There can’t be many bosses who take kindly to opening their office
drawers to find bags of frozen peas melting into important documents and
pitchlists. But ’Bird’s Eye Burkitt’ learnt to take it with the
affection it was intended when fresh-faced graduates in the shape of Jim
Kelly, now joint chief executive of Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R,
and Michael Finn, chief executive of Duckworth Finn Grubb Waters, pulled
yet more pranks on their then boss.
Hugh Burkitt, the self-deprecating chairman of the newly formed Burkitt
DDB, is in buoyant mood following last week’s announcement of his
agency’s sale to Omnicom and its merger with Griffin Bacall.
Burkitt DDB intends to use Court Burkitt’s creativity to boost its
offering, while improving its new-business performance using the promise
of access to the DDB network. But such optimistic thinking may not be
enough to help the agency make a splash in a market where it previously
made barely a ripple.
Rumours about the deal, described by Burkitt as ’a long-burn dating
match’, had been as rife as they were strenuously denied. But the
changing landscape of the industry meant it was inevitable. News of the
merger strenuously affirmed that lower-middle sized agencies nowadays
have to be hotshop boutiques or part of a multinational to survive.
Burkitt will have his work cut out for him. As chairman he has to
overcome the stigmas attached to Court Burkitt and Griffin Bacal. Court
Burkitt had become somewhat directionless, having reached the end of the
road in the independent market. Griffin Bacal has never been seen as a
creative agency, more of a UK outpost for the Hasbro toy business.
Cambridge graduate Burkitt started life on the Bird’s Eye business at
Unilever in 1968. He was there for four years before breaking with
tradition and attending business school. Two years at CDP during the
agency’s creative zenith followed, before he joined Wasey Campbell Ewald
in 1975, rising to managing director in 1979.
He joined Fletcher Shelton Delaney in 1982, where Winston Fletcher, now
communications director for Europe at FCB, remembers him as having ’the
requisite combination of creative judgment, enthusiasm, intelligence and
But his desire to go independent led him to found Burkitt Wein-reich
Bryant in 1986. Len Wein-reich, a partner at the agency, says that
Burkitt was ’extremely stubborn about being independent’. Weinreich
believes the agency should have relinquished its independent status
early on, saying: ’It was Hugh’s innate conservatism that kept the
agency going for longer.’
Burkitt had different ideas and set up Court Burkitt in 1996. Despite
putting Mike Court’s name above the door, the creative director was to
leave for McCann Erickson shortly after the agency changed its name.
The next crisis to hit Burkitt became an ongoing headache for the
He had a long-standing relationship with the drinks giant IDV, but its
merger with United Distillers sparked a rethink of the company’s
advertising strategy. UDV took its Southern Comfort business, worth
pounds 2.5 million, out of the agency in 1997, and in 1998 the agency
lost its Malibu and Bailey’s accounts. Bell’s and Archer’s went up for
pitch earlier this year.
Burkitt says the new agency will attempt to bolster its presence on the
UDV roster, as well as work on winning new business in categories
including financial services.
He’s enthusiastic about the opportunities offered by the new deal, and
some observers think he’s struck a win-win deal. ’Omnicom is a very
benign parent,’ Finn says. John Hooper, director-general of ISBA,
agrees: ’It will give him a new area of influence. He’ll fit well into
the DDB structure.’
The deal will afford Burkitt greater room to manoeuvre: ’It’s a good
move for him. For a while he has needed a larger canvas to paint on,’
Kelly, a self-confessed fan of Burkitt, says he’s been the galvanising
force behind a great number of advertising luminaries. ’He’s one of the
greatest talent-spotters of our industry - but then I would say that,’
Most see Burkitt as a distinguished gentleman, industry stalwart and
defender of advertising - he is part of the establishment.
He’s on the IPA council, a member of the Solus dining club and a member
of the Committee of Advertising Practice.
’He’s well liked because he has a lot of integrity. He’s straight and
everybody respects that,’ Fletcher says. Hooper agrees: ’Everything is
carefully measured and thought through with Hugh. He’s not a man who
He wields his influence through a soft voice in a charming and witty
way.’ Rupert Howell, president of the IPA, adds: ’He’s a real trooper.
He does a hell of a lot of good work for the industry behind the
Most believe that despite his chequered history, Burkitt has always had
an eye for good creative work. Jonathan Hoare, managing director of
Griffin Bacal, cited the creative standard at Court Burkitt as the
defining factor that enticed him to the agency: ’Court Burkitt is a
pedigree creative agency.’
Although Burkitt DDB looks certain to be a second-string agency to DDB’s
other UK agency, BMP, not surprisingly neither Burkitt nor Hoare see it
as playing second fiddle. Both say they are happy to be considered for
any business BMP is unable to handle, however. Hoare denied it would
encroach on BMP’s territory, saying: ’BMP is unique and always will be.
This is the first step in developing broader DDB skills.’
Some observers see Hoare and Burkitt’s personalities as chalk and
cheese, but Burkitt rubbishes the possibility of personality clashes. He
says: ’I’m genuinely looking forward to having Jo as part of the team.’
The diplomatic comment is typical of this veteran operator - a definite
smoothie with a colourful reputation as a ladies’ man. ’He’s a nifty
little operator,’ says one observer.
Burkitt, now in his late 50s, has often spoken of all the offers for a
buyout he has had over the years, so why now? He maintains that DDB is a
good cultural fit for him, and the timing is right given the recent
Bell’s and Archer’s losses. ’I really feel the DDB network has the right
synergy. I know the spirit of the agency won’t change too
But size alone will not secure Burkitt DDB an illustrious future.
Burkitt agrees: ’Size is not what it’s about. It only works if you have
a greater breadth of talent to nurture.’