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Paul Simons: what can we learn from the closure of bravely-named Johnny Fearless?

Johnny Fearless closes after four years following the loss of a client – a great shame for all concerned.

I met Neil Hughston for the first time shortly after they opened their doors and we had a chat about the do’s and do not’s of the start-up scenario. It wasn’t a great time to start another advertising agency four years ago as our new government was trying to dig the country out of the pooh we found ourselves in.

I felt it was adding further challenges with the name of the agency – when most clients were digging in for survival it would be a brave/naïve/confident marketing person to tell their boss they had hired Johnny Fearless for their adult incontinence pants brand; Little Britain springs to mind.

Johnny Fearless appeared to struggle with the critical new business hill climb, Campaign gave them a 4 in their school report this year – below average – and new business was the Achilles heel. Every new ad agency needs a major client addition early on to establish ‘bottom’ as was once said to me – sort of substance, strong foundations, being taken seriously. JF got great reviews for their film for Imperial War Museums (below), and well deserved, but sadly one film for a charity isn’t going to persuade Sainsbury’s to take notice.

But, as has often been said, a name is what you make it and had JF managed to snare some progressive, cool brands then maybe things would be different. Droga5 makes no more sense in truth but they have climbed to the top of the pops in the US to be seen on most well-dressed client reviews.

Back home 18 Feet & Rising started around the same time as JF, with another meaningless name, and have managed to break through a few glass ceilings. Bagging Nationwide gave them a grown-up, national, serious spending brand with an apparent appetite for creative work a bit different from run of the mill bank advertising.

So maybe the learning is not what the agency is called because the clients define the agency to the marketplace?

Interestingly a sector of the target audience for John Lewis is bound to be late 30’s senior marrieds in marketing and the creative work from adam&eveDDB is admired and copied by many other brands. I’ve often felt the BBH client list and creative output appeals to other clients. Audi is a defining brand for BBH and my guess is marketing folk in client organisations look with envy at the management grade that provides Audi as an option – Ford and Vauxhall for the marketing manager.

History strongly suggests start-ups have a ‘honeymoon’ period of time, around two years or so, after which the goodwill of opinion formers begins to diminish as they shift their gaze on to the next possibility. The rising star zone is very forgiving for a while but eventually the world starts to say “OK you lot, are you going to be a serious runner or an also ran?”

We don’t know any of the background to the decisions taken by the JF team and I’m sure they are many and varied. If the account loss meant the agency was confronting funding issues then the directors have a legal obligation to take action. Hence the point made about unsuccessful investment discussions.

I know it is very brave to jump off the cliff and start a new business in the advertising sector. It is equally brave to wave the white flag and accept it isn’t working out. My best wishes for the future go to the founders and the staff of Johnny Fearless.

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About Paul Simons

Paul joined Cadbury-Schweppes in brand management and then moved to United Biscuits. He switched to advertising in his late 20s, at Cogent Elliott and then Gold Greenlees Trott. He founded Simons Palmer Denton Clemmow & Johnson in the late 80s, one of the leading creative agencies of the 90s. Simons Palmer then merged with TBWA to create a top ten agency. Paul then joined O&M as chairman & CEO of the UK group. After three years he left to create a new AIM-quoted advertising group Cagney Plc. He is now a consultant to a number of client companies. Paul also shares his thoughts on his blog. Visit Paul Simons Blog.
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