NEWSMAKERS/ROSS BARR AND CHRIS COWPE: BMP hands keys to the kingdom to heirs apparent - The BMP lifers who joined on the same day have got the top job. By John Tylee

Departures from BMP DDB are like those of Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat - carefully planned and slowly executed until all that’s left is a lingering smile.

Departures from BMP DDB are like those of Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire

Cat - carefully planned and slowly executed until all that’s left is a

lingering smile.

Walk into its Paddington offices and there’s a good chance you’ll find

Martin Boase, one of the agency’s original partners of 30 years ago,

still putting in the hours along with John Webster, who dug BMP’s

creative foundations.

Thumb through the yellowing pages of an agency directory and there is

Chris Powell, BMP’s public face for as long as most people can remember,

whose vague, upper-class air conceals a steel trap of a mind, listed as

chief executive.

Not any more. In typically seamless fashion Powell, who joined the

agency in 1969, has stepped out of front-line management and into the

chairmanship, leaving day-to-day control to the joint managing

directors, Chris Cowpe and Ross Barr (Campaign, last week).

In an agency of comparable size and stature, this would be the

equivalent of handing over the keys to the kingdom. But that’s not the

way they do things at BMP, where the careers of Cowpe and Barr have such

symmetry to them that they almost seem like a preparation for this


They were interviewed for jobs at the agency on the same day and last

year were dinner guests at a St John’s Wood restaurant to celebrate more

than a quarter of a century in the place. Whatever their regime

promises, the absence of radical change is as safe a bet as one of

Barr’s famous racing tips.

Certainly this evolutionary approach has served the agency well.

’Lifers’ like Cowpe and Barr are not uncommon there, enabling BMP to

build long-term client relationships developed by highly experienced and

bullshit-free staff with the consistent beliefs that Boase has always


David Jones, the DMB&B group chairman, who spent eight years as a BMP

account man, says: ’It’s been by far the best agency in the UK over a

continual period. In 30 years it has never faltered.’

Nevertheless, the change in control, dismissed by Powell as no more than

’tidying up’, may be somewhat more significant than is officially


Barr professes to be awestruck by what awaits the pair. ’Day-to-day

running of the agency has really been Chris Powell’s job until now,’ he

explains. ’To take on something as successful as this agency is a

daunting prospect. It’s like being given a brief from Volkswagen - with

all its wonderful advertising heritage - and staring down at a blank

sheet of paper.’

A little disingenuous, perhaps. If Powell and James Best, the UK group

chairman, have been BMP’s front-of-house personification, Cowpe and Barr

have faithfully shadowed them in the back office.

’Their contribution has been incalculable,’ claims Jonathan Hoare, a

former director of BMP Business who is now managing director of Griffin

Bacal. ’Powell and Best would be the first to acknowledge it.’

On the face of it, there seems little synergy between the two. Barr, 49,

is a Glaswegian former teacher with a quiet intellect described as

’razor sharp’ by his friend, Tim Duffy, M&C Saatchi’s managing


Cowpe, 47, is a heavy smoking, back-slapping, sartorially challenged bon

viveur from South-east London. An acquaintance remembers encountering

him at the Chelsea Flower Show, rucksack over his shoulder and

shirtsleeves flying for want of cufflinks. ’He looked like a tramp.’

’Don’t be deceived,’ warns somebody who knows him. ’He may not be subtle

but he’s very bright. He’s no schmoozer and he can be pretty


What unites Cowpe and Barr is a shared belief in planning in its purest

form, the kind which inspired an ad for ’numerate graduates with an

interest in human psychology’ that first aroused the pair’s interest,

the kind preached by BMP’s Stanley Pollitt, who virtually gave birth to

the discipline.

Most importantly, theirs seems to be a genuine partnership of equals

with a rapport that is professional and personal - Barr was best man at

Cowpe’s wedding. ’They’ve never tried to score points off each other,’ a

former colleague remarks. ’We don’t live in each other’s pockets, but we

do get on well,’ Cowpe declares.

Both turned to advertising as an antidote to career false starts, Cowpe

as a trainee accountant - ’I just wasn’t cut out for it’ - and Barr as a

maths master. ’On my first visit to the staff room I got a diary telling

me what my salary was going to be in 30 years and a request for my

coffee money. It was dire .’

But while large parts of their agency careers have run in tandem - both

were appointed board directors in 1978 and joint planning directors

seven years later - their divergent personalities eventually pulled them

in different directions. Barr - ’He has the best analytical mind I’ve

ever come across,’ says Powell - took charge of the planning department;

Cowpe crossed into account management and new business.

Cowpe’s focus, evangelism and attention to detail at pitches is said to

be awesome. ’I’m terrible for saying our pitch preparation is OK and we

should all go home,’ Powell confesses. ’But Chris will invariably want

to change something and rehearse everything again. He is an incredible

combination of energy and dedication.’

Sholto Douglas-Home, BT’s former head of consumer advertising who is now

director of marketing for the Government’s New Millennium Experience

Company, still winces at the memory of popping into BMP’s offices to

tell Cowpe of the agency’s failure to convert a slice of BT business. ’I

arrived at 7pm and I was still there two-and-a-half hours later,’ he


’I thought he was never going to let me out because he was so angry and

excited. It just shows how committed and passionate he is.’

Today, Cowpe concedes the biggest challenge for Barr and himself will be

to maintain BMP’s energy and enthusiasm. ’There’s a lot about the place

that ain’t broke and doesn’t need mending.’ Barr, meanwhile, cites the

necessity not to ’keep doing the same things day after day’ if the

agency is to be responsive to a changing market.

This may be tricky. BMP’s cluster of very senior managers has been its

traditional strength but could be a source of future weakness. The

danger is that the agency becomes trapped by its culture.

’The advantage of not having expanded the management group is that it

gives the agency a wonderfully clear personality,’ explains Graham

Hinton, the Bates Dorland chairman, who knows Cowpe and Barr. ’The

downside is that, should they all decide to step back, any transition

will need to be managed very well.’

The problem, according to some ex-BMP senior staffers, is that the

structure is difficult for ambitious youngsters to climb or for

fresh-thinking outsiders to join. Others worry that BMP’s planning

strength may not allow enough account people to flourish.

All the more reason why the agency will need to maintain a public image

that will become harder to sustain as Powell takes a semi-detached


’The place will need a fresh charisma injection,’ a BMP watcher


’I’m not sure whether Barr and Cowpe are the ones to give it.’


Before commenting please read our rules for commenting on articles.

If you see a comment you find offensive, you can flag it as inappropriate. In the top right-hand corner of an individual comment, you will see 'flag as inappropriate'. Clicking this prompts us to review the comment. For further information see our rules for commenting on articles.

comments powered by Disqus