The World: BMB hopes it's found the American dream team

Can Neil Powell and Clayton Ruebensaal put the agency on an already congested New York map? Kate Nettleton reports.

A stone's throw from one of New York's most successful agencies, Droga5, sits Beattie McGuinness Bungay's newly opened office on West Broadway.

But with its lofty ceilings and Manhattan-style exposed brickwork, the place, unlike its well- established neighbours, practically echoes. The rows of empty seats would be concerning, but this agency is just a few months old, and, having celebrated its opening just three weeks ago, the vacant space is merely indicative of the ambitions of its founding partners.

Having sold a 49 per cent stake of the London business to Cheil Worldwide last year, and with a global client to support expansion in Samsung, which part-owns Cheil, the BMB partners, Andrew McGuinness, Bil Bungay, David Bain and Trevor Beattie, have set their sights on New York at a time of global economic upheaval.

McGuinness explains: "We've taken the advice that we give to our clients that now is actually a great time to invest in this business. You can get talent that you wouldn't get in tougher times, real estate is easier to get your hands on and you calibrate the cost of the business in a sensible way from the beginning."

Setting a fiscally responsible tone for the agency is certainly laudable, but sidling into the US market and achieving a seamless cultural fit is no mean feat. Just ask Bartle Bogle Hegarty. "We very much want it to be a local thing," Beattie says, but for an agency that's prided itself on creating brazenly British advertising for quintessentially British brands - McCain, Carling and Wall's, to name a few - there is a risk of a culture clash, not to mention the challenges of entering a market cornered by the likes of Droga5, Crispin Porter & Bogusky, and Goodby, Silverstein & Partners.

"The last thing New York needs is a new ad agency," one chief executive who has launched an office in Manhattan says. "BMB NY will need to feel at the very least American and ideally global but definitely not an import." David Droga, the Droga5 founder, disagrees: "New York is not discerning. There's so much opportunity here, it really doesn't matter where you're from."

BMB's solution has been to snare two very American and very experienced founding partners in Neil Powell and Clayton Ruebensaal.

Ruebensaal began life as a planner before "switching to the dark side" and working his way up to the upper echelons of BBDO account management, while Powell started out as a graphic designer and worked at Fallon for eight years before setting up his own shop.

By devolving power to the duo and giving them "a significant share" in the business, BMB hopes it will create an agency with an American body and a British soul.

Well versed in the competitive nature of the market - "There's no cheering on from other agencies in the industry here," Powell says - the American partners have a clear vision of the agency's positioning.

They plan to take a step back from the usual advertising process, by starting with the product, rather than the advertising. When given a project, they aim to be involved in suggesting changes to a product's design or positioning in the retail environment, before deciding what kind of advertising to create.

Ruebensaal explains: "If the product is the foundation for the thinking, then the advertising is not a foregone conclusion."

By resisting the temptation to preordain any media channels, and by placing products at its core, the founders hope they have created a unique and frugal approach to advertising that will prove attractive to recession-worn clients.

With a holistic range of hirings, including Nikolay Saveliev, a senior designer from Droga5, and Mara Flynn, an account director from Hunter Public Relations, soon to join the nine existing staff, the partners are building the requisite skillset to execute their approach.

They also have projects in the bag from BMB's London clients such as McCain and via Cheil for Samsung, for which it has just produced a campaign for its UPT washing machine. Powell and Ruebensaal aim to have three significant non-referred clients by this time next year, and with "two or three" pitches for "household brands" on the cards, they're on their way.

Looming large over the operation and BMB's future expansion is Cheil. Yet the London partners stress that their Korean shareholders will not dictate either agency's behaviour. McGuinness says: "We take their advice but they don't seek to influence us. They're a minority shareholder and an important investor, but we have control."

In fact, the partners point to the benefits of BMB's creative heritage to Cheil, an ambitious yet corporate network that has been moulded by the influence of Samsung. "Creativity is what Cheil wants, which is the same reason for them getting involved in London - they wanted to improve their creativity and for that they needed BMB," Beattie adds.

Next to receive an injection of BMB creativity is Mumbai, according to Beattie, who is eyeing buyout opportunities that may come to fruition by early next year, with a Sao Paulo opening following shortly after. He asserts that Mumbai is a BMB initiative while Sao Paulo will be a Cheil-led affair.

Bruce Haines, the president of Cheil, explains: "One simple rule about demarcation between Cheil and BMB, and other companies that will come in the future - if it's called Cheil, it will be managed directly by us. If it's called BMB, it will be managed directly by BMB, with our input on issues agreed at the time of the acquisition."

He adds: "If we happen to have both brands in the same market, we will expect close co-operation between the two on shared projects, but this will vary market by market and project by project."

This patchwork approach to who leads what office and project remains confusing for outsiders, and while the founders may want to keep the Koreans at arm's length, their expansion and ambitions rest on Cheil's significant investment.

THE LOWDOWNS
CLAYTON RUEBENSAAL
1995: Copywriting intern, Bates USA
1996-1998: New-business assistant account executive, Mezzina Brown
1998-2000: Planner, Grey Advertising
2000-2003: Integrated account planner, Deutsch
2003-2008: Planner rising to executive vice-president, BBDO
2008-2009: Chief executive, Cliff Freeman & Partners
2009: Founding partner, BMB NY

NEIL POWELL
1992: Intern, Duffy Design, Minneapolis
1994: Duffy sells to Fallon McElligott
1995: Opens Duffy Design New York as design director
1997-1999: President and executive creative director, Duffy; managing
partner and creative director, Fallon New York
2000: Opens Powell, a hybrid design and ad agency
2005: Powell sold to MDC Partners
2009: Founding partner, BMB NY

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