Opinion: Perspective - Beattie's departure rips the heart out of TBWA

Every once in a while, a rumour emerges that seems so utterly impossibly surprising that it must absolutely be true. So: Trevor Beattie quitting TBWA\London to launch a start-up with Andrew McGuinness? You couldn't make that one up, right?

Even so, when rumour became fact this week, it had all the shock value of a Conservative landslide. And in the best traditions of "bugger-me" Campaign front pages, this one has turned out to be truer and more stunning than the industry's most accomplished rumour-mongers could conjure. A Beattie/McGuinness start-up along with Bil Bungay, Beattie's most loyal creative partner, is one of those stories guaranteed to get an editor slavering.

It's not just that three key executives have quit one of London's biggest agencies. It's these three particular people. Oh, all right then ... it's one particular person: Beattie has become the country's best-known advertising man and has done more than anyone in recent years to put the job of advertising creativity on the popular map.

The trio represents one of the most talented breakaways the business has seen, but it's also the timing of their departure that raises the interest stakes. Beattie has been wedded to TBWA, to its people and its clients for so long that he seemed more than the agency chairman, more part of its DNA (and vice versa). McGuinness, meanwhile, has spent the past few years developing a new model for TBWA, including content creation divisions and integrated media strategy, but there's still work to be done. Bungay, particularly now that Paul Silburn has left for Fallon, was one of the keys to the agency's creative reputation.

So this is not a natural break-point for any of them. On the other hand, TBWA's 2004 was not a vintage one for the agency, despite winning the Grand Prix at Cannes. The agency's billings fell by 37 per cent after the loss of clients such as 3 and Thomas Cook. So are the three bailing out while the agency is in tailspin?

The critics (and there will be plenty) will undoubtedly say yes. But I don't think so. I would certainly give all three of them much more credit than to leave the agency in crisis (though, to an extent, their very departure will do exactly that). And there's no doubt this was a tough, and emotional, decision for the three to make. But, if anything, TBWA has surely put the worst behind it in terms of account losses, and - let's face it - its otherwise enviable creative reputation can only be enhanced now that Abbey has quit for WCRS.

Perhaps the soaraway success of their former colleagues Simon Clemmow and Johnny Hornby at Clemmow Hornby Inge has piqued their competitive spirit. But I reckon Beattie's new start-up is more about trying something genuinely different, challenging the market and challenging themselves, than it is about settling any scores. And unlike some other start-ups in recent years, this one seems less about making a quick sale and more about genuine passion for the process. I certainly hope so, anyway. There will definitely be a number of TBWA clients who will want to find out more.

And that's the flip side of this story: what it all means for TBWA. Beattie has been so inextricably a part of the agency that many of its clients have surely bought Beattie as much as they have bought TBWA in the round.

His departure with McGuinness and Bungay undoubtedly rips the heart out of the agency, no matter how good some of those left behind may be.

Sure, Beattie is liked and loathed, and not in equal measure. But he has done more than anyone to build TBWA's London reputation in recent years and remains the industry's most dazzling creative. Without him, the agency desperately needs not only new heavyweight creative talent, but also a new personality and culture. All eyes now will be on Paul Bainsfair, TBWA's European president, to redefine the agency.

claire.beale@haynet.com.

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