When Publicis Groupe said it was taking full control of Bartle Bogle Hegarty earlier this month, the move signaled a new era of management as well as ownership at the London-based agency. Founders Nigel Bogle and John Hegarty used the occasion to announce the next generation to preside over BBH, with Gwyn Jones named as its new group chief executive. Jones, who was hired right out of Oxford as one of the agency’s first graduate trainees, has never worked anywhere else. Recently, he took time out from vacation hiking around Palm Springs to talk to Adweek about his new role.
Adweek: What’s your mandate going forward?
Jones: The formula that’s been at the heart of life at BBH for the last 30 years has been about creativity; putting the work first and letting everything flow from that. I don’t see any need for change. I’ve been there for over 25 years myself so I’ve been well-versed in that leadership approach. But obviously it’s not just ‘Don’t mess up and keep it going.’ We believe there is still large potential in the BBH brand: We’ve been very careful about growth and our view continues to be that growth will be dictated by our creative ambition. There are some more parts of the world where we can take BBH and even where we are already strong, there are more things we can do. We’ve hung on to many of our clients for a long time. As a result, our output is often defined by a lot of the work we’ve done over many years whereas we are also very proud of things like being Webby’s ‘Agency of the Year’ this year. We feel we’re quite proven in new communications areas but we can definitely grow our capabilities to build upon that credibility in broadening what we do for clients.
Can you share some specifics about that expansion?
Pretty much everything is still at a drawing-board stage. There are some key partnerships that are important for us. One example is Neogama in Brazil and the ability we now have to fully consolidate our relationship there after Publicis acquired the rest of the agency. That’s a good first step in terms of the kind of Publicis support of BBH we’re talking about.
How do you now institutionalize the very specific culture Hegarty and Bogle have created?
People ask us a lot about values and culture. It’s never been about things we’ve written down. What matters most are what John and Nigel did to instill the behaviors and processes to make sure the work comes first. There was the fact that all work had to be signed off by the most senior people and the fact that initially we wouldn’t pitch creative work in reviews. If creative is the most important thing why would you develop it in a competitive scenario rather than in a partnership with your clients? These were the behaviors that made BBH different and they became embedded deep into the culture. When you combine that with the fact a lot of us have been there a very long time it’s not like John and Nigel are going to hand the agency over to people who will bring new beliefs to that culture. It’s much more about continuity.
You bought into those beliefs early in your career and never left, which is pretty rare in the transitory ad world.
At the time, one of BBH’s first famous ads, the Nick Kamen Levi’s Launderette commercial, was among the hottest things on TV. I didn’t know much about advertising but in the careers office of my university there was a (BBH) poster which simply said ‘We don’t sell. We make people want to buy’ and it had a big picture from the Levi’s ad. That looked intriguing so I found out about them, applied and, by some miraculous process, was one of the lucky ones to get in. I was surrounded by like-minded people and it just felt like home. BBH had a lot of integrity and was serious about its pursuits but the agency wanted to have fun doing it. Given the work you get to be associated with and the people you get to work with, it’s a difficult place to leave. They have been extraordinarily good to me and gave me a lot of opportunity. I was made managing director of the London business in 1998 and ran it for six years. I then came to the U.S. (as CEO in 2004) and later supported John (Hegarty) and Simon (Sherwood, now group chair) in a group (COO) role since 2008. It’s been a happy ride so you wouldn’t want to change that.
What did you learn from working in the U.S.?
It was a massive learning experience. In the U.K. working for John and Nigel is like working for royalty. Going to the U.S. changes the way you feel about the power of BBH and discovering how hard you have to work to crack into the states. You realize how tough and competitive the market is and how dispersed the country is after working in London, which is such a concentrated village. The U.S. agencies that held the crown we aspired to, those having the combination of creative and commercial success, were in Portland, Miami, Boulder, San Francisco or Minneapolis. Talent is very mobile and all those things make for a completely different set of challenges. We’ve had a roller coaster ride in the U.S. where we’ve had some good growth, some good periods, some great work and then we’ve had periods that felt a little like retrenchment. But I feel very good about where we are now. We have fantastic leadership, fantastic creative leadership in with John (Patroulis, CCO) in New York and Pelle (Sjoenell, ecd) in L.A.
BBH is a place that has always prided itself on its independence. Now that you are part of a larger holding company, how will you maintain your autonomy?
That’s been a key aspect in getting this deal done. What we sought to preserve is for the agency to operate as a separate entity in its own right. Our clients and our people are our most important considerations and that’s something (Publicis Groupe CEO) Maurice (Lévy) addressed very early in our dialogue, saying ‘Those are the things you’re going to have to preserve because that will preserve the integrity of the BBH brand.’ So there’s been a lot of alignment around that from the outset. There has rightfully been a lot of stuff made about our independence but the truth is BBH’s ownership structure has changed quite a lot from the past. We have a much broader shareholder body: There are 53 shareholders in the company and we’ve had a significant external shareholder in the company for a long time. You have to decide how a company is owned and if you set that up right, it doesn’t have to influence how a company is run. We know how to run BBH and we will continue to do it in an independently creative way as long as we’re able.