My campaign: Getting a BBH-style deal for CHI
A view from Johnny Hornby

My campaign: Getting a BBH-style deal for CHI

When faced with a choice between offers from Vincent Bolloré and Martin Sorrell, Johnny Hornby did the only thing any self-respecting agency founder could do... he took his kids skiing.

A nice thing about our industry is that people are so generous with advice. In spring 2001, when I was about to start my agency, I sent out a note to Chris Powell, Leslie Butterfield, MT Rainey, Jim Kelly, Rupert Howell and Nigel Bogle saying: "Hello. I’m thinking of starting an ad agency. Would you spare me half an hour?" Every one of them said: "Of course." I still have a little notebook in my drawer with all the notes I took from those people. I got some fantastic advice – much of which we followed. 

Nigel became our "good uncle". Twice a year we’d have lunch. One of the things he said to me was it gets very tricky knowing when and how to sell. Every agency that has sold, on the whole, ends up being less good. We didn’t want that. 

The closest Nigel got to it was selling 49% of the business, which solves two problems. It gives you access to a multinational network to serve clients, without allowing any of the big holding company practices to kill entrepreneurialism. And while you don’t make as much money, if there’s a second opportunity to sell, you can allow other people beyond the founders to make money too. 

I decided I wanted to do the same deal. We had various conversations; no-one seemed to offer that. Only Bartle Bogle Hegarty had ever done it. Nigel was very generous and said: "I’ll just give you what I did." He sent me his entire deal. I took it, Tippexed the black sheep logo out of the pages, sent it to our intermediary, Jonnie Goodwin, and said: "Unless someone wants to do this, leave me alone."

He came back and said he’d found someone. It was Havas. We spent six months talking and got 99% of the way to doing the deal. They were then taken over by Vincent Bolloré. I went to meet him and he felt a little bit more ominous as an owner. After I met him, it was starting to be a bit less like the BBH deal in some places. I began to worry about it a little. 

In the midst of all of this, I was standing in Minneapolis when Campaign called saying they were going to run a story about Havas buying 49% of the company. They had got it from Bolloré. It was quite frustrating – I’d had no conversation with my people or clients. I was also quite cross with Bolloré: we had both signed a non-disclosure agreement. 

Campaign printed the story. Guess who the first phone call was from? Martin Sorrell: "What the hell are you doing? How dare you do this without talking to us? We’re the best agency." 

I said: "I can’t talk to you, I’ve signed an NDA and have a period of exclusivity." He said: "Well, that’s bollocks – Vincent is in breach." I said: "I’m still not going to talk to you." So he started calling friends of mine, such as my founding client [Carphone Warehouse co-founder] Charles Dunstone, asking why I wouldn’t talk to him. 

What the hell are you doing? How dare you do this without talking to us?

It was the Easter weekend. I took my kids skiing. On the Friday at midnight, the NDA and the period of exclusivity was up. Havas hadn’t asked to renew it and I was a bit fed up with them. I ended up having a call with Sorrell after midnight. I said: "We’re supposed to sign the deal with Havas on Tuesday and I’m sure we’ll probably sort it out." Sorrell said he’d do a significantly better deal than whatever we had agreed. 

I said I wanted the deal to be exactly like Bogle’s. He asked me to send him a copy. First thing next morning he came back and said: "I’ll do exactly that deal. We’ll pay more and you’ll be part of WPP – Havas is second division to WPP around the world." 

I said: "You’ll have to do due diligence, which will take six months. I haven’t got the stomach." He said: "If you are going to do the deal with Havas on Tuesday, we’ll do it then too. I’m in San Francisco. I’ll fly back
and meet you on Monday if you fly back from Chamonix."

We met in a British Airways lounge at Heathrow Airport. He had two envelopes. "Here’s a deal for us to buy the whole thing, and here’s one if you want the hippie-commune-keep-everyone-happy deal. You’ll make a lot less money but I’ll still do that. They will both be significantly more than what you’ll get from Havas." 

He flew back to San Francisco. I went for a walk in the snow. We signed the deal on Tuesday. 

We were £15m of revenue at that point (2007). By the end of last year – including media – we had £450m of total revenue. We would never have got there without WPP, and being a full-service and partnership model. At the senior level, since we’ve created the partnership, no-one has left. 

Johnny Hornby was a founder of Clemmow Hornby Inge and is now chief executive of The & Partnership