World: Bartle Bogle Hegarty builds its US momentum

If, as it claims, BBH is happiest with a mountain to climb, its new US bosses should all be smiling, as Ann Cooper explains.

For the past two decades, Bartle Bogle Hegarty has been famous for brilliant creative, its culture, its no-pitch policy and the integrity of its founders - symbolised by a black-sheep logo and a philosophy of zagging when everyone else is zigging. But, as the network enters its next phase, with plans to enter China, and a new US management team charged with raising the bar from a "seven" to a "nine", how is it approaching the next two decades?

Kevin Roddy, the new US executive creative director in New York, is raring to go, despite a few pre-race nerves. "My role is to keep the momentum going and speed things up," he says. Why did he take the job? "It's BBH, the best agency on the planet. Is it a challenge? Is it scary? Absolutely."

The new chief executive, Gwyn Jones, imported from the London office after a five-year run that saw billings grow some 64 per cent to $640 million, also describes his outlook in energetic terms. "We're a restless agency, happiest when we have a mountain to climb," he says. "Most global clients reside in the US, so we've an opportunity to build relationships we can bring to the rest of the BBH network."

Cindy Gallop, the former chief executive and the recently anointed chairman and group chief marketing officer, is leading the charge globally. "The biggest challenge is ensuring that the BBH experience is the same everywhere," she says.

Six years on from its US launch, Gallop says the agency has done far better than expected, with a claimed $350 million in billings and a staff of 130. "If you're not in the US, you forget how big it is," she says.

"It took Crispin Porter & Bogusky 39 years to become the hottest agency in the US. If you look at how long it took Fallon or Wieden, we're ahead of the curve. Could we do better? Absolutely."

It was only after a rocky start with departing clients (Reebok) and creative directors (Ty Montague), that the agency went on to build solid relationships with international and US-only clients such as Johnnie Walker, Levi's, Axe, Unilever's All detergent, Dove, Sony Ericsson and Rolling Stone, among others.

For some clients, it's a match made in advertising heaven. "Creatively, BBH is unrelenting in trying to get to the next level," Richard Nichols, the Johnnie Walker US vice-president, marketing, says. "From a planning point of view, it's very strong. It launched us into the 21st century. Before BBH, we were plodding along."

The agency's own biggest challenge, though, is the $60 million US Levi's account, which it won in 2002 from TBWA\Chiat\Day, after the brand saw its sales plummet from $7.9 billion in 1996 to $4.3 billion in 2001. BBH's first creative offering - on a Western theme - received a mixed reception (the advertising pundit Bob Garfield described the first TV effort as "absolutely terrible"). The agency soon switched to emphasising Levi's connection with consumers. In March this year Levi's broke its biggest-ever print campaign, shot by the late Richard Avedon. It features black-and-white profiles of real people along with their "bum print". A current TV spot shows a man charming his way into the home of his girlfriend, only to retrieve his jeans, then leave.

"It's no secret that Levi's is in an extremely challenging position - though, to be honest, the problems it's faced have had very little to do with advertising and more to do with the product," Emma Cookson, the BBH global head of planning, says. "We believe the corner is being turned and we believe we've played a part in that."

Others in the industry remain circumspect. "When BBH opened, people had great expectations," Paul Cappelli, the head of The Ad Store, says. "But it hasn't done anything, except take Levi's away from TBWA. Everyone comes here and thinks it'll be easy to pick off clients because so many people here suck, but it's not true. It's opened an agency, so what? I haven't seen anything brilliant yet."

Another US-based, British observer of the agency agrees: "In the UK, BBH was very progressive and innovative. It changed the paradigm by being anti-estab-lishment, but not here. My perception of it here is low-energy and not very exciting. It's not doing anything as exciting as Chiat\Day's doing on Apple, or Goodby's is doing on HP."

As for the future: "The thing that would feel like a failure in a couple of years would be if I hadn't realised the potential in the market," Jones says. Roddy adds: "Creatively, BBH is a culture that's never good enough. The bar is always going up and you have to continuously be jumping over that bar. The challenge is huge."

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