Jerry Buhlmann is happy. You can tell - the corners of his mouth
have turned up a fraction of a millimetre, and his normal laconically
raised right eyebrow has lowered by a similar fraction. BBJ Media
Services has emerged victorious in the epic media pitch for Cable &
Wireless Communications (Campaign, 22 May) and Buhlmann, its managing
director, is planning to celebrate by sharing an ’exceptional’ bottle of
wine with his wife.
But generally, it’s business as usual for Buhlmann in his suspiciously
clinical office. One suspects - hopes - that beneath the unruffled
exterior lies a man who occasionally puts a CD back in the rack not in
alphabetical order. The fact is Jerry Buhlmann needs a jolly good
For this is the man described by all as ’driven’, ’ambitious’ and
I know there’s a personality under there, and - dammit - I’ll find
’It’s very exciting to be involved in telephony,’ he says, with no hint
of irony. Hmm. But get him talking about his agency and he’s off.
This is unarguably a great time for BBJ. After a scant couple of years
in the new-business stakes, the accounts are finally rolling in. CWC
follows hot on the heels of the RAC.
’It was great winning one after the other,’ Buhlmann smiles (there you
go - he can smile). ’It shows that we’ve got our offer right; they are
two very different businesses, so this isn’t just a one-off.’ So to what
does he attribute this sudden run of good luck?
’We’ve been building our long-term strategy. If you look at BBJ, the way
our culture has grown is by focusing on getting a small number of big
clients - and then hanging on to them.’
And indeed, the strategy is working. BBJ’s top eight clients amount to
90 per cent of the agency’s billings which, if you count the new win,
amount to a claimed pounds 220 million. Er, how much is Cable & Wireless
really worth? Buhlmann is firm about the pounds 50 million price tag: ’A
client is hardly going to reveal its true spend during a review in a
So how did BBJ pull it off from such a strong pitch-list? Buhlmann
launches into a moving speech about the ’BBJ Way’. Planning features
heavily and he talks lovingly of the holistic approach his agency takes
to media - as opposed to shops which take on planning or buying-only
tasks; even more opposed to operations such as Unity and Michaelides &
Bednash which deal with only one area.
’Lots of people talk about an holistic approach to media; others
demonstrate it,’ he sniffs. ’We’ve built a wonderful culture of
communications specialists here.’
But, as Jim Marshall, the chief executive of MediaVest and a former
colleague, says, ’He’s a bit of a one-man-band.’ If Buhlmann were to
begin to scale the lofty heights of the Aegis ladder, what would become
of the agency?
Easy. He’s not interested in scaling the ladder - or so he says. And
it’s hardly surprising that, having built up the agency, he’s even
squeamish about the agency doing well when he goes on holiday.
But isn’t it time for some of that famous ambition to be pointed in the
direction of his own career, rather than inwards on to this agency
which, as he admits, can obviously perform without him? ’There’s still
lots of work to do at BBJ. I am very driven and a company like this
needs a driving force. I’m immensely proud of it; the culture is ...’
Whoah! He’s talking about the culture again.
Nick Brien - the other ’B’ of BBJ who is now the chief executive of Leo
Burnett - says of BBJ: ’The one thing that the agency lacks is
It’s hard to put your finger on the brand as it’s less open in the
industry. But Buhlmann managed the Carat relationship successfully.’
Ray Kelly, chief executive of Carat UK, seems keen to have Buhlmann play
a larger part in Aegis: ’We’d hope that he has a good future within
Aegis and he’s got a lot to give in helping develop the product
Buhlmann’s improved, too, as many of his old cronies agree. Brien says:
’He’s a tough bugger - I’m glad he’s chilled out,’ and Marshall adds:
’It used to be painful watching him take the business so seriously, but
he’s got more of a sense of humour now.’
And I have to acquiesce. There is a personality in there and, really,
why the hell should he allow me access to it? His staff seem to like
him, the atmosphere is good. Hey, BBJ is about to get a prized
Government-sponsored Investors in People certificate. ’We’ve built a
culture in which people are motivated and happy,’ he boasts. In the
background, I’m sure I can hear the TV buyers humming I Vow to Thee my
THE BUHLMANN FILE
1980: Young & Rubicam, media trainee 1981 Young & Rubicam, media
1983: WCRS, associate media director
1985: WCRS, head of Bass buying unit 1989 BBJ Media Services, co-founder
and managing director.