Feature

Fallon's First Decade

Its creative zeal has given it a reputation for arrogance, but has also led to great business success, Kate Nettleton writes.

Laurence Green, the Fallon chairman, struggled to answer one question in this year's A List: if you weren't you, who would you rather be in the industry? "I'm a partner at Fallon," he said. "I fucking love it, why would I want to be anything else?"

This attitude, echoed loudly by his fellow founding partner, Robert Senior, who boasts that he and his partners "have the best jobs in advertising", has led to accusations of arrogance.

And it's easy to see why. The agency has taken an inward-facing stance within the industry, been standoffish with the trade press and has been religiously obsessed by the power of its creative output. Yet, after ten years of failing to convince the industry of its humility, its confidence in the economic value of creativity has paid off.

Walk into the agency's new home on Great Titchfield Street, with its lofty ceilings and expansive foyer, and the agency's recent growth is instantly obvious. Yet the awards for the courageous creativity that fuelled this evolution are nowhere to be seen.

"We don't unpack our awards," Green says. "They're just awards for things we've done in the past. Why would you spend half an hour unpacking them when you could spend (it) writing something new and exciting?"

This restless ambition has imbued the agency since day one, when Michael Wall, a senior director at TBWA Simons Palmer, and Senior, his flatmate and colleague, along with Lowe Howard-Spink's star planner Green, flew to Minneapolis to convince Pat Fallon that they had the talent to set up the London outpost of his then hugely successful US hotshop, Fallon McElligott.

It didn't take long for the partners to convince Fallon. He says: "They won the pitch in the first two minutes, by starting with a slide that showed pictures of their families to explain why success was imperative. We've always felt that people who have the ability to look outside themselves are the ones who would fit in with our brand."

Yet this declaration of intent wasn't about getting rich, Senior says. "If it was for the money then we wouldn't have done a joint venture - we would have just gone it alone. The driving force behind Fallon London was a bunch of people who wanted to make a difference."

Nine months later, the agency opened, with the quality of the output at the front of its agenda, rather than any stated new-business ambitions.

And, unlike Wieden & Kennedy, which launched its London outpost around the same time, populating it with US talent, Fallon London signalled its creative intentions by securing the services of one of the most in-demand UK creative teams around in BMP DDB's Richard Flintham and Andy McLeod.

But the agency's story isn't one of overnight success, and Fallon's dedication to creative, coupled with its desire to find a perfect harmonious fit with every client, left many feeling the agency was conceited, and ultimately got it off to a slow start.

Debbie Morrison, the director of consultancy and best practice at ISBA, explains: "They struggled to get people to understand them in the first place because they were so principled."

Fallon's first few wins - Nando's, Loaded and Trebor Bassett - weren't exactly "blue chip", but Senior feels that the agency only appeared to be lagging behind others because the industry's success measurement was entirely based on new business.

Others argue, though, that even Fallon's early creative failed to meet the mark. "It took it three or four years to really hit its stride. The early work was a little bit safer than it could have been," a senior creative says.

Wall concedes that its early development was slow: "There's a purity about that approach and a stubbornness that a lot of the time is out of sync with the way the UK ad business works."

But the agency didn't stay out of sync with the commercially driven barometers of success for long. After securing the Skoda account in 1999, its first campaign for the car brand adopted a self-deprecating tone that hadn't been seen since the days of Doyle Dane Bernbach's VW "lemon". Fallon believes "It's a Skoda, honest" justified the "marathon rather than a sprint" approach to acquiring clients, affording it the opportunity to produce brave creative that could transform problematic brands.

No sooner had Fallon London proved this point, than the Publicis Groupe waded in and snapped up its parent network. And, despite the insistence of the entrepreneurially driven founders that they weren't motivated by money, this stark reminder that they would never have the autonomy to accrue value and make their millions, was a blow.

Senior explains: "We were 18 months in, and the commercial premise of doing a start-up is you create value and at some point you realise that value. We really thought this thing might just work, then we got this call and its Pat and he says 'hey great news guys', and you kind of think; actually, that's not great news. We'd just got some acceleration and it felt like potentially our wings were being clipped."

Fortunately, rather than setting the agency back as many expected, Maurice Levy, the Publicis Groupe chairman, took the informed step of giving the agency the space to flourish.

It was another five years before the agency began the steep rise that it still enjoys, which can be traced back to the hiring of the diminutive, softly spoken Argentinian Juan Cabral. He created Sony "balls", a point from which the agency has not looked back.

Skoda may have got adland's tongues wagging, but "balls" managed to ignite the interest of the client community. You could almost hear the collective order "do me a Sony Bravia". It spawned so many imitators that a new creative genre of ethereal, folksy advertising was born (none of it a patch on the original).

The ad effected a sea change in clients' approach to the value of creativity, as Nikki Crumpton, the chief strategy officer at McCann Erickson, says: "It got clients to trust the power of creativity and realise what it can do, given its full range of expression."

Fallon's fame began to attract a new type of client, leading to sizeable wins on Orange, Cadbury and Asda, and triggered a new attitude in the agency's approach to new business. Martin Jones, the director of advertising at the AAR, says: "You get a sense from when you take a client in to see Fallon it's got to the stage where the 'will they be interested in us?' question is as important as 'are we interested in them?'"

Morrison adds: "I've had clients almost crying on the end of the phone when they found out Fallon wouldn't pitch for their business."

The agency fast became a tough act to follow, with ads such as Sony Walkman "music pieces", Skoda "cake" and the Cannes Grand Prix-winning Cadbury "gorilla" encouraging more and more clients to beat a path to its door.

Indeed, if Fallon could previously be accused of having a snotty attitude to new business (Green once declared he was pleased to be off the massive Camelot pitchlist, as it didn't fit with Fallon values), today it appears to enjoy the challenge offered by clients with a less-than-robust creative pedigree. This year it made another attempt at Camelot, went for Halifax, and won the Cheestrings account.

"I know people may think it's strange that the same agency that does Sony also does Cheestrings, but it's not strange to us. All we ask is whether they are the kind of people we think we can do good work for," Flintham says.

Yet Fallon's creative reputation is not above criticism. It needs to prove that it's famous for more than great TV ads. Its print work for Sony, Cadbury and Orange is often unremarkable and the agency's certainly not leading the adland pack in terms of in-house digital expertise. However, its recent hiring of multi-channel talent, such as Mans Tesch, its new digital strategy director, shows an intention to change.

But as new talent arrives, some departs. Although the departures of Wall and McLeod in the past two years left Fallon seemingly unshaken, the news that Cabral is returning home to Argentina, on "a long leash", will be a blow. "Juan is a supremely talented creative and that's something you would, in an ideal world, want working on your business all the time," Phil Rumbol, Cadbury's marketing director, says.

Now Senior has moved to Saatchi & Saatchi as SSF's chief executive, the spotlight falls on Fallon's reserve bench of managing partners. Karina Wilsher, Chris Willingham, Mark Sinnock and Magnus Djaba must keep the momentum going, under the careful stewardship of Green and Flintham. "The first generation was amazingly strong," Fallon concedes. "Individually, our second-generation management is equally as driven, but it takes time to get the chemistry and prove that, together, they can be a force."

As yet, their talent, and the benefits of the SSF structure, are relatively untested. But, with an SSF network win in the bag in the form of Cadbury's global account, Levy believes Fallon London, within the SSF network, can restore its own weakened network. "Fallon needs to be revamped in the US. The process is well underway and it is starting to win again. With the already successful London operation and the Saatchis connection through SSF, Fallon can develop itself and serve great global clients."

Let's hope that Levy isn't spreading Fallon London's talent too thinly. Taking Senior away from Fallon is one thing, but hoping that the London shop's success can restore the entire Fallon and SSF networks is another.

For now, however, adland owes Fallon a debt of gratitude. Its consistently great TV work demonstrates that faith in creativity pays sales dividends. As Sir John Hegarty, the chief creative officer at Bartle Bogle Hegarty, puts it: "We should all applaud Fallon's success. Every time it sells a great piece of advertising, it helps all of us sell a great piece of advertising."

TIMELINE

February 1998: Minneapolis-based Fallon McElligott indicates its intention to set up in the UK by joining the £20 million Lee Jeans pan-European pitch.

April 1998: The agency secures the Lee Jeans business and announces that the TBWA Simons Palmer senior directors Robert Senior and Michael Wall will run the operation, along with Laurence Green from Lowe Howard-Spink.

September 1998: Richard Flintham and Andy McLeod leave BMP DDB to become creative directors and equal partners of Fallon McElligott UK, completing the senior management line-up.

December 1998: The agency snatches the £10 million UK Skoda account from Grey.

February 2000: Fallon is bought by the Publicis Groupe. The five UK managing partners retain their shares in the agency. The deal kickstarts its global expansion.

March 2000: Debuts on Skoda with "It's a Skoda, honest".

November 2002: Wins Sony.

January 2004: Poaches the art director Juan Cabral from Mother.

October 2005: Sony Bravia "balls" breaks.

March 2006: Wins Orange following joint pitch as part of the Publicis Groupe alignment.

June 2006: The five founding partners complete earn-outs.

October 2006: McLeod quits to become a director for Rattling Stick.

November 2006: The agency wins a place on the Cadbury roster with Bourneville appointment.

December 2006: Named Campaign's Agency of the Year. Takes accolade again in 2007.

January 2007: Wins £44 million Asda account.

May 2007: Wall quits. Later emerges as the chief executive of BBDO Portugal.

July 2007: Publicis Groupe announces the launch of the new mini-group structure SSF, which Senior will lead as the structure's chief executive.

September 2008: Cabral announces he will move back to Argentina for the birth of his first child, but will retain his job title.

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