been a heavy turnover of staff and

it’s unclear how the agency will emerge. It doesn’t seem like the

smartest thing in the world to join forces now, unless, of course, it’s

just a short-term measure to get through an Abbey pitch.’



The theory is that Abbey can hardly find fault with Barker and Ralston

on size grounds if the agency can point to its links with McCanns

Certainly, the Abbey is no longer the client it was when the agency

first won the account - its share price then of 120p is now 787p and the

company is Britain’s 29th largest - and its demands are correspondingly

larger.



Dan O’Donoghue, the joint chief executive of Publicis who worked with

Ralston during his stint there, is surprised that the agency should join

up with McCanns. ’I thought Barker and Ralston had established its own

niche,’ he says. ’If Ralston had gone off to do something off the wall I

could have understood, because he sometimes seemed to be bored with just

being an account man. But I wouldn’t have linked him with McCanns.’



Ralston contents himself with saying that the exact nature of his

relationship with McCanns is still being thrashed out, but there is no

doubt that he remains uncomfortable with some of the realities of

today’s marketplace, which seem to reward corporate endeavour rather

than advertising excellence.



And the loss of Saab, if you like the manifestation of this reality,

still rankles.



’The Lowe Group’s work for Saab will break soon and I have nothing

against them but I bet it will take up some of the themes that David

created.



The problem we have found is that we can be in Marshall Street doing

what we do, but sooner or later clients will start to play the

percentage game.



’We are in the business of providing the best service for our clients

and so have to respond to client needs and have to start thinking the

way they think. If they want to deal with one agency we have to be

considered as that agency. At the end of the day, it’s nice to be a

local high street store, but you’ve got to be able to compete with

Sainsbury’s just the same.’



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