Paul Simons: has precious BBH DNA left the building?

The departures from BBH have all the hallmarks of an advertising agency ‘under new management’.

It happens most of the time when an agency hands across the controls to the train set to someone else, and in particular when it is to a buyer. What I have found intriguing is the speed at which founders of an agency depart shortly following a sale, and it isn’t just about money in the bank.

The success of an independent agency is all about the DNA that was the catalyst for starting in the first place and then building a business over time. That DNA mostly remains intact if the founders remain at the helm, living and breathing their philosophy, attitudes and ambitions. Like they say a good culture is like a stick of rock, break it anywhere and it says the agency name.

A buyer is acquiring a client list, income and profit stream, and some other beneficial assets appropriate to the buyer. The delicate asset is the DNA, a fragile intangible that can be upset by the slightest change. A big change and it dissolves into fog, never to return.

Bartle Bogle and Hegarty (below, at the outset in moody mode) were the heart and soul of their agency from their start in 1982 and for the next three-plus decades. I spotted them on the corner of Savile Row squeezing in to a phone box a day or so after the news broke of their new agency starting up. I knew Bartle and Bogle quite well so made some silly remark about this being their new office.

After John Bartle left Nigel and John H seemed to steady the ship and continue to expand the business and the brand globally, retaining the quality of the output and reputation. The DNA continued to produce the magic ingredients of success. As John H once said: “We turn intelligence into magic”. They did it for themselves too.

Now Publicis have a challenge on their hands because DNA isn’t for sale. It leaves with the magicians who created it in the first place. Once the magic goes, corporate genies slip in and change the culture. If ever in doubt read Odyssey: Pepsi to Apple all about John Scully joining Apple as CEO and firing Steve Jobs. Or see the movie.

BBH may well go on to become bigger and more successful, it does happen. However the intangible chemistry that created the original BBH will have by now all but slowly left the building.

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