LIVE ISSUE/BDH TBWA: How a regional shop is challenging London’s elite - Despite its northern roots, BDH TBWA has risen up the rankings, John Tylee says

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?’

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

experienced all-rounders.’

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.’