Close-up: Inside MBA

What attracted the big-budget AA to hand its ad and DM account to MBA? In the first of a new 'Inside...' series, Campaign went along to the integrated agency to get a flavour of what's on offer

Last year, the AA decided that it wanted to shift its marketing emphasis from brand-building to direct response.

The brief, reported to be worth in the region of £33 million, and for one of the most-famous and trusted brands in the country, would have been a trophy in any agency's client portfolio. But the AA opted to hand the entire account to a single, smaller integrated agency: MBA. Why?

Well, client needs are changing. Added pressure on budgets and the imperative to generate sales using less indulgent advertising are altering the way that clients brief agencies, and, in turn, the kinds of agencies that they want to work with.

The reality is that many marketers are no longer issuing separate briefs for above-the-line and direct marketing campaigns, but are throwing up marketing problems whose solutions are likely to be complex and multi-stranded. They are looking for agencies as business partners rather than mere service suppliers.

The old agency model, in which a marketing issue is given to a creative team that might specialise only in TV or in direct marketing, is no longer a neat fit with these new client requirements.

MBA's response has been to create a completely re-engineered agency proposition. The company has installed a number of creative architects, who generate and oversee creative ideas. These creative architects work with developers who specialise in executing these ideas in their particular channels - be they on the internet, via direct marketing, in press ads or on TV.

With a small agency's ability to be nimble and cost-effective, MBA makes a point of charging clients only for the communications they need, and recommending the right marketing solution, without prejudice.

The agency has also updated the traditional approach of generating "brand response" with campaigns that generate "brand action" - blending the art of big brand ideas with the science and rigour of driving a specific action.

This other point of difference reflects MBA's unique and long-standing philosophy that underpins all the campaigns it creates for clients: art meets science.

But what does it mean? While client needs may be changing, the "big idea" is still as effective as it has ever been. The "art" element emphasises the need to come up with the creative idea that defines an organisation's appeal to its customers and drives the strategy.

But, as with "art meets science", "brand" advertising and "response" advertising are not opposing forces.

"Science" covers a whole range of approaches that are part of the MBA way, from the rigour of proven direct response techniques to the data that proves a campaign is working. Then, budgetary resources can be focused on the parts of the campaign that are proving most effective.

The focus is on giving clients a quantifiable return on investment, so MBA is committed to working on a performance-related pay - proof that "brand action" does really work.

The strategy has certainly been effective for the AA, which saw a 66 per cent increase in response when it introduced the "for the road ahead" campaign in March; and for the National Trust with its "time well spent" marketing, where visits are up 4 per cent this year (see case studies).

As well as MBA's structure that allows for truly integrated campaigns, another point of difference is that the agency's top management stays engaged on client work. It's not the case that the top tier disappears after initial contracts have been signed, leaving clients in the hands of a junior account handler, as is often the reality in bigger agencies.

The founders - Stephen Maher, the chief executive, and Graham Kerr, the chairman and creative director - along with the planning director, James Devon, and the managing partners, Paul Munce and James Middlehurst, form a hands-on management team. All have a financial stake in the agency and a passion for what they do.

For them, the AA's decision to appoint this smaller-sized integrated agency to handle its very large advertising and direct marketing budget is hardly surprising at all.


Stephen Maher, chief executive - Oxford graduate and founder of MBA. Spent formative years in the 80s at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO. Joined fledgling creative hotshop Simons Palmer Denton Clemmow & Johnson in the early 90s. Left to start MBA.

Graham Kerr, chairman/creative director - Arguably one of the first creatives to work in integrated marketing as one of the early recruits to Yellowhammer. Joined Euro RSCG in the early 90s, before moving to MBA in 1994.

James Middlehurst, managing partner - Started at WWAV in 2000 as graduate trainee. Joined MBA in 2004 as account supervisor. Made managing partner in 2008 with responsibility for business development.

Paul Munce, managing partner - Spent six years at Euro RSCG Sydney, including a client secondment in Shanghai. Moved to Chemistry London in 2005. Joined MBA in 2007 as account director, heading up data. Promoted to managing partner in 2008.

James Devon, planning director - Began in account management at Proximity in 1999, before finding his true metier in planning in 2001 on the Royal Mail and Shell accounts. Moved to CMW in 2004. A serial blogger since 2006. Joined MBA last January.

When Campaign met MBA:

Check out just how much fun you can have in an integrated agency by watching our guided tour from Graham Kerr, the MBA creative director, at



With more than 100 years' experience, the AA is recognised as the motorist's friend, but it does a lot more than just roadside assistance, although this is in areas for which it is not particularly well known.

The company wanted to extend this trust to all parts of the business - from personal finance and insurance through to maps and driving schools.

"For the road ahead", which launched in March, saw a 66 per cent increase in response. The campaign is now running across multichannels such as DRTV, direct mail, press, online, e-mail, maps and driving-school cars.


The National Trust brand was well known, but people weren't sure what it stood for anymore. MBA's campaign, "time well spent", repositioned the National Trust as the perfect antidote to modern stress in a world of turbulence and uncertainty. Visits were also promoted as an escape that doesn't cost the earth.

The campaign was tailored by execution in more targeted media for the different customer segments - exploring what "time well spent" really means to tired and fulfilled children for the family membership, for example, or to stimulated minds for the more traditional NT membership. CRM activity encouraged annual season ticket purchases.

Roll-out incorporated media such as online (including social media sites), direct mail, POS, events, digital posters and press. The result: memberships have exceeded 3.5 million and visits have increased by 4 per cent in 2009.


While Everest is still a famous brand, perception of what it stands for was out of date. MBA worked to rekindle the residual warmth for the brand and to drive sales across a range of new, environmentally friendly home products.

A TV ad saw the new brand spokesman, Craig Doyle, in the same pub where Everest shot its last commercial in the 80s before moving on to talk about its recent developments.

The "making more of your environment" campaign continues to drive sales in some of the toughest times for the home improvement market. The work also brought agency and client a 2009 Institute of Direct Marketing award for campaign effectiveness.