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Scale and specialism: behind TBWA’s surprise deal for Dark Horses


By Sam Bradley | Senior Reporter

April 11, 2023 | 7 min read

Following its acquisition by global agency collective TBWA, we catch up with Dark Horses boss Melissa Robertson to discuss the agency’s future.

Dark Horse

Dark Horses chief Melissa Robertson (center) discusses its acquisition by TBWA

Specialist sports creative agency Dark Horses has made a name for itself by producing smart, creative work that cuts through to audiences on the terraces and split-screen viewing between TV and TikTok. Its small size means you might reach for any number of sporting metaphors to describe that success – but with its acquisition a week ago by global network TBWA, it’s looking towards the major leagues of creative work.

For TBWA, the appeal is obvious. The network’s global chief executive Troy Ruhanen expects it to add “significant expertise to the total brand experience” of its clients as a “deep specialist” outfit.

Dark Horses has been one of the standard bearers for the independent agency sector and Melissa Robertson, its chief exec, isn’t interested in “growth for growth’s sake”. But, she explains, scale is something the agency had been missing. “We’d been doing a lot of stuff brilliantly, but perhaps more at the activation level.”

Those activations included erecting an enormous Hollywood-style Wrexham sign in the north Welsh town to mark its football team’s takeover by Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenny, as well as a special away kit for Boxing Day fixtures that bagged tons of coverage for housing charity Shelter.

“What we were all passionate about is moving a little bit upstream and having deeper, more strategic, business-led conversations and looking at how sport might deliver against an overarching brand platform,” she says. “We want to actually help their business rather than just do something cool at a match.”

Robertson says the team has had a long-term goal to begin shifting towards creating more involved pieces for clients. Its recent work for Just Eat and TikTok had shown the team this was possible, she says, but was difficult with its small size.

Access to the talent and infrastructure of the wider TBWA ‘collective’ should allow Dark Horses to do more of that work, she adds. “We thought: can we carry on doing this with just our bunch of people? Or would we get more exciting briefs, more opportunities… if there was a little bit of scale behind us?

“I see it as being supercharged. You’ve got lots of different specialisms you can tap into; if you need support or something that needs to happen, suddenly you’ve got somebody you can go to.”

Practical plans to scale up are still at a very early stage, she says. “This isn’t about growth for growth’s sake. We just love the challenge of exciting, meaty briefs and this will open up more opportunities.”

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In any case, Dark Horses was founded as, and remains, a boutique agency. Its founders started the business with backing from Lucky Generals, just months before that agency was acquired by TBWA. The agencies share a building as well as history, and Robertson says the teams are already close. “They’re right next door, so we’ve always seen them as a sister agency. We’re completely separate entities, but we’re good friends and siblings.”

Though TBWA intends to keep Dark Horses a boutique outfit, the deal removes the growth ceiling on the business, says Robertson.

“We have had a great couple of years, we’ve worked with some brilliant clients. But we’re still 40 people. We’ve been able to do global campaigns for Nissan, for TikTok, and European campaigns for Just Eat. You always have to forge a number of different alliances and it’s quite hard work. So when we started having conversations with TBWA, it just got super exciting.

“In the same way, we can provide specialism for the group that perhaps provides a depth it didn’t have. There’s an energy and entrepreneurialism that appealed to it as much as its range and depth appealed to us.”

Dark Horses hasn’t just been lauded for its creative work in recent years. The agency, and Robertson in particular, has pioneered a fairer shake for staff experiencing menopause. It was one of the first businesses anywhere in the country to establish a formal menopause policy, for example.

Just this week, the agency was behind a new stunt for Menopause Mandate in partnership with Spotify, Universal and Clearchannel, which created a special pop playlist celebrating a policy change in prescription charges for HRT. Featuring a diverse mix – from The Divine Comedy to Jay-Z – the track names themselves tell a narrative about the symptoms of menopause.

Robertson, who is a director at Menopause Mandate, says that the acquisition won’t interrupt any of that work. “I’m always going to be fighting for that to be part of the agenda,” she says.

“We’re still Dark Horses, we’re still specialists. But hopefully, we’ve now got this wonderful backstop behind us that can give us more depth and breadth.”

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