Fast Chat: Gwyn Jones Discusses BBH N.Y. Moves

CEO seeks flexible model amid roller-coaster ride

Bartle Bogle Hegarty’s New York office has been down this road before. Two years ago, after the losing General Motors’ Cadillac, the agency thinned its leadership ranks, with then U.S. group chairman Steve Harty exiting. This time, New York CEO Greg Andersen is out, six months after the shop lost North American creative responsibilities for Coca-Cola’s Sprite. Also, managing director Richard Stainer is returning to the agency’s London headquarters, leaving New York leadership to chairman Emma Cookson, executive creative director John Patroulis and chief strategy officer Sarah Watson. In addition, the agency is reducing its headcount by 25 percent to a new total of about 95. New global CEO Gwyn Jones discussed the moves—and the vicissitudes of the New York office—during a telephone interview today.

Adweek: Is the agency more vulnerable to fluctuations in marketing spending because it has never had a particularly broad account base?
Gwyn Jones: Well, yeah, I guess. If you compare and contrast it to London that would certainly be true. You know it’s a much narrower base of clients compared to London. But you know [New York is] less than half the age [having opened in 1998 versus 1982 in London]. So, it’s a much younger business. And actually within that [client] list it has got things like the Unilever relationship and the Diageo relationship that have been there for a long time and have been part of that bedrock. Now maybe there’s a kind of narrower bedrock than would ideally be the case. But we’ve also had some extraordinary (bad) luck with things that have happened like Cadillac. They’re symbolic of something which I think maybe a lot of agencies struggle with when it comes to the U.S.—that it’s much more of a roller-coaster ride. The highs are higher and the lows are sort of big blows.

What other factors are you dealing with?
There’s more project-orientation from client engagement now. The year of the old annual retainer [relationship] as a scope of work set to the next 12 to 18 months is a rarer and rarer kind of engagement. We as an industry face the challenge of we need to be more fleet of foot and variable. We need to be more flexible in our cost base to deal with the more variable nature of the revenue base. It’s a challenge. You’re right. We have not added to that (account) list as we have wanted to over the course of the last year, for example. But some of the volatility we’re facing now is not about losing business. It’s just about existing business moving and shifting spend.

How frustrating is it that the New York office has had as many downs as ups?
The oddity of the position we’re in right now is we actually feel quite confident about the future of the agency at the moment. I know I’m an account man and I would say that, wouldn’t I? But, you know, John Patroulis is one of the outstanding creative leaders in this market. Our creative product has been getting stronger and stronger over the last couple of years. And, actually the work for Axe, recent work for Google—they’re the kind of things that make the phone ring.

With the leadership moves, New York is less layered and more simplified in upper management, like when Steve Harty left in 2010. For an agency this size, you don’t need so many leaders, right?
Yeah, and there’s probably a case to be made for an agency of any size that clarity of leadership is a good thing to have. That’s certainly the case [here] and we are extremely fortunate to have somebody like Emma [Cookson], who has basically been here since the start of BBH in North America and has done the job before, step in and pick up the reins. … Cementing creative leadership at the heart of the agency is an important part of this too. But you’re right, it's a more simple structure and in some ways that classic combination of a great creative leader, a great strategic leader and then a business leader is what B, B and H has always been about.

Any agency that has been around long enough has a lightening bolt that it can point to that really changed things, like when Mercedes left Lowe. Do you feel snake-bit by what happened with Cadillac?
In my own mind, I had never traced it back to a particular event, like there’s one thing that happens that sets you off in another direction. I do feel like part of adjusting to life, for creative agencies particularly, in the U.S. market is [dealing with] a roller-coaster ride when you’re not that huge, multiple office, embedded kind of structure. You just have to roll with it. But I said to somebody [a week ago]—somebody who I thought would have an informed position, doesn’t matter who—"What’s your impression of BBH in New York?" And he said, "I think something snapped around Cadillac." It was such a significant and symbolic win at the time. One of the true icon American brands in a turnaround mode, which is what we’ve built our reputation on in other markets.

Not attached to the mothership, won on its own merits, right?
Absolutely on its own merits, exactly. But it was a particularly difficult time for the agency.

This year, it seems that Sprite was a fairly sizeable loss to withstand.
Well it was a global relationship run out of New York. In Asia, we’re still working with them, but not out of here anymore. … It was one of those things that you hope to bounce back from and we’ve not really significantly replaced it.

What expectations have you set for John and Emma for the year ahead? This time next year, what you do you hope they accomplish?
Well, I think John, Sarah and Emma are fantastic talents. You know, I’ve used the word roller-coaster ride a couple of times in this conversation, so I expect us to be climbing quite steeply. It could take a while for the dust to settle and all that. But we’re doing great work and we’ve got a bunch of very supportive and happy clients who love the stuff that’s going on. And we’ve got quite a lot of new business interest. That’s one of things that makes this so painful.