Claire Beale: Will BBH lose its unique flair under French rule?

By Claire Beale, campaignlive.co.uk, Thursday, 12 July 2012 08:00AM

When the call came last week that Sir John Hegarty had something he needed to talk about, but only - most definitely - after Campaign had gone to press, we obviously jumped to several conclusions. Either Bartle Bogle Hegarty was selling, Hegarty was quitting, or the agency was about to dump one of its key clients. In truth, the first option seemed the least likely.

Claire Beale: Will BBH lose its unique flair under French rule?

BBH, after all, seemed to have the best of both worlds: Publicis' 49 per cent stake in the agency provided some leverage for expansion and a payout for the founders, but was extremely easy to ignore. And few agencies have so carefully coveted their culture and independence.

So when Publicis' acquisition of the remaining 51 per cent of the agency was made official on Thursday morning, it was both surprising and a little deflating. A unique agency, one of the very best there's ever been in London, is about to change forever and another brilliant British company has fallen into foreign hands.

That change won't necessarily follow immediately, but it will come, not least because the deal sees the exit of Nigel Bogle and Hegarty in two years' time. No matter how carefully they've nurtured the next generation, no matter how rigidly they've set the agency's tone, without its founders BBH will become something different. And that's even without the arrival of a global parent with hungry shareholders.

Someone said to me this week that if you look at all the senior people who've left BBH over the years, very few have really gone on to be industry leaders outside the BBH fold. The implication was that it's the BBH machine and the founders who created it that are brilliant, not necessarily all the people who've taken - and still take - a hand in running it. That's harsh. BBH has more than its fair share of people who many other agencies would fight to have on their team. Perhaps many of those who've left have simply been the ones who knew they'd never make it to the top at BBH.

But it's fair to say that BBH has been more consistently great over its three decades than any other agency in town and that consistency has been primarily driven by the people whose names still sit above the door. The next generation of management at the agency will have a lot to prove once the founders step aside.

Will they still be so hungry and determined to prove how good they are once they've pocketed their own share of the purchase price and settled into life working for the French? Right now, their love of BBH and their desire to protect and continue everything the agency stands for is unquestionable. Can that survive across the medium term? Well, that's up to Publicis itself. If the Groupe is true to its promise to leave BBH well alone, then the agency's brilliance could be secured. Leaving well alone does rather go against the holding company grain, though.

This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk

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