Last week, Cheil, the South Korean advertising giant which has been steadily building a presence in the UK over the past two or three years, announced that it was moving from a minority to a majority stake in Beattie McGuinness Bungay, the London “hotshop”. At the same time, BMB announced the second of its “next generation” management trio.
Although BMB said that the hiring of star planner Neal Fairfield to join new ECD Matt Waller, ex-Grey, was “immaterial” to Cheil’s increased stake in the company, many seasoned observers have told me they’re not so sure.
This got me thinking – just how much does “founder DNA” matter to an agency? After not very long at all, I came to the conclusion that it was a hell of a lot.
Let’s look at BMB’s founders. First of all there’s Trevor Beattie, perhaps one of the most talented – and certainly one of the best-known – creative copywriters of his generation. He created one of the most memorable campaigns of the past 20 years, “Hello Boys” for Wonderbra. Then there’s the award-winning art director Bil Bungay. Making up the trio is Andrew McGuinness, a highly talented suit/businessman.
All three were at Omnicom agency TBWA\London, creating great work – for Wonderbra and French Connection among others - to considerable acclaim. Like all great creative types, though, they wanted fresh challenges – invariably this means striking out on one’s own and creating a start-up. And this is just what they did in 2004, setting up BMB.
In the first few years of its life, BMB was an agency very much in its founders’ image – irreverent, ambitious, daring and different. BMB’s work and approach was a breath of fresh air in an age dominated by big global network agencies which were in themselves subsumed by even bigger holding groups; there was (and often still is) something cheeky and very British about those great campaigns for Carling, McCain and Pretty Polly. BMB was, with its iPint ad for Carling, also one of the first agencies to “get” the advertising possibilities offered by the smartphone.
The point is, if it’d been founded by anyone else, it wouldn’t have been the BMB we currently know. According to the old cliché, advertising is a “people business”. In this case, the cliché doesn’t even begin to describe just how important people – especially big personalities like messrs Beattie, McGuinness and Bungay – are to an agency. They are a shop’s DNA, the very essence of what they are and what they do. They create its culture (and founding partners with strong personalities or points of view don’t actually have to do anything to create culture – they just have to… be).
To take a couple of famous examples from the “Mad Men era”, both Bill Bernbach and David Ogilvy WERE the agencies they helped found.
Cheil bought 49 per cent of BMB back in 2008. It supplied the still-fledgling agency with funds, and allowed it to go after more, and bigger clients, to grow and expand. All businesses need to grow, and agencies are no exception, be they publicly-listed, or private. This was a smart move, as it allowed BMB the means to pursue its ambitions while still giving the founders overall control.
But in May, Cheil upped its stake to 75 per cent, meaning that it was now in charge. It has stated publicly that it aim is to own the entire company at some point. Now, with the appointment of Fairfield and Waller – plus a soon-to-be-announced CEO – it would seem that the founding trio (plus David Bain) are taking a back seat.
Officially, they will “focus on business development and projects beyond traditional advertising”, but many are wondering whether the trio (or quartet) are going to actually step back and enjoy the fruits of their labours (I don’t think anyone would blame them for that). Perhaps they even want to start all over again, and seed their DNA in another start-up agency.
Once Cheil owns 100 per cent of the agency, one wonders whether the culture of BMB will change.
The agency will undoubtedly continue to do good work (Waller is a talented creative, if not quite possessed of the incendiary genius of Beattie), and will, with Cheil’s backing, grow, but will it maintain the DNA and culture of its founders? Should it maintain that DNA? Can the new trio impart their DNA into the business?
It’s impossible to say. But without Beattie actively inspiring and mentoring day to day will things be the same? Probably not. Will being ‘controlled’ by a conglomerate in Seoul create a working environment different to one that involved reporting to a founder who sat at a desk opposite you? It probably will.
I have some personal experience of this. Before I joined Green Square, I was the Group COO at Naked Communications which was founded in 2000 by Will Colin, Jon Wilkins and the late John Harlow. Their collective DNA was what drove Naked. John, who sadly died earlier this month, was a true maverick and his influence on the agency culture was irrepressible and was the very embodiment of the agency’s description of itself as a group of “brilliant misfits”. This wasn’t just marketing, this was central to the way Naked operated, and what its culture was all about. And that culture focussed on challenging the status quo, on valuing creativity and true innovative thinking. On doing things differently.
This approach allowed the agency to thrive and become the first, and most successful, of the new millennial hotshops. It’s interesting to note that the "brilliant misfit" John Harlow was, and is, a fantastic motivator, particularly of young, ambitious people. Nobody enters our industry to “achieve synergies” or “leverage economies of scale” – the kind of things that get the shareholders and senior management of holding groups excited. They’re in it for the creativity and the fun, for the chance to do something different, and to be involved with great work of which they can be proud. Attractive young ambitious talent is the lifeblood of our industry, and the cream of the talent will go where it is most free to take flight.
Cheil will of course not want to stifle its investment – they won’t attempt to impose the high-pressure Korean working model on the louche and loose Soho soul of BMB. But changes in structure usually mean changes in culture, even if they are unintended. And the more the culture changes, the more the founders are likely to step further back, which means that the culture changes even faster… and so it goes on. Creating mould-breaking work like “Hello Boys” becomes more difficult… not because the ideas aren’t there, but because they’re more difficult to get out or nurture. A little bit of the daring goes out the door with the founders, and everyone becomes a little more risk averse. And will they be able to attract the most talented creative, planners and suits? Or will they be heading for a hotshop?
In a decade’s time, Beattie McGuinness Bungay will still be with us, even if Beattie, McGuinness and Bungay are themselves unlikely to be so. It is likely to be very different, possibly very successful and, if whisps of the founders’ DNA have been retained, probably doing great work for prestigious clients.
What it definitely won’t be is the loud-mouthed, self-confident upstart of 2005. Which, much like John Harlow’s passing, is a loss to us all.