At 11pm on Tuesday night last week, TBWA global chief executive Troy Ruhanen sneaked out of a bustling meeting room in a central London hotel and headed up to the bar. After a day finalising the details of TBWA’s deal to buy a majority stake in Lucky Generals, things were looking good. He ordered a glass of white wine and had a moment to himself.
By 9.53am the following morning, the contracts were finally signed. Lucky Generals was to become part of the TBWA collective – as the Omnicom network likes to call itself. Despite Campaign reporting the contrary, the assumption around town had been that TBWA would follow in sister group DDB’s footsteps and merge the shops à la Adam & Eve. After all, Adam & Eve/DDB has been an undeniable success – and our Agency of the Year for the past three years.
But that wasn’t to be. A merger was the first option floated but, only three-and-a-half years in, the Lucky Generals founders were not ready to subsume their identity to a corporate behemoth – no doubt with the Dare/MCBD merger still fresh in the memory. Instead, Lucky Generals will retain its brand and the founders keep hold of a significant minority stake.
When TBWA approached, Andy Nairn says he and his Lucky Generals co-founders Helen Calcraft and Danny Brooke-Taylor were "not necessarily looking" to do a deal but they continued the conversations.
"It became much more about a bunch of people with similar interests rather than a corporate investment," Nairn explains, decked out in a hastily bought denim shirt after a long night finalising terms.
TBWA has already had success with a similar strategy in Germany. Shortly before Ruhanen became global chief executive in 2014, TBWA bought a majority stake in independent agency Heimat. Two-and-a-half years on, Heimat continues as a separate shop alongside the TBWA-branded agency. Ruhanen says the structure should allow Lucky Generals to make the most of its "great bit of momentum".
But if TBWA had been wedded to a merger, it didn’t have much to choose from. Lucky Generals has been on a totally different battlefield to other independents for the past 18 months. The fighting started to pay off in mid-2015 when it captured Twitter and the main Paddy Power business within six heady days. Last year brought wins including Premier Inn and Yorkshire Tea – and an expanded armoury of zeitgeisty work. But, even then, it was a bit soon to celebrate victory.
No wonder the founders think they have more to give. In the meantime, Ruhanen has a boutique offering to tempt global clients underwhelmed by TBWA’s UK outpost and on-the-ground help with recruiting a new team to run the sister shop.
Lucky Generals’ new Yorkshire Tea campaign features interviews, deliveries and hold music "done proper" by famous Yorkshire people. This deal could give Nairn, Calcraft and Brooke-Taylor the time, cash and support to take the same approach to building their agency. They’ve got a lot of work to do if they’re going to live up to the estimated £40m valuation.