Is BBH’s problem that it’s been doing too much zigging and not enough zagging?

Well what a meaningless headline that is, you say, but bear with us.

Way back in the 1980’s Bartle Bogle Hegarty, as it then was, put its cards on the table and said: “when the world zigs, zag.” It summarised this with an image of a black sheep in a herd of white ones.

And, of course, this was a good position to take in comparison to the then UK creative advertising establishment – Lowes, BMP, WCRS, GGT et al – who were much more concerned with empire-building and becoming rich quoted companies.

To make this position work you need brave clients and BBH found one in John Meszaros who was then the advertising manager of Audi, at the time a classic challenger brand to the likes of BMW and Mercedes. Audi had previously resided at an agency called Euro Advertising whose creative director was one Robin Wight, of subsequent WCRS fame of course.

Robin had done his ‘interrogate the product’ bit and come up with some good answers. But Audi needed a bit of pizazz. Which BBH did with its celebrated ‘vorsprung durch technic’ campaign, which means advancement through technology, for Audi.

Wikipedia reckons this was being used in the 1970s for Audi but BBH managed to bring it to life, combining the obvious (and to British audiences unappealing most people would have said) German-ness of the slogan with cool ads that made lots of people want a bit of technic.

Meszaros, who went on to run the advertising for the whole of VW, brilliantly, has since admitted that the Germans thought he was barmy but let him get on with it because they thought the British were a bit odd too.

But anyway it worked and BBH was off and running, thanks to Levi’s too but Levi’s was never as serious a business and client responsibility as Audi.

But BBH had zagged with Audi, to great effect. Did they zag with Levi’s? Not really but they produced some great ads and were the first agency to realise that old Motown tracks and the like had taken over from jingles as the emotional back story to successful commercials.

And things went from good to better to best with big clients, Unilever and British Airways to name two, coming in and BBH becoming lauded as the best place to work (vital in adverts) and possibly the most-awarded agency on the planet.

World domination beckoned when Publicis Groupe agreed a sweetheart deal to give BBH access to international expansion by purchasing a 49 per cent stake. BBH’s media department under Mark Cranmer became the foundation of Starcom.

And then? Well the pressure to zig, as opposed to zag, can seem overwhelming.

BBH’s current travails stem from the activities of Joel Ewanick, General Motors’ new marketing supremo, who has overturned most of the marketing arrangements at the huge (if still technically bust) US car manufacturer to give business to his old mates. Ewanick is the complete opposite of original BBH benefactor Meszaros.

Ewanick’s chums didn’t include BBH unfortunately, which had just thought, after years of trying, that it had finally permeated the agency premier division in the US by winning GM’s prestige Cadillac brand. Ewanick moved it to Publicis as a sop for moving the much bigger Chevrolet from Publicis to Goodby, Silverstein and Partners, his old pals from Hyundai days.

BBH obviously didn’t figure on Ewanick’s radar at all.

Is this because the BBH people in the US weren’t good enough? The original BBH business in New York was set up by Cindy Gallop, who’s definitely a zagger rather than a zigger. But she didn’t seem to be cutting the mustard with serious American corporates so the estimable Emma Cookson was despatched from London, supported by US chairman Steve Harty (recently departed) and creative director Kevin Roddy (ditto).

Founder and creative director John Hegarty, who fired Roddy, could now find himself doing an extended stint in the US.

So was it the people or the fact that you can’t zag in the US the way you can in the UK, Europe and, most of the rest of the world?

The money’s too big and so clients, even at the most creative agencies, are notoriously risk averse. They also want to deal with agency types who buy into their hyper-serious way of seeing the world. This, too, is zigging rather than zagging.

Maybe BBH just invented a business model that was great for the UK, Europe, the Far East and, probably, Outer Mongolia.

It just hasn’t cut it, so far anyway, in Mad Men land.

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About Stephen Foster

Stephen is a former editor of Marketing Week and London Evening Standard advertising columnist. He wrote City Republic for Brand Republic and is a partner in communications consultancy The Editorial Partnership.