There must have been something in the water back in 1982 – Wieden+Kennedy and BBH both turn 30

So what was so special about 1982, the year Wieden+Kennedy opened its doors in Portland, Oregon and messrs Bartle, Bogle and Hegarty departed TBWA in London to start BBH?

Actually it wasn’t so different to what we have now: then a stuttering Western economy still struggling to recover from the massive and inflationary oil price hike that followed the Yom Kippur War between Israel and various Arab States in 1973. In terms of economic impact that wasn’t so different to the banking crisis of 2008 which is still with us, although the problem here is deflation not inflation.

But W+K and BBH prospered then as they, mostly, have since: now, arguably, the world’s top two creative agencies, both with mini-networks in places like South America and the Far East and both still run, to a degree, by the people who set them up.

Apart from their undeniable creative skills, there seem to be three main reasons for their success. One is a commitment to independence; W+K is still fully independent while BBH sold a 49 per cent to Leo Burnett about 20 years ago (now part of Publicis Groupe). This has allowed them to stick to their knitting.

Another is the people: Dan Wieden is still the boss at W+K, Nigel Bogle and Sir John Hegarty still call the shots at BBH. the third, and it surely has something to do with the other two, is client loyalty. Nike was W+K’s foundation client and it’s still there, pushing most of its work through W+K although it uses others too, chiefly AKQA, from time to time. But it’s several thousand times bigger now.

BBH’s founder clients included the likes of Audi and Levi’s and although Levi’s eventually departed (it’s now at W+K) Audi is still at BBH in the UK. Here’s Levi’s from 1985.

So who’s done best? BBH won our Agency of the Year award for 2011, narrowly pipping W+K Amsterdam (the Gunn Report’s most-awarded agency in 2011). But, overall, you have to hand the prize to W+K. It’s remained fully independent while BBH is part-owned by Publicis and W+K Amsterdam in Europe is a more potent force than BBH in New York although New York is hanging in there after some reverses last year.

But both agencies are testimony that you can do it yourself – and keep doing it well. Peaking for 30 years is a fine achievement.

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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.