An acrimonious end to another digital story
A view from Maisie McCabe

An acrimonious end to another digital story

The exit of the final Lean Mean Fighting Machine founder from M&C Saatchi last week once again shows the difficulty traditional ad agencies have when buying in skills.

Cast your mind back to 2014. Ukip councillors were blaming the heavy storms on gay marriage, Manchester United fired David Moyes after less than a season and everyone spent the summer throwing ice over their heads in aid of a neurological disease.

It was a testing time to be in charge of a digital creative agency. The big ad shops were scaling up resource quickly. In a world where all media was digital, it made increasing sense for brands to align their digital communications more closely with the rest of their advertising. The simple answer for an independent digital shop seemed to be to find a friendly advertising agency to buy you. 

Dare’s merger with MCBD in 2010 provided an example of how not to do things. Work Club was looking for a buyer for years before finally shacking up with Havas. Lean Mean Fighting Machine, the Camden agency behind Dr Pepper’s disastrous "2 girls 1 cup" campaign, plumped to sell to M&C Saatchi. As Jeremy Lee wrote at the time, the irreverent LMFM boys were supposed to loosen up the ties of the uptight suits at Golden Square.

To usher in this new world order, co-founder Tom Bazeley was promoted to chief executive in October 2014. But M&C Saatchi failed to shake off the troubles of its annus horribilis under Camilla Harrisson, who has since gone on to achieve great success at Anomaly. In 2015, M&C Saatchi dropped out of the top 20 agencies by billings – after leaving the top ten for the first time in 2014. There were wins from the government and Unilever but nothing to really get pulses racing.

M&C Saatchi is understood to have paid £1-2m upfront for LMFM. But the exacting targets the shop needed to hit for the LMFM founders to receive the additional £4m under the deal’s terms are way off being realised. With the extra money not due until 2017 and 2018, there wasn’t much for Dave Bedwood, Sam Ball and Dave Cox to stick around for – although their departures were a little more complicated than that. 

I understand that Bazeley’s exit last week was prompted by a sense that M&C Saatchi’s management was not gelling. But global chief executive Moray MacLennan’s comments that the acquisition wasn’t one of his smartest caused a bit of a stir. Even if the 15 remaining Lean Meaners (of an original 40) did not walk out, as the rumour went, it was enough for MacLennan to email saying he was there if they wanted to have a chat. 

Whether keeping more of the agency in the hands of LMFM’s founders would have made the deal more successful is a moot point – particularly as Bazeley was one of the UK management team to buy into M&C Saatchi in January. If LMFM had remained separate, it would have hardly helped upskill the advertising shop. Buying in expertise is tough and Campaign’s archive is littered with failed attempts. 

At least the money raised by the Ice Bucket Challenge led to a breakthrough in the understanding of motor neurone disease.