Martin Anderson, BDH TBWA’s chairman, sounds as though he is half
expecting Campaign’s call. ’I know what you want to ask,’ he says. ’You
want to ask just who the hell we are?’
Well, er, yes, we do actually - and we silently curse our ignorance.
This, after all, is an agency that’s about to welcome pounds 8 million
worth of extra Cussons business and whose 90 per cent growth rate has
brought it to the brink of a top 20 ranking (Campaign, last week).
Would we be making similar inquiries of HHCL & Partners or Leagas
Delaney, the shops that sit either side of BDH in the MMS table?
Or indeed of any other agency that has names like Airtours, Focus Do It
All, Crown paints, Solvite and Time computers on its client list?
It might have been different had BDH been based a showreel’s throw from
the Ivy instead of in a converted Methodist church in the Manchester
suburb of Didsbury. Or if the agency had consistently beaten its own
drum in the run-up to its 35th birthday this week.
Curiously, though, BDH remains as much of an enigma among the North’s
advertising community as it does elsewhere.
’Whenever we pitch against them, we always know they’ll give us serious
competition yet it’s hard to know why,’ Phil Hesketh, group development
director of Advertising Principles in Leeds, says. ’They don’t appear to
have an outstanding account team or new-business strategy. But I think I
speak for all their competitors when I say that they are very good and
So what does BDH think it is? No mere regional agency, that’s for
A client list liberally sprinkled with national names ensures that its
people don’t feel like country cousins. Meanwhile, the amount of TV work
produced - more than at any other agency outside London, Anderson claims
- extends its reputation beyond its Northern heartland.
At the same time, the agency has had its horizons broadened through
becoming part of the Omnicom empire, a process that began 11 years ago
when BDH’s founding partners sold out to the then GGT group. ’The change
has sharpened us because it’s forced us to perform,’ Anderson says.
It’s a far cry from 1964 when three senior managers from the Osborne
Peacock agency in Manchester - Ken Bowden, Mike Dyble and Geoff Hayes -
went into business with the media specialist, Win Offland, as Bowden
Dyble Hayes & Partners.
Despite a somewhat woolly management structure (’You were never quite
sure who was running it,’ Geoff Speller, the former chairman of J.
Walter Thompson in Manchester, recalls), the agency has always been
regarded as remaining true to its creative principles.
Moreover, the agency prides itself on never being condescending about
integration. All its creatives must be willing and able to take their
work through the line, and Anderson can’t resist a swipe at the Soho
arrivistes who only discovered it at the turn of the 90s. ’BDH is a
good, traditional, creatively led agency,’ Brian Child, chief executive
of McCann-Erickson Manchester, says.
The pragmatic approach - the agency continually points to its successes
in the IPA Effectiveness Awards - clearly goes down well with clients.
Steve Freeman, sales and marketing director of Schwans Europe, the maker
of Chicago Town pizzas and a client of BDH for seven years, says: ’They
have no pretence. They’re very honest guys and that’s the kind of
relationship we like.’
John Drummond, communications director of United Utilities, which owns
North West Water, praises the agency for its rigorous analysis of
consumer behaviour while having the ability to translate strategic
thinking into good creative work. ’They’re terrifically client
oriented,’ he says.
By targeting advertisers based in the North, BDH grew steadily
throughout the 80s - its name synonymous with the slumbering hippo and
duck in the famous campaign for Silent Night beds. The agency needed to
show its resilience, though, when the Norweb retail business was sold to
Comet three years ago, wiping pounds 10 million from its billings.
How BDH has survived its difficulties is an open question. One answer
may be that its absence of ’stars’ is counterbalanced by a stable and
experienced 110-strong staff where senior executives with 15 or more
years’ service are not uncommon. The breaking down of the agency
structure into three business units has also had the effect of spreading
responsibility and participation.
The big question is whether BDH will be the first regional agency to
break into the top ten. Anderson denies that this is a declared aim and
there are obvious obstacles. ’It’s very difficult to become a top ten
player from here,’ the new-business director of an agency based in the
North points out. ’London clients don’t want to come to you and if your
best recruits are any good, they’ll always want to head south.’
Nor is it always easy for high-profile southern hotshots to make the
necessary cultural adjustments.
Nick Wray lasted only nine months as BDH’s creative director before his
resignation in April last year. The agency, which must also come to
terms with this summer’s departure of its long-serving creative chief,
Al Dickman, has yet to see its equilibrium restored.
’They’ve lost their way a bit creatively,’ Pete Camponi, creative
director of Poulter Partners in Leeds, claims. ’But their emphasis on
effectiveness allows them to get in front of bigger clients.’
Others agree. ’We are all reluctant fans of BDH,’ a senior manager at a
rival shop confides. ’It’s thanks largely to them that we don’t have to
apologise for being in Manchester any more.’