Exclusive: New BBH global CEO Gwyn Jones on problems in New York and life after Hegarty & co

1/ New York is only one of the seven agencies in the BBH network but clearly crucial to its status as a global agency brand. You have lost Sprite and Cadillac in recent times, replaced many of the senior managers and cut staff. Where did it go wrong?

It would be churlish of me to claim that we haven’t made mistakes along the way – Was our work as good as it could have been? Did we get the casting right for the relationships etc? These are the judgements which, however much we may protest, normally lie behind decisions to change agencies. And I would have to accept that some of that is true in the case of one of the examples you mention (Sprite). But – equally sometimes circumstances genuinely are beyond your control and yet can have a lasting effect and I think in the case of Cadillac we were subject to such a situation which badly rocked the agency. After a monumental effort to win the business, which we did fair and square, to have it removed before any of your work has even run and after the client personnel has changed three times, was galling and destabilising.

2/ To succeed in the US you seem to need more than one thriving office these days. Is BBH LA performing that role?

LA does give us that presence west of the Rockies and it is certainly thriving – but it’s role is much more than to be available on another coast – it specifically broadens our content capabilities by working with and for the studio, talent and music industries in LA.

3/ You have said on many occasions that the creative work comes first and all else follows. How will the work be impacted by Alexandre Gama succeeding Sir John Hegarty as global CCO? They clearly have very different backgrounds, surely there will be change of some sort?

Actually the role of the Global CCO only has an indirect impact on the work. The quality and direction of our creative work is the direct responsibility of the individual office Executive Creative Directors rather than the Global CCO.

But you’re right – Ale’s background is Brazil rather than London and in the relationship between him and the local ECDs he is keen to encourage more and more local flair and relevance in our work.

4/ BBH is now wholly-owned by Publicis Groupe. PG is Procter & Gamble’s biggest agency group while its rival Unilever is a long-standing BBH client. Will the P&G/Unilever rivalry impair your efforts to grow internationally?

Not at all. All the holding companies now represent more than one significant player within all the major categories and have done for many years. We will remain a Unilever agency within the Publicis Groupe – as Razorfish, for example, is too.

We see the Publicis investment as a significant boost to our ability to grow internationally.

5/ Where will you, as group CEO, be based and how does this reflect your priorities, immediate and longer-term?

I will be based in London in the immediate future. Longer term – who knows, I have lived abroad before and enjoyed the experience.

6/ BBH in London enjoyed perhaps its best year for new business last year. Is it one of your ambitions to challenge AMV/BBDO to be the biggest UK agency? We expect you to say, we want to be the best but..

You’d be right to expect me to say that…. but to be clear – scale is not an objective in its own right (certainly not in the UK) but growth is good.

7/ In your announcement about the New York staff cuts you referred to the need for more flexible working in “particularly uncertain times” for advertising. Was this just in regard to New York or is that a global requirement? Are the uncertain times you referred to a global development? Why is advertising facing such uncertainty?

I do think it is a global requirement. We see more and more short term behaviour from many clients, the growth of project engagements alongside retained business means there is greater variability in the revenue side of the business but, in view of those retained relationships, agencies have traditionally been fairly fixed on the cost side. We need to be more flexible and embrace some of the behaviours of other industries – eg tech – to be able to scale quickly and vice versa.

8/ You’ve been at BBH for nearly 30 years. Which is your favourite BBH campaign and why?

I think I would have to say Audi. It was the first account I worked on. It is a testament to quality and consistency – something lost to many brands today as they change positioning and end-line with almost every campaign – it has produced some of the finest work in our industry and delivered year on year growth across pretty much that whole period. I think those two facts are related.

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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.