Pulling Poulters: Are all the rumours true?
When Bezier came in to acquire Poulters in August 2006, some 35 years after its official launch, the agency was undoubtedly going through one its toughest times.
Rumours that it was on the verge of ‘going under’ were sweeping the Leeds’ advertising community, aided in no small part by the significant redundancies forced upon it by client Redrow Homes’ decision to switch its account into Aylesworth Fleming.
At first, the agency’s then managing director Gary McCall vehemently denied the speculation over Bezier’s imminent acquisition before confirming the deal just one month later. Numbers were never disclosed, but the overwhelming reaction of the marketplace was that Wakefield’s Bezier had snapped up Poulters for a song and that its directors were working on opt-outs, effectively buying out their own debts or parting with the company.
Since then, the agency has worked hard to rebuild its tarnished reputation and re-establish the agency Graham Poulter formed in 1969 as a force in the industry. With Bezier’s backing, the agency retained the large majority of its staff and brought in some new faces – including creative director Dave Bell from Wieden & Kennedy.
Wide of the mark
In addition, 2007 witnessed a string of account wins that pointed to something of a resurgence. Miele, Manchester United, and Thresher were among those to enter the Rose Wharf offices.
But a rumour which began at the turn of the year and has gathered pace in the coming months is that Bezier was looking to pull the plug on the Poulters brand and rename the agency under its own moniker.
Industry sources have suggested it’s a case of “when, rather than if”, but The Drum has tracked down Bezier CEO Mark Shaw, who says the rumours are wide of the mark: “We have no plans to drop the Poulters brand. I’m not saying we haven’t considered it, but it’s a strong name. It’s a brand in recovery, no question, but we have a very strong team in place. When we bought the company 18 or 19 months ago, it wasn’t for its financial performance; we bought it for the great team that was in place.
“There are something like 50 or 60 people over at Rose Wharf and it has a gross income between £3m and £4m, so unless anything disastrous happens, I don’t see us dropping the name.”
It contradicts claims by industry sources who say the move has been on the cards since January and an insider told The Drum that it was McCall’s opposition to the move which resulted in him eventually leaving the business.
However, having denied a name change is on the cards, Shaw has a different explanation for McCall’s departure. “It was for standard business reasons. Gary had been with Poulters for a number of years and did a great job, but we needed to refresh the business. Sometimes you have to make changes and when you do, you have to start at the top.”
So is Bezier planning on replacing McCall directly?
“Maybe not,” says Shaw. “There may not be a need for an MD. We have a strong client services director, creative director and planning director, so we may not need a new MD to take the agency forward.”
Bezier was formed ten years ago this month, following a funded management buy-out from the former Wace print group. In that time, the company has seen significant change, evolving, says Shaw, from “Europe’s biggest and best screen printer to a powerhouse in terms of point of purchase and now retail marketing”.
However, people talk and Shaw is finding out the hard way. Speculation in Yorkshire suggested that McCall’s exit was a contributory factor in Poulters’ biggest client, William Hill, with whom the former MD had enjoyed a close relationship, reviewing its account.
At the time of the interview, Shaw remained confident of the group retaining the betting giant as a client: “William Hill use a number of different agencies for various projects. We work with them on a chunk of retail business, which is core to Bezier’s heritage, but they’re always looking at the best way to use marketing and so they constantly review their activity. We’ve got our strongest retail team on it and are confident we’ll continue to work for them.”
It’s believed the bookmaker is close to announcing an appointment, with a number of agencies in the north pitching for the firm’s business in recent weeks. How big an impact this has on Poulters, remains to be seen.
But as uncertainty and speculation surrounds Poulters, its parent company is continuing to add strength. In March, the organisation announced the acquisition of Coutts Retail Communications (CRC), which has offices in London, France and Germany.
“The CRC deal was key for four reasons,” says Shaw. “It gives us another £18-19m business, the London creative hub we’d been looking for, we’ve bought one of our competitors and it gives us a European presence, which will be key to our future strategy.”
Another addition to the Bezier family is Emma Sanderson, who arrives after a nine-month stay with Leeds-based Gratterpalm, to take a group-wide role.
So, as Shaw has been sporting enough to tackle all other speculation thrown his way, it would be remiss of us not to present him with one final – and quite possibly the most eye-raising – piece of hearsay. Is Bezier planning on introducing a clocking in system to Poulters?
“Not that I know of,” says a bemused Shaw. “Saying that, in one office we have finger print recognition system, which is a useful security measure, and at Rose Wharf we have a key pad system. I’m not sure either would constitute a clocking in system, though.”