The 1991 deal that brought Abbott Mead Vickers into BBDO’s
worldwide family may go down as one of the neatest agency mergers ever.
Its protagonists see it as a triumph of irresistible logic.
Ask Allen Rosenshine, BBDO’s worldwide chairman if, six years on, it
qualifies as a textbook example of how a US network should establish
itself in the UK and he hesitates to make so extravagant an assertion.
’I don’t know if it was a model deal,’ he says. ’I do know it was
entirely consistent with the way we’ve grown our network across the
Michael Baulk, the AMV chief executive, is equally reluctant to
’They wanted what we had in the UK. We wanted what they could offer
That’s the logic of it. The heart of it is that both agencies believe in
the power of good ideas and have very compatible cultures.’
Put like that, the bridal path that agencies tread can seem deceptively
smooth. Recent advertising history suggests otherwise. From the carefree
time nearly 20 years ago when, as one agency chief remembers, ’if you
wanted to capitalise on your success you just waited for a philanthropic
Yank to get off a plane with a chequebook’, to the acquisition mania of
the mid-80s which led to so many false fits, to the recessionary period
of the early 90s when mergers were more a means to cut costs, the way is
littered with casualties.
Against that backdrop, the success of the AMV BBDO link looks even more
remarkable. Although forged at the height of recession, it was never
stigmatised as a marriage of convenience. On the contrary, it has
produced benefits for both partners. AMV’s international business
represented only 1.5 per cent of its billings before the deal. Today,
it’s 38 per cent.
For its part, BBDO, backed by its formidable Omnicom parent and with a
blue-chip client list including PepsiCo, Gillette and Apple Computer,
found in AMV not only a remedy for its UK ’achilles heel’ but a creative
engine room to drive its business across Europe.
A shared belief in great creativity is at the heart of the
It’s no accident that David Abbott, AMV’s chairman, and Rosenshine, are
copywriters. But there’s more that’s harder to define. ’We feel
comfortable with AMV,’ Rosenshine says. ’We’re on the same intellectual
Most importantly, the two parties found each other at defining moments
in their evolution. By the end of the 80s, AMV’s public listing had
primed it for growth, but its lack of access to an international network
held it back. Clients looking to push their business across borders were
disinclined to include the agency on pitch-lists.
True, AMV had an international outlet of sorts via Scali McCabe Sloves,
a US-based second-string network of Ogilvy & Mather. But SMS’s lack of
international clients meant it could have no more than a trading
relationship with its UK affiliate.
In 1990 AMV’s partners agreed they needed a credible international
partner without putting debt on their balance sheet. A takeover of SMS
faltered after failure to agree a price with its owner, WPP’s Martin
Sorrell. It proved a lucky let-off. The following year, SMS found itself
embroiled in scandal and forced to resign its dollars 40 million Volvo
business, having been discovered rigging performance ads.
BBDO, meanwhile, had expansion problems of its own. Through its policy
of buying into highly creative and well-established local shops -
Australia’s Clemenger, Spain’s Contrapunto, Germany’s Team and Holland’s
FHV among them - and weaving them into its international fabric, it had
built a quality network with a matching reputation for consistent
Yet the UK, its most important market outside the US and the gateway to
Europe, refused to yield to it.
’We had a number of false starts in the UK with relationships that
didn’t work out,’ Rosenshine remembers. ’Our standalone agency was no
more successful because it wasn’t the way we’d built our business
elsewhere and it couldn’t compete for local clients.’
Enter Bruce Crawford, Omnicom’s chairman. He had just brokered a deal
giving the DDB network a UK creative catalyst in BMP.
Why not find BBDO a similar partner which would not only establish it
firmly in the UK but provide a platform for European growth?
The deal was completed within ten working days. WPP sold its holding in
AMV for pounds 7.5 million to Omnicom which, through BBDO, took a 22 per
cent stake in AMV. Speed was vital to avoid anxiety among both sets of
Quick and sensitive integration was the priority. Baulk met all 13
clients of BBDO’s London office to offer reassurance. From the merged
agency’s first day in business all BBDO staff were assigned to an AMV
client and vice versa. ’The last thing we wanted was a BBDO ghetto,’
’We didn’t want BBDO people feeling they had been subsumed into a much
larger, successful agency.’
How well this has paid dividends is evidenced by those BBDO London
staffers who have flourished on a broader canvas. In particular Alfredo
Marcantonio, its former executive creative director, now co-ordinating
much of the network’s pan-European work, Tom Carty and Walter Campbell,
two of the UK’s hottest creative properties, Martin Hummel, nicknamed
’the quiet American’, who is the key link on Pepsi, and Seamus
O’Farrell, account director on the massive BT business.
The deal has also added a new dimension to AMV, allowing senior staff to
cut their teeth on international business and giving them the experience
to win more. The pan-European accounts for Dulux, Wrangler jeans, and
the International Wool Secretariat would have been no-go areas for the
agency a few years ago, while Pepsi and Pizza Hut are confident enough
to have their business across the Continent led out of AMV in
’We said we wouldn’t produce lowest common denominator international
work and our reel shows we haven’t,’ Baulk says.
He believes, too, that bedding in BBDO successfully has given him added
confidence in making acquisitions for the AMV group.
All that’s left now is for BBDO to take full control of the agency that
is the undisputed jewel in its European crown. Most outsiders had
expected it to have happened already. In fact, BBDO’s stake has
increased only modestly from 22 to 26 per cent. ’There’s no question
that we would both like it to happen,’ Rosenshine says.
When it does, BBDO will need an awful lot of money.