Can Foot Cone & Belding (aka DraftFCB) ever recapture its past glories in the UK?

DraftFCB’s London outpost has been shuffling the deck chairs, promoting managing partner Sharon Jiggins (who looks after its Post Office account) from managing partner to managing director.

But the agency, which is owned by Interpublic, looks further away than ever from recapturing its past glories in the UK when as Foote Cone & Belding it was a fixture in the agency top ten with famous and admired campaigns for British Airways (‘we take more care of you’), Dulux paints (the iconic Old English Sheepdog) and Unilever’s Sure (the tick mark on a sweaty back).

FCB is one of the oldest agency brands, starting life as Lord & Thomas in the US in 1873 before messrs Foote, Cone and Belding bought it from legendary copywriter Albert Lasker in 1942.

It was bought by an outfit called True North in 1997 which in turn was bought by Interpublic in 2001. Interpublic merged FCB with Howard Draft’s Draft Worldwide direct marketing agency in 2006.

By this time FCB’s great days in London were long gone as they still are, although the agency has shown some flickers of life under new president Kate Howe, a former marketer at Gala Coral and account director at Abbott Mead Vickers.

With Nielsen/Campaign billings of just £16.6m, languishing at number 56 in the top 100 agencies despite getting regular bites at its Chicago parent’s international accounts, there doesn’t look to be an easy way back, to put it mildly.

A succession of mergers and acquisitions in London, including one with David Bernstein and Laurence Isaacson’s Creative Business, didn’t help the agency and neither did the ownership by True North which tried and failed to build a marcoms giant by combining FCB and Bozell.

But the real trauma was the loss of the British Airways account to the brothers Saatchi in 1982.

FCB had handled BA’s predecessor BOAC almost since setting up in London in the late 1940s and its work and proud tagline for BA was indeed famous and admired although not really true of the airline which had been losing oodles of money amid reports of over-staffing and ‘Spanish practices’ at its London hub Heathrow (nothing much seems to change in some parts of the UK airline business).

When Margaret Thatcher triumphed in the General Election of 1979 she installed one of her favourite businessmen, John King (later Baron King of Wartnaby), a Yorkshire-born car dealer and ball bearings manufacturer, as BA chairman.

King and FCB didn’t hit it off at all (the agency thinking they knew more about BA than King, which they probably did) but King got on rather better with Saatchis and its managing director Tim Bell, a close adviser to one M.Thatcher, even though the complete Saatchi phenomenon rather eluded him.

Spotting Charles Saatchi’s 4×4 in the car park, complete with bull bars, he observed that “you don’t get many cows in ‘Ampstead.”

BA moved to Saatchis in 1982 and was the account that, after the Conservative Party, really put the agency on the global map. Saatchis went on to produce a number of hyperbolic extravaganzas for the airline including ‘Manhattan’ a year later.

In the meantime FCB broke most of the rules in the agency book by moaning publicly about BA’s decision and saying that the move was a thankyou present from Thatcher to Saatchis for helping her to win the election. Which it might have been.

But the new campaign (by Rita Dempsey and Phil Mason) was lauded and applauded, the new line “the world’s favourite airline’ seemed to do the trick and newly-privatised BA actually began to make money.

Dulux left too after 26 years and the agency had to resign Sure after the True North deal.

Managers came and went and new business dried up. Which is why FCB in London finds itself at the bottom of the heap.

It’s an object lesson in how to screw up an agency and some observers would argue that shoehorning FCB in with Draft doesn’t help although the agency remains the biggest in Chicago although that might change when SC Johnson decides what to do with its $1bn account.

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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.