Media Headliner: BLM loses independent tag, but gains more clout

Its founders explain why BLM decided to strike a deal with Havas to become part of its Arena network, Ian Darby writes.

I came out of the meeting and was on the phone to Madrid within ten minutes," Steve Booth, the chief executive of the newly christened Arena BLM agency, says.

The call in question was to Joaquin Bohorquez, the chief executive of the Havas-owned Arena Media, who had addressed a written enquiry to Booth after hearing that BLM was in negotiations with Engine Group over a possible sale. Following the collapse of these exclusive talks with Engine (the owner of WCRS), Booth was straight on the line to Havas and the new talks began.

This was on St George's Day, 23 April, last year. The £20 million deal was concluded on Friday 11 January. Quite a long process then. In the meantime, BLM has moved to larger offices on Tottenham Court Road and expanded its client list with the capture of more COI business and the Dollond & Aitchison account.

The main thrust of the negotiations, on the Havas side, were handled by Bohorquez.

Like Alfonso Rodes Vila, the chief executive of Havas Media, and his brother Fernando, Bohorquez comes from a banking background and has also held senior positions at Havas' Media Planning Group and EHS Brann. His aim was to buy BLM to form the UK arm of Arena, which launched in 2000 and is now present in eight markets. In its seven Latin markets it is ranked in the top five agencies, and boasts clients including Santander, Wal-Mart and Mitsubishi.

Part of the reason for the protracted talks was that Booth and the other founders of BLM, Nick Lockett and Charlie Makin, wanted to restructure the shareholding in the company. Previously, they were the sole shareholders, remunerating other senior management on salary and bonuses, but ahead of the deal, Booth says this had to change: "It's been a long time since it was just about Steve, Nick and Charlie. We've attracted good people and we want them to come through and share in this."

So while the founders take the bulk of the Havas cash and earn-out potential, the deal also incentivises the rest of the BLM senior management team: the chief operating officer, Paul van Barthold, the joint managing directors, Pedro Avery and Pippa Glucklich, and the head of BLM's successful digital division, Dan Clays. There was also the issue that Lockett, previously the agency's chairman, wanted to step down once the deal had been concluded.

Booth argues that the deal is good for everybody concerned. For clients because the senior team (not just Booth and Makin) is tied in for the foreseeable future. For the agency because it has the resources of Havas at its disposal. And for Havas and for Arena, because it gains a growing UK operation with which to begin its launch into Anglo-Saxon markets.

Booth says: "If this was merely about (Havas) buying something and maxing out the profit in the short term, we wouldn't be moving into this building. We want to double the size of this agency in the next three or four years - we only bill £130 million, so why not? We don't need more management, and I think we can double things with 30 or so more people."

While Lockett will move on from his full-time role with BLM to offer consultancy, Booth says he and Makin are committed to the future of agency. In addition to running BLM, Booth will play a role in helping Arena expand to other Anglo-Saxon markets, while Makin will continue to be "the strategic heartbeat" of the agency.

Bohorquez says he wants BLM to become a top-ten UK agency within a "short space of time" and is especially impressed with its Quantum digital operation.

"We launched Arena with the idea of being a 'close-to-the-client' agency and to be very involved in innovation and new product. It's a challenge for us to change from a Latin culture and enter Anglo-Saxon markets, where a key part of the future and advanced media techniques are located.

"BLM has had very good success in the UK, but now has a big backer to support new tools and access to global knowhow."

Bohorquez says that he expects client wins for BLM via the Arena network will be announced in the coming weeks. And the deal suits Booth and his team. It has averted the need for a messy merger and the team can essentially continue to run the business as a standalone operation.

Booth is clear that its ambitions can now be realised: "The tag we have to lose is 'the number one independent'. It was fine, but almost became a millstone around our neck. It's like being top of the Championship rather than in the Premier League. Every pitch we take part in is against network opposition, so the Havas ownership and the Arena badge will really add something."

Arena BLM's team will be building on solid foundations: Booth describes 2007 as its "best year ever", and the past few years have seen strong profits and growth supplemented by acquisitions (including the specialist fashion and luxury agency Red Media).

And Booth is adamant that the drive that has made BLM will not disappear: "We love a scrap and we won't lose that. There's a very determined spirit here and my job is still to manage that."


October 1990: Alec Kenny, Nick Lockett and Steve Booth launch KLB with no clients

November 1992: Kenny departs and Charlie Makin becomes third partner in renamed BLM

October 1998: BLM Quantum launched to offer internet services

September 2000: Paul van Barthold joins as partner and managing director

October 2002: BLM Azure launched to offer service for children's advertisers

January 2006: Acquires premium and luxury specialist Red to form BLM Red

January 2008: Acquired by Havas to form Arena BLM.