The management of Bates UK can take one comfort from the saturation
coverage of its business losses, bloody internal politics and staff
defections in recent months. Although there may still be good eating to
be had from that particular joint, the result is that we are all
suffering from what can only be described as an overindulgence in Bates
knocking. So I feel duty-bound to look at the bigger picture and to ask
whether there might be one of those Buddhist paradoxes at work. Will
Bates, through this period of painful abnormality, finally reach
something close to normality?
For many years, despite turmoil at the top, the Bates account list
seemed to defy the laws of gravity. Not so in 1999. Let’s start by
accounting for these losses, culminating in Cussons firing the agency
Heinz was realigned into Leo Burnett with slim chances of the UK agency
winning the global task. Allders and the Reader’s Digest were project
relationships that, for whatever reason, never matured. Eden Vale, a
ten-year relationship, fell victim to a combination of under-servicing
by the agency and new management at the client. Cussons, likewise, can
be put down to under-servicing and a promiscuous client that habitually
changes agency every two years or so. In all, five pieces of business
have walked this year - a loss of some 10 per cent of annual revenue.
There is just one thing wrong with the argument that such business churn
is normal for big agencies. It is not being replaced with new business -
which is where New York and Bates’ chairman, Michael Bungey, could come
Bates’ survival as a standalone network has been in question since Mars
pulled out pounds 270 million worth of business in return for Maurice
Saatchi’s ousting by the then Saatchi & Saatchi group. British American
Tobacco is its only global client of any size and, where most UK
agencies with US parents can rely on New York as the new-business engine
for global business, Bates New York has been more successful at
delivering domestic rather than multinational accounts.
Some are suggesting that Bates’ problems have nothing to do with losing
business or lack of global clout. They attribute them to the two Grahams
- Hinton and Green - whose master plan is to restructure the agency to
offer integrated work across the whole client base. Resisting the
temptation to quote from the anonymous letters that have reached
Campaign concerning Green’s many talents, I will only comment that no
major agency has attempted this kind of fundamental reorganisation
before. Painful and drawn-out as it is proving, making your offer
media-neutral and more client-centric has to make sense for any agency.
Let’s just hope that, in tearing everything down, Bates is left with
something to replace it with.