Bob Willott: editor of Marketing Services Financial Intelligence
Bob Willott: editor of Marketing Services Financial Intelligence
A view from Bob Willott

Think BR: Lost Independence Day 2012

The fifth of July 2012 should be remembered as the day when the notion was finally laid to rest that an outstanding advertising agency could remain under the control of more than one generation of management, writes Bob Willott.

For years Bartle Bogle Hegarty was admired not only for the quality of its work but also for its commitment to independence. 

The sale of a 49% shareholding to Leo Burnett in 1997 was trumpeted as a deal that allowed the BBH founders and many other employees to enjoy some of the value they had created without surrendering control of their destiny. 

It was a hard fought prize that provided a blueprint for several other agencies like CHI to follow later.

But now over 50 employee shareholders in the BBH group have voted for a big cheque and a surrender to Publicis.  

Make no mistake, despite talk of a management structure that allows local management to manage, BBH will now follow in the footsteps of Saatchi and Saatchi, Fallon and many others into the impersonal corporate clutches of a global giant.

Of course the distinctive culture that has been painstakingly nurtured through the decades will not vanish overnight. But gradually the agency’s leaders will depart and the culture they created will be diluted.

Nevertheless the industry should never forget the founding principles that drove the agency in its early years or the efforts that were made to ensure that BBH remained the most envied agency in the UK if not the world.

To preserve any semblance of genuine independence requires a major sacrifice by the founders because ownership transition among employees is extremely hard to engineer within the financial resources available. 

Watching peer agencies sell out to the highest bidder makes it hard for lovers of independence to tolerate the price discount that is inevitable if instead they elect to sell to their juniors.

Creative businesses are all about people and the culture they create. Sadly the industry seems to have accepted once and for all that today’s marketing agency is a single generation business. 

What a sad message to give to aspiring younger talent in the year when The Sunday Times selected BBH as one of the top 100 UK companies to work for.

Bob Willott is editor of Marketing Services Financial Intelligence