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Will Publicis Groupe build on its £100m investment in BBH by building a fourth big agency network?

£100m and a second knighthood isn’t a bad return for building up a successful London agency and (not quite so dazzling) mini-network around the world but that’s what shareholders in BBH received for selling their remaining 51 per cent to Publicis Groupe it’s emerged in newly-published PG papers.

How the swag was divided up between remaining founders Sir Nigel Bogle (the new knight), Sir John Hegarty and other shareholders we know not but they will all surely have a nice cushion to fall back on as the more mature shareholders gradually step back from the business.

A more interesting question is what’s next for BBH under 100 per cent PG ownership.

We know that Alexandre Gama, whose decision to sell his Brazil agency prompted the series of moves that led to the PG buyout, is taking over from Hegarty as global CCO and that Gwyn Jones (left), another BBH London veteran although a comparatively youthful one, is the new group CEO. At the end of last year BBH made its first purchase, Swedish mobile outfit Monderosa, with PG cash.

And the agency itself? Jones has slashed jobs and shuffled the management in New York, crucially bringing in former McCann North America COO Patrick Lafferty as CEO. This clearly indicates that Jones has clocked that account handling was the problem in New York and, while the agency’s motto remains ‘when the world zigs, zag,’ he’s decided that, in this case, BBH will zig in best Madison Avenue fashion. Lafferty (left) is a former army officer so anyone who doesn’t zig can expect to be cleaning the parade ground with a toothbrush.

But what does PG expect from its investment?

In recent years the French-based company has poured nearly all its resources into building up its digital portfolio (Digitas, Razorfish, Rosetta Marketing Group, LBi) and media interests while targeting the Far East for growth.

Its main creative agencies – Publicis, Leo Burnett and Saatchi & Saatchi – remain strong without being dominant. Publicis, still a dominating force in France, could do with some impetus elsewhere although it’s had its moments in the US.

Does PG boss Maurice Levy see BBH as a fourth big global agency or is he happy for it to remain a smaller network; punching above its weight in creative awards and therefore PR terms?

BBH, of course, gives PG, a Procter & Gamble agency group, a foothold in Unilever too and, earlier this year, it won Kraft’s Philadelphia business from WPP’s JWT in Europe. So it’s important from a business perspective too. And Levy will be conscious that PG lagged both WPP and Omnicom by some distance in the Cannes Lions Holding Company of the Year awards stakes, something that still seems to matter if the current spat between WPP and Omnicom is anything to go by.

If he does want to set off in hot pursuit of WPP and Omnicom in the creative agency race then BBH is the perfect property (assuming it doesn’t lose its creative mojo as Hegarty gradually steps back). But he needs to get cracking.

PG’s £100m investment will need to become rather bigger if BBH is to be more than a trophy asset.

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Alexandre Gama bbh expansion plan Gwyn Jones Patrick Lafferty pubicis groupe Sir John Hegarty Sir Nigel Bogle

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.
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