Can new boss David Mayo keep the Bates agency brand alive?

Much speculation among the clinking sundowners at Raffles Hotel in Singapore that the venerable Bates agency (now rather reduced as it’s an Asia-only network albeit a large one) might be calling last orders.

Bates is now owned by WPP and operates as an arm of the Ogilvy group. Long-serving boss Tim Isaac is retiring and he’s being replaced by David Mayo (left), currently president of O&M in the region, leading to speculation that the agency will eventually be absorbed into Ogilvy.

Mayo says it won’t, citing big clients like GM, Diageo, Colgate, Kraft and Samsung but admits that it faces problems. “What it lacks is profile. It doesn’t produce work other people wish they had done; it’s not a place brilliant people want to go as they continue up their career ladder; it doesn’t win pitches against Asia’s best,” he told Campaign Asia-Pacific.

In essence then, Bates has become a warehouse for conflicting accounts.

Which is quite a comedown for an agency started in 1940 by Ted Bates and the rather more famous Rosser Reeves (Reeves was the man who invented the famous ‘unique selling proposition’ or USP, an original Mad Man).

Bates went on quite nicely until 1986 when it was bought for a then-staggering $500m by Saatchi & Saatchi, keen to cement its place as the biggest agency group in the world ahead of Interpublic.

This deal, rather than the mad notion of buying Midland Bank, is what put the skids under the Saatchi brothers’ first empire. Saatchi found itself engaged in a fruitless quest to find the money to pay humungous earn-outs and almost collapsed.

The company was restructured (sans brothers) as Cordiant and the Saatchi & Saatchi agency was eventually sold to Publicis Groupe. Cordiant limped on as a public company, with Bates its biggest entity, until Sir Martin Sorrell’s WPP bought it in 2003.

It then morphed into an Asian business (at one time it was called Bates 141 or 141 Bates or something) and is now effectively a branch of Ogilvy: one agency, two brands as they put it.

But making the Bates brands attractive to a new generation has proved, as Mayo admits, more than tricky. It actually lost whatever brand equity it had after the Saatchi takeover when it was merged with another overpriced US agency Backer & Spielvogel.

Much the same thing happened more recently at Interpublic when it decided to merge direct marketing shop Draft and another Madison Avenue stalwart FCB. DraftFCB doesn’t work for either constituency.

So Mayo has his work cut out if Bates is to survive. Its current slogan is the ‘changengage agency’ which, so far as I can see, means nothing.

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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.