CLOSE-UP: NEWSMAKER/LEAP - Why Bartle Bogle Hegarty's Leap isn't a giant step

BBH's new venture should put its music pedigree to good use, Glen Mutel says.

Despite being one of the country's most successful advertising agencies for the past two decades, Bartle Bogle Hegarty has always approached the matter of expansion with extreme caution.

Its overseas projects have been considered and selective, its dealings with holding companies prudent and cunning. Underlining all this is the belief that growth shouldn't come at any price - certainly not at the expense of the agency's creative culture.

BBH's latest expansion project is perhaps its most prudent to date. It's a music publishing arm, it's called Leap, and its aim is to give BBH's creative department greater, and indeed cheaper, access to original music for use in TV commercials, while at the same time providing the agency with a significant new revenue stream.

Leap is the brainchild of the BBH head of TV production, Frances Royle, who developed the idea with Richard Kirstein, a former commercial director and the ex-head of film, television and media at Zomba records. As Leap's managing director, Kirstein's job will be to gather together a pool of unsigned bands, groups and singers. When the agency needs to use a song produced by one of these acts, Kirstein will negotiate with lawyers and managers to secure the rights to that song.

While this is uncharted territory for an advertising agency, in some ways it is a natural extension to the BBH product offering. Music has always been more to the agency than a means to cover up the gaps between ill-scripted bits of dialogue. The soundtrack to a BBH ad is invariably crucial to the overall strategy of a campaign. Take Shaggy's Mr Bombastic or Babylon Zoo's Spaceman as only two examples of BBH applying the right soundtrack to Levi's ads.

The launch ad for Lynx Pulse, unveiled last month, proves the agency still has the knack. The ad features a choreographed dance accompanied by a remix of a classic 80s club track. The dance, through TV shows and column inches, has caught the public's imagination and, consequently, the song went straight to number one. The band cleans up, the product sells and everyone's a winner.

At least, that's how it seems. Royle is keen to point out that the system of song procurement leaves agencies such as BBH at a disadvantage. "At the moment, when we use a song, we agree a figure with a music production company based on the media usage of that TV campaign," she explains. "They then give us that piece of music on a licence basis. This means that we have to re-negotiate with them every three years, or when we want to run that piece of music in another territory."

However, she adds: "Leap will allow us to buy the track and own it. When we license it to our clients, it will cost them less and they will also get a share of the revenue the song generates."

Leap's activities are not just confined to unsigned bands - it will also commission, and retain the rights to, compositions for use in BBH ads.

This has the bonus of simplifying royalty payments, as well enabling the agency to bypass music production companies in the quest for incidental music.

If that wasn't enough, the agency is also moving into music video production through its directorial arm, Mint Source.

Royle explains: "How it works is the creative department has an idea for a promo, and then we use a director from a Mint Source showreel to direct it. A lot of pop videos aren't very good, so we're trying to extend our creativity into this world and it's an area that I think we've proved ourselves in."

Mint Source's promo debut was for the Nelle Hooper mix of The Dysfunctionals' Payback Time - the track featured in the "hybrid" execution for Levi's Type Ones.

BBH also intends to launch a magazine called Zag, which will be distributed within the agency and among the ad community. Although it is still in its formative stages, what has been decided is that the magazine will come under the editorial guidance of the ex-Esquire editor, Peter Howarth.

As the industry struggles from month to month and the effectiveness of traditional advertising declines as media fragments, one can understand why BBH would want to expand its repetoire.

The multimedia credentials of campaigns such as Lynx Pulse demonstrate the agency's understanding that brands exist outside and beyond advertising and Leap will no doubt help BBH profit from this conviction.

But what will these new ventures mean for BBH the agency? As it prepares to sell its stake in Starcom Motive, BBH is moving further away from the traditional holding company model. Is Leap the first step towards an alternative vision?

Not so. Or, at least, not yet. BBH's managing director, Gwyn Jones, is adamant that the primary motivation for Leap was a creative one. "Ten years down the road, maybe you will be looking at a very different business," he admits.

"But Leap won't generate significant revenue streams in the short term. We're just trying to find ways for the industry to work and to become more efficient and effective. We've always been strong in music and we were just looking for ways to take advantage of that."

With Leap, BBH is playing to its strengths: no other agency has such a successful track record when it comes to associating brands with music.

Its knack for talking to young, style-conscious consumers will likely see it entering new markets beyond magazines and music, and with the advertising industry prone to cyclical decline there's a lot of sense in diversification.