BBH at Thirty

Nigel Bogle tells Claire Beale about three decades of creative excellence at Bartle Bogle Hegarty, while we look back at the agency's iconic advertising through the years.

BBH's iconic Levi's 'creek' spot
BBH's iconic Levi's 'creek' spot

I should begin this piece with an apology. Nigel Bogle, I'm sorry. I suspect the way this feature has turned out is not at all how you would like to see Campaign celebrate three decades of Bartle Bogle Hegarty, with the spotlight so firmly on you.

Blame your colleagues and friends. When asked about BBH, so many talked about you. "Nigel Bogle is the reason I work at BBH. I can't pay him any greater compliment than that," BBH's UK chief executive, Ben Fennell, says. "Nigel is the most brilliant adman I've ever met. He's driven, he's competitive and he still has huge creative ambition for this agency," Nick Gill, the executive creative director, says. "Nigel is the true irresistible force of BBH. He is the defining spirit, the real black sheep," Gwyn Jones, the group chief operating officer, says.

David Wheldon, the managing director, brand, reputation and citizenship, at Barclays, says: "Nigel is one of the greatest advertising men I have had the privilege to work with. Passionate about the business and fiercely proud of BBH, where good has always been the enemy of great." John Bartle says: "Nigel is simply the best person I have ever met in the industry. He's outstanding."

None of this is to diminish the role of Sir John Hegarty, BBH's creative heartbeat, or Bartle, the man who put super-smart into the agency's DNA. BBH would not be BBH had the founders not been equal in their genius. There can't be anyone working in advertising who doesn't know about Hegarty's creative divinity. He's a global icon, a hero, a legend. BBH's Levi's work is quite possibly the most perfect series of ads on an agency's reel, anywhere. That's Hegarty. And if you haven't read his book, Hegarty On Advertising, for the creative perspective on what has made BBH such a titan - well, shame on you.

And anyone who's anyone (who's decent) in London has been touched by the wise counsel of Bartle, marvelled at his insight and is honoured to call him a friend. He is clever, charming, thoughtful and has nurtured any number of the industry's chiefs to the top of the ladder. And, anyway, he left the agency 12 years ago.

Mr Bogle, though, is more of an enigma, harder to know, harder - if you haven't worked with him closely - to like. Getting him to open up for this piece took some serious nudging.

It doesn't help that he looks a little mean and broody, that he's always striving to be better. He's uncompromising, determined, committed. Not easy qualities to deal with, particularly as they come without the easy charm of adland's shiniest account men. What Bogle lacks in polished veneer, though, he compensates for with integrity, a clear sense of fairness, a tangible decency. He's nice, genuinely kind, thoughtful, loyal and he's got a keen sense of humour, even if his shyness keeps it a little buried.

In fact, ask anyone who really understands the man or BBH and you'll find, universally, deep wells of admiration, respect and fondness for the man. Nigel Bogle, they say, is BBH.

What BBH is, after 30 years in business, is one of the most outstanding creative agencies in the world. From London hotshop to international micro-network, and still at the top of its game three decades after it was conceived in a shabby pub in Euston station out of a dissatisfied, disillusioned but ambitious and hungry TBWA London management team. BBH is a standard-bearer for British advertising excellence, led by one of the best management teams in the business, most of whom have grown up at the agency.

Iconic work for Levi's, Audi, Boddingtons, Lynx and on and on, BBH has always been about the work. Bogle says: "John H and I were reflecting the other day that, when you look at the best BBH work over three decades, the skewer through it is product demonstration. With an emotional twist. Audi, Levi's, Lynx, Weetabix, Guardian - they are just product demos, really." Just product demos. So there you have it. Simple. And brilliant.

I hope Bogle won't mind me saying that, as we reminisced, his voice wavered a little, his eyes misted. "It makes me emotional to think about it all," he admits. "But it's been such an extraordinary privilege to have so many great people working with me. That's been the best thing ... these fantastic people. I'm so very proud of what the team has achieved." Three decades on, he and his agency can allow themselves a surge of pride.


Going it alone ... as a threesome

I don't think I would have launched my own agency had it not been for the fact that the three of us worked so well together at TBWA. But we were working very hard there and it didn't feel we were getting our just rewards for the work we'd done. So it was a logical step to quit and show what we could do on our own.

When we started, we halved our salaries and gave the deeds to our houses to Barclays and borrowed some money against those deeds, and we sold our shares in TBWA, which they didn't give us full value for - so we gave up quite a lot to start our agency. Barclays shared the risk with us, half and half. Was it daunting? Well, when you start a business, you're so fired by ambition and the determination to prove others wrong - in our case, TBWA - that you don't feel scared. And, anyway, when there are three of you, if one of you feels a bit nervous, the others bolster you up.

The founding principles When you start an agency, you are what you start: a lot of the things that shaped BBH all happened pretty early on. We quite consciously set out at the beginning to hammer some steel girders into the ground as the foundations on which we built the agency.

Those girders were about producing outstanding advertising, not doing any speculative creative pitching, a balance between the disciplines, transparency in the way we handled our clients' business, quality control - it was a sackable offence to leave the building with a piece of work that hadn't been signed off by two of the three of us. They were very vivid principles that created behaviours and values in the company that shaped our culture.

And a lot of those principles were very different from the way other agencies operated at the time. Not pitching with creative work was radical, and we kept it up for 20-odd years until the world changed so much we had to change with it and take a different approach. And having planning on the same level as creative work was also pretty different. Back then, creative hotshops were generally assumed to be strategic coldshops - it was unusual to get outstanding creative thinking and outstanding strategic thinking in the same agency.

We launched with an independent spirit: when the world zigs, zag, and the black sheep and all that, which I think people relate to. And I think that came out of the personalities of John, John and me in the beginning.

An agency ... or a family?

A lot of people have stayed with us for a long time and they've built the culture with us; it is very unusual for an agency to have so many people who have made their careers there. It sounds corny, but I think there is a very strong sense of family in our business. That's come from setting out very clearly what sort of agency we wanted to be - so people can identify, or not, with the values we have as a business - and then creating an environment where they can be the best they can be and they can grow.

But you need to balance those loyal people with bringing in new people, bringing in news skills and giving young people lots of opportunities. You've got to get that balance of stability with restlessness - you've got to have a restless spirit. It's much easier to be experimental off a stable base.

Bogle the control freak?

John and I ceded control quite a long time ago. Our business is not run by me now. Some of the values I have and the leadership I can bring, in terms of what kind of company we are and what we hold important, I can still do. But one of the reasons we're still going strong - though we've had our ups and downs - is because we've brought a lot of people on and given them a lot of power. Ben Fennell runs the UK business with his management team ... I don't run the UK. I don't sign off their work, I don't crowd their style. I'm more like a kind of coach.

It's not hard to let go if people are doing well. I take some pride in the fact that people like Simon (Sherwood) and Gwyn (Jones), and many others, started here as juniors and, hopefully, I've played some part in developing them as experts in what they do. That's something I'm proud of.

Never being satisfied

You might have noticed how I always qualify how we're doing. It's hard to say I'm perfectly happy and we couldn't do any better ... three phone calls from disaster and all that. I think we have a fear of failure that helps drive our success; that's quite a big factor for us. But I think I'm getting better at celebrating. We're not a palace of joyless excellence, or an agency defined by grievous bodily harm - GBH not BBH, as we've been called in the past. People work hard at BBH; you know, genius is 90 per cent hard work. But now we talk about people working less - smarter, but less.

I'm feeling reasonably relaxed at the moment. Do you believe me? Campaign has said I'm famously never satisfied. It can be a good thing to keep pushing to improve, but I am learning that you've got to take the time to congratulate yourselves on the good things you do. Quite often when we've had really great successes, we've never realised what a moment they were. So I'm keen we do more celebrating.

Being scary ... and shy

Campaign once put me top of the list of the most terrifying people in advertising. I don't set out to be intimidating. I'm very shy and sometimes people confuse my shyness for being threatening or intimidating. I very rarely lose my temper ... if I do, it will be about work or some terrible misdemeanour with a client. But I think people want the founders to set high standards; they want a sense that anything's possible, that we're striving to be the best we can be.

But it's true I don't like being in the spotlight. I'm deeply relieved that John Hegarty does so much of the fronting of our brand because I don't particularly enjoy doing that and he does it brilliantly well. I want people to talk about BBH, but I don't want to talk about myself.

BBH's low points ...

Everything for us is all about the work and, when we forget that, we tend to have a low. So when we moved into Kingly Street, we looked at a different way of working, breaking the agency up into six teams and we spent an awful lot of time gazing at our own navels and working with management consultants, talking about ourselves all the time. We took our eye off the ball and our work suffered as a result of that and, when the work suffers, people's confidence goes. It took a while to get over it. I'll never get teams of management consultants in again like that. You get them in and you can't get them out.

I don't like resigning accounts, but we've resigned a few: Cadbury, Asda, Levi's - resigning them was the right decision but they were low points. Anything where we've failed has been a low for us. And there have been times when we've not had the right mix of leadership and, with the best of intentions, we've left those things longer than we should have done. Maybe we've been a bit sentimental sometimes.

... and the highs

When you just focus single-mindedly on the work, everything else just seems to fall into place because people are happy, people want to come and work for you, the phone rings with people wanting to bring their business to you, you get well-written about in the press, your bottom line improves. All our highs come when we're focused on the work. I think the mid-80s were a high, round about the time of Nick Kamen. The early 2000s were a high, when we won Agency of the Year three years running. I think now is a high.

We've been very lucky. We've had a lot of very good times, quite a lot of success, and it is like a drug - when you've been successful, you want some more. When we're on form, when we're at the top of our game, that makes me feel good ... that's what we started the agency to be.

The exit strategy ... or not

Our ambition was always clear: we wanted to be the best agency we could be, the best agency in the country. We certainly didn't have any thoughts of an exit strategy, of building an asset that we could sell on in a certain timeframe. I've never had a plan, really. I've just followed my instincts. Maybe it's because we're journeymen advertising people. We had a lot of ambition and the idea of putting a sell-by date on it would have been very strange.

When we sold some of our business to Leo Burnett (in 1997), we did it for the right reasons at the time. Some shareholders realised some value and it was good to talk to our Publicis partners when we began to expand internationally. But it was about allowing us to grow, not step back. They never come offering to buy the rest of us; they entirely respect that we are able to do what we like, and it's our decision, not theirs. We own 51 per cent and there's no time limit on that.

Can I imagine a time when BBH is sold? Well, nothing is forever. At some point, John and I will go completely and our shares will need to be bought. But the important thing for me is that we're such an established brand now - in terms of our values, our track record, the micro-network concept - that, if at any stage the ownership structure changes, I don't think the brand structure will. We could sell to Publicis, to our management, go public - but whatever we do, the commitment will be to maintain what BBH is as a brand. Our foundations are so strong that our culture is assured.

I don't like the word retire, but there will definitely be a time in the not-too-distant future when I will want to do other things. Not necessarily instead of BBH, but alongside it. I want to work on my idea for a clothing brand that's half-owned by humans and half-owned by whales, channelling profits into tackling marine pollution. And I'm interested in property development - I'd like to do more of that. And have a bit of a rest. I certainly don't want to outstay my welcome at the agency. I'll know when I've outstayed my welcome because I'll be told. We talk about it, but I don't want to do a Tony Blair - put a line in the sand and then move it.


"BBH is my dream come true, as much now as when I was there. It's exactly what I wanted the agency to be."

John Bartle founder, BBH

"One thousand talented people around the world, with all of us trying very hard to be the best we can possibly be."

Nigel Bogle founder and group chairman, BBH

"When the world zigs, you zag."

Sir John Hegarty chairman and worldwide creative director, BBH

"The endless pursuit of trying to do things better. Better than the competition, better than last year, better than yesterday."

Ben Fennell UK chief executive and partner, BBH

"BBH has brought some real magic that has achieved fantastic cut-through, making some of our greatest brands even greater. What is key about our relationship with BBH is that we have forged a true partnership. It's not just its track record that is impressive, but also how it sustains it with excellent professionals who care passionately about brands and how they engage people."

Keith Weed chief marketing officer, Unilever

"Not only have the founders been the best role models, but they have instilled in all of us the fundamental requirement to be decent, honest and fair in all of our dealings with each other and our clients. It also means that I've had the privilege of working with some of the smartest people, not just in advertising but in life. And that, too, has been a source of inspiration and self-improvement."

Simon Sherwood group chief executive and partner, BBH

"It's more than a job, it's a cause. We're on a mission."

Gwyn Jones group chief operating officer and partner, BBH

"My favourite Nigel Bogle quote, 'All agencies start out different and end up the same', is neatly disproved by BBH themselves: after 30 years, as fresh and vibrant as the week they started.

I'm now on my third time working with BBH!"

David Wheldon managing director, brand, reputation and citizenship, Barclays

"Over the past few years, BBH's agency model has evolved. We've introduced younger minds and better ways of working. We've embraced new opportunities in media and technology. But what hasn't changed is the agency culture. This restless pursuit of creative excellence and originality began with the founders and continues to this day."

Nick Gill executive creative director and partner, BBH

"BBH instilled in me a ruthless dedication to always strive to make the best work possible. To champion and revere creative work, to celebrate the effectiveness of work and to develop long-term client relationships based on mutual respect. I never realised how powerful their influence on me was until the day I left."

Nicola Mendelsohn executive chairman, Karmarama; president, IPA; former graduate recruit, BBH

"BBH remains the agency brand I admire above all others - for the brilliance of its founders, for the strength of its principles, for its industry leadership and for delivering great work over the past 30 years. If there was an award for 'agency of the last three decades', BBH would win it hands down."

Mark Collier chairman, Europe, Dare; former managing director, BBH

"BBH has always placed creativity at its centre, so it attracts like-minded, talented people. Because of this, it is my home and it's a happy home."

Rosie Arnold deputy executive creative director, BBH; president, D&AD

My Favourite BBH ad

Levi's 'Creek'

Nigel Bogle "'Creek' takes the fundamental 501 truth of 'shrink to fit' and spins it into a story of sexual awakening with a humorous twist. Brilliant casting and music, beautifully observed, it's as close to perfect as we have got."

John Bartle "I know it's a very conventional choice, because it's a Levi's ad, but 'creek' is just wonderful. I love the restraint of it. It's beautiful, full of mystery and intrigue - brilliantly paced too."

My Favourite BBH ad

Audi 'Villas'

Sir John Hegarty "This was one of the two TV commercials that launched Audi's 'Vorsprung durch Technik' - the slogan that defied logic and research to become one of the most memorable endlines. Geoffrey Palmer's droll delivery, 'So, if you want to get on the beach before the Germans, you'd better buy an Audi 100', catapulted Audi into the nation's consciousness. The ad put BBH on the map and showed the Germans did have a sense of humour. In 2011, Audi UK led its key rivals BMW and Mercedes-Benz in overall brand image. And it's still a client at BBH."

Click here to view some of BBH's best ads over the past thirty years.