How TBWA failed as an agency in London – but its managers took over the world

robert-senior-hed-2014Ad Age has a piece today on Robert Senior, the new global CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi. Senior (left) takes over from Kevin Roberts next January.

Which prompted the thought: how come so many alumni of TBWA in the UK (as Senior is) have moved up so far in the world – when that agency was pretty much a basket case in their formative years?

When TBWA started in London (TBWA originally was an attempt to establish a Euro-centric network with Bill Tragos as the only American) it had a few lumminaries too; most notably messrs Bartle, Bogle and Hegarty.

Yet the agency never really took off with the three of them in charge although it did become famous for its Lego ‘Kipper’ ad.

But when BB and H established themselves in humble quarters in a hotel clients beat a path to their door. It wasn’t long after that the agency played host to the likes of Audi and Levi’s.

TBWA, on the other hand, stayed resolutely earthbound; eventually falling into the hands of Omnicom. Which embarked on a series of mergers with, first, Holmes Knight Ritchie, then Simons Palmer Denton Clemmow & Johnson (breaking the mould of starting with three partners) and then GGT, which had over-stretched itself by buying French group Boulet Dru Dupuy Petit. Omnicom apparently bought GGT for its French operation.

HIM_385120kAs a result of all these maneuverings gathered around the TBWA kitchen table at various times in the 1990/00s were the likes of Senior (who went to Fallon before Saatchi), Michael Wall (now CEO of Lowe Worldwide) and Carl Johnson (now boss of Anomaly and, with ex-Simons Palmer colleague Simon Clemmow, one of the few people to have been involved in two successful start-ups. And bosses (one after the other) Paul Simons and Mike Greenlees of course.

Then there were home-grown types like CHI and The&Partnership’s Johnny Hornby (above) and Neil Christie, now managing director of Wieden+Kennedy London. No doubt there were other luminaries too. Senior and Wall were also ex-Simons Palmer account men. Christie came from TBWA to the merged agency, Johnny Hornby and Gary Lace (another high-profile account man) were hired by Carl Johnson.

So what went wrong? Well you’ll notice the absence of any creatives. Chris Palmer and Mark Denton from Simons Palmer went off to be commercials directors a few years before the merger, while TBWA’s Trevor Beattie, who had made TBWA famous on the back of Wonderbra (below) and work for the Labour Party, went off to form Beattie McGuinness Bungay.
p10wonderbra_179629a

Other creatives were hired, of course, most notably Steve Henry, later to form HHCL (correction – Henry joined after HHCL). But none with the same zing. And our stellar cast of account men/agency managers went off to pastures new.

Where did it all go wrong – as the London hotel waiter is alleged to have said to George Best when he found him draped on a bed with Miss World, surrounded by banknotes?

Omnicom’s decision to try to pep up TBWA by buying Simons Palmer might well have worked but plonking the remnants of GGT on top of it was a sure-fire recipe for disaster. Simons Palmer and GGT had been not very friendly rivals in their heydays: Simons, Clemmow and Johnson’s agency was a breakaway from GGT.

Too many chiefs is an obvious consequence (TBWA London probably had more managing this and deputy thats than accounts in this period). Taking a minority stake can create more stability. WPP’s Sir Martin Sorrell contented himself with 49 per cent of Hornby’s CHI because that was the deal that Havas was offering the agency. But Hornby’s still around and has moved up in the empire (he even got to play cricket against SMS the other weekend – the winner is a closely guarded secret).

Even so, you’d have expected all that talent at TBWA to have created something rather more durable.

 

b3028e22440ee4012a04a64730d645dd-1Paul Simons adds:

After the merger the inevitable fire storm developed: from serious politics at the top towards the late ’90’s. One day we had a tidy and mostly well-managed merger in London and the next day a cast of heavy players with significant self interest at play. Apart from the Simons Palmer crew we had Mike Greenlees, Trevor Beattie and Paul Bainsfair from GGT; Jean-Marie Dru from BDDP in Paris; Lee Clow at Chiat/Day in the US all in the melting pot. Plus, on the sidelines, Bill Tragos and Alistair Richie chucking in hand grenades. In reality the comings and goings of the top job in London was a bit of a side show whilst the grown-ups battled it out in New York. It is interesting how both DDB and BBDO, Omnicom companies, appear to have a more seamless ability to deal with mergers and management.

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About Stephen Foster

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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.