In the same week that Carol Reay stormed out of Grey as a result of
the agency’s merger with Mellors Reay & Partners in January, another,
lesser-known agency showed that mergers don’t have to end in tears.
Eighteen months ago, when FCA! was struggling with the fallout from its
second merger in five years, few would have predicted that the
management team could turn things around quickly enough to win
Campaign’s direct agency of the year award last week.
FCA! is now a major player, with billings of pounds 55 million
(according to MMS) and a place on the COI roster. It is also one of a
very few agencies that can genuinely claim to be media-neutral.
But the road to success has been far from smooth. The agency that is now
FCA! has been through so many different incarnations that it is now
virtually unrecognisable from the French advertising network that set up
in the UK by acquiring Mavity Gilmore Jaume in 1989.
In many ways, the FCA! that exists today has more in common with Impact,
the integrated agency that launched in 1990 out of the ruins of FCB
Direct. Andy Blackford, who set up Impact nine years ago with Stephen
Fox, hired Shaun McIlrath and Ian Harding, the current FCA! joint
creative directors, as his first creative team.
’I felt a surge of paternalistic glee as I cheered from the balcony last
Monday,’ he says. ’When we set up Impact, we had an above-the-line
background but were interested in doing something integrated. Nine years
on, that’s still what FCA! does.’
In the early 90s, however, Impact was increasingly being forced by its
parent company into being precisely what its founders had set out to
avoid - a below-the-line subsidiary that churned out direct mail
versions of campaigns created by its above-the-line sister companies,
FCB and Publicis.
It was not until Publicis acquired the FCA! network in 1993 and merged
the London office of FCA! with Impact that the balance was redressed and
it became a fully fledged through-the-line agency.
But the beginnings of Impact FCA!, as the new agency was called, were
far from promising. FCA!’s London office had consistently failed to get
on to major pitch-lists under the chairmanship of Roger Mavity, or his
successor, the New Yorker, Jeannie Bergin. And, in spite of group
chairman Phillipe Calleux’s stated ambition to have FCA! London inside
the UK top ten when the agency set up in 1990, it was ranked just 56th
at the time of the 1993 merger.
’FCA! is a very different agency now,’ Chris Parry, the FCA! chairman
who came out of semi-retirement to head Impact in 1993, says. ’When I
took over at Impact it was beginning to grow into what I saw as the
future - an integrated agency. But it was still very focused on
below-the-line work. The philosophy we have tried to instil is that it’s
all about the idea, not the discipline.’
No sooner had the agency recovered from the internal culture clashes
brought about by the Impact/FCA! merger than another one came along. In
1997, Impact FCA! acquired and effectively swallowed up the small
above-the-line agency, Kelly Weedon Shute. Again, the management team
had to cope with disgruntled staff from a traditional agency thrust into
the unknown world of through-the-line marketing.
’When you bring lots of people together it inevitably causes problems,’
McIlrath says. ’But we found our goals and cultures were not as
dissimilar as we had first thought. From the above-the-line people there
was a sense of ’it can’t be direct marketing if it’s not going in an
envelope,’ and when they realised there was more to it than that, they
began to see the potential.’
After the merger, McIlrath explains, he and Harding heard on the
grapevine that CVs from agency staff were doing the rounds. So they
called everyone into a meeting.
’We told them that if they wanted to go, they could do so with our
blessing and we’d do what we could to help. But if they stayed, it had
to be with a determination to make things work,’ McIlrath explains. ’It
was then that we told everyone our ambition was to be Campaign’s agency
of the year. And at the end of the day, we needed them to do that - it
is the people on the ground who make or break a merger, not the
The strategy was typical of FCA!’s unconventional style - and it paid
off. None of the staff left and the agency has gone on to fulfil its
ambition, not only picking up the award for best direct agency, but also
proving in pitches that it can compete - and win - against such
above-the-line heavyweights as Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO and BMP DDB.
The Wales Tourist Board campaign gave FCA! the opportunity to do what it
does best - a fully integrated campaign across television, radio, print,
outdoor and direct marketing that incorporated highly innovative ideas.
And last year the agency added to its formidable management team by
hiring Samantha Smith, the former marketing director of McDonald’s,
Demon Internet and Burger King.
McIlrath believes that being the underdog for so many years has given
FCA! its competitive edge. ’The agency has always had a bit of a chippy
feel to it,’ he says. ’When you start off in below-the-line, you look at
adland in a very different way. We never wanted to join the Soho boys’
club. I think the day we do is the day we die.’
THE HISTORY OF FCA!
1988 The French advertising network, Feldman Calleux Associes, buys its
first foothold in London with a 26 per cent stake in the London agency,
Mavity Gilmore Jaume.
1989 Mavity Gilmore Jaume FCA! merges with Brooks Legon Bloomfield,
becoming Mavity Gilmore Jaume Hill Brooks.
1990 FCA! increases its stake in the agency to 51 per cent and renames
it FCA Mavity.
1991 Jeremy Clarke is hired to replace Leon Jaume as creative director.
The chairman, Roger Mavity, and managing director, Bruce Hill, quit the
agency leaving Clarke in charge. Mavity’s name is dropped and it becomes
1992 FCA! appoints the New Yorker, Jeannie Bergin, as chairman and chief
executive, to bring the London agency out of the doldrums. Clarke
resigns soon afterwards, subsequently suing the agency for damages.
1993 Publicis acquires the FCA! network, throwing the future of the
troubled London agency into question.
1994 Publicis merges the London office of FCA! with its through-the-line
agency, Impact, to create a pounds 30 million-billing agency. Chris
Parry, the managing director of Impact, takes over as chairman of Impact
FCA! Bergin is offered other jobs in the organisation but declines to
take them up. Shaun McIlrath and Ian Harding become the agency’s joint
1997 Impact FCA! acquires the above-the-line agency, Kelly Weedon Shute.
The agency changes its name back to FCA!
1998 Samantha Smith, the former marketing director of Burger King and
McDonald’s, joins FCA! as the fourth managing partner to head the
agency’s new-business drive.
1999 FCA! wins Campaign’s direct agency of the year award.