A few days after Levi Strauss & Co. awarded its $60 million U.S. account to Bartle Bogle Hegarty last January, brand president Robert Hanson visited the agency's office in the Flatiron neighborhood of New York. He wanted to welcome the shop to the Levi's fold and spell out what was at stake. As a lobby full of staff ers sipped Veuve Clicquot from plastic cups, Hanson outlined the challenge: to put the venerable brand back in its "rightful place" as an icon and a category leader. "You own this now with us," he said. "Failure is not an option."
The client's flag-planting words set the tone for a remarkably productive and buzz-worthy year for BBH. The Levi's win opened the door to other reviews and helped the once-underdog agency garner the industry respect it had sought since opening in Manhattan in 1998.
ING chief marketing officer David Lewis, for one, had never heard of the agency before Boston consultancy Pile and Co. invited it to pitch the $50 million online-bank account in March. But the "black sheep," as Lewis considered BBH, "got the strategy; no one else did."
While proving itself to consultants, clients and peers, BBH also continued to leverage its relationship with its London-based parent. The agency seems unfazed by having its identity intrinsically linked to its headquarters. After all, it has enjoyed tremendous growth from shared clients Levi's, Johnnie Walker, the World Gold Council and Unilever's Axe (Lynx in Britain), for whom it introduced the body spray to America with a campy $80 million campaign that pokes fun at the male psyche.
"We want to be a global agency, but in our way," says agency founder Nigel Bogle of the network, which has offices in London, New York, Singapore, Tokyo and São Paulo, Brazil. "You can't survive without a backbone of global clients."
Indeed, the key to landing Levi's in the U.S. was London's rapport with Han son, who was previously president of the brand for Europe, Africa and the Middle East. (BBH also handles Levi's in Asia and Latin America, for total billings of about $110 million.) Hanson's belief in BBH and its collective understanding of the brand gave him the confidence to shift the business from TBWA\Chiat\Day in San Francisco without a review. "I don't believe in playing in the margins," says Hanson. "You either win big or fail trying to do the right thing."
Throughout the shop's expansion, the five-person management team, led by president Cindy Gallop, has remained true to the core principles of founders John Bartle, Bogle and John Hegarty. For instance, while strategy is shared in new-business pitches, speculative creative work is not. Clients seeking a new campaign will get just one recommendation at a time, born out of the shop's heavy emphasis on planning and research.
In 2002, that formula got results. Bill ings at Adweek's Eastern Agency of the Year rose a staggering 134 percent, to more than $290 million, and revenue doubled, to $25 million. The staff grew by 83 percent, to 110.
The shop's success follows a rough start. Its first creative director, Ty Montague, exited abruptly in 2000, leaving the shop without a creative chief for six months. Its first client, Ree bok Classic, left in late 2001. BBH avoided layoffs by running lean, keeping costs in line thanks largely to the efforts of CFO Dan Tucker, Gallop says.
In 2002, Kevin McKeon's first full year as ecd, BBH produced campaigns that displayed a broad range of approaches and styles. Its first work for Levi's, an integrated effort for Low Rise jeans that included TV, print, interactive and even product tags, gave the brand an air of mystery and danger. One cinematic spot, for instance, shows a twentysomething woman stealing her Camaro back from a chop shop. BBH will introduce Type 1 jeans in a Super Bowl spot that plays up the Levi's heritage.
Quiet and plaintive documentary-like TV spots for the eSpeed division of Cantor Fitzgerald, deemed exploitative by some, featured Errol Morris-directed interviews of staffers who survived the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. For new client Rolling Stone's first trade campaign in eight years, BBH created a series of blunt, hand-scrawled diatribes about the music industry that reeked of attitude.
The shop's management team, which includes Gallop, McKeon, chief strategy officer Emma Cookson and media director Barry Lowenthal, earns high marks from clients, who say the leaders are not only accessible but also backed by a deep bench. Wenner Media general manager Kent Brownridge jokes that he needs a new Rolodex to hold the business cards of all the staffers he talks to. Unilever brand development vp Esther Lem notes the "brilliant" creative ideas that have come from Peter Kain, a quiet, unassuming copywriter. Lem also cites the frank opinions of Cookson, 36, who came over from London in 1999, and the thoughtful guidance of McKeon, 45, a former Lowe group cd who arrived in March 2001.
"We would push back on each other—'This isn't funny enough' or 'This doesn't make me feel uncomfortable enough,' " Lem recalls of her frequent exchanges with McKeon preceding the "Axe effect" campaign's summer launch. Sales revenue for the brand's first six months came in 27 percent higher than targeted, notes Lem. The recall for the Rolling Stone campaign was so high that Wenner handed BBH ad duties on its two other titles, Us and Men's Journal.
Gallop, 42, the agency's leader since Day 1, takes pride in hiring talented people who also are likable—"great and nice," as she puts it. She says that combination is key to maintaining a collaborative culture—which was much easier at the start, when there were seven staffers, and admittedly harder as the head count approaches the "tipping point" of 150.
"At this agency, the brand is bigger than all of us. And all of us who work here like it that way," says Gallop. "So it's not about coming in and changing anything. It's about coming in and helping to take the brand to even greater heights through your personal contribution."
The success of Gallop & Co. comes as no surprise to Bogle and Hegarty, both of whom marvel at her seemingly boundless energy and dogged determination. The fast-talking president comes off as part cheerleader and part taskmaster with a pinch of rock star, owing to her leather-and-feathers wardrobe. Bogle laughs at the memory of Gallop talking herself into a job at the London agency in 1989. He says he wasn't going to hire her, but "she just refused to take no for an answer." Today, Bogle adds, "If you cut Cindy, she would bleed BBH."
As for the shop's coming-out party in 2002, Hegarty says he "never doubted" that the New York office would make it. As he often told the staff during the shop's first three years, when he spent much of his time in New York to get the operation on its feet, "It's a marathon, not a sprint." Besides, he adds, echoing the sentiment of his Levi's client, "it had to work."
Up 134 percent to $293 million (est.)
Up 100 percent to $25 million (est.)
WIN/LOSS PITCH RATIO
6 out of 10
ACCOUNTS WON/MEDIA BUDGET*
Unilever's Axe/$80 million
ING Direct/$50 million
Time Warner Cable's Road Runner/$15 million
Wenner Media's Rolling Stone, Us, Men's Journal/$3 million
ACCOUNTS LOST/MEDIA BUDGET*
Lipton side dishes/$50 million
Group account directors Sarah Thompson and Tim Castree promoted to joint heads of account management; group planning director Paul Matheson became head of account planning; strategic planning director Emma Cookson given broader marketing role; ex-Bozell business development director Amanda Kavanagh hired as shop's first new-business chief; staff nearly doubled, to 110.
*Only largest accounts included.
Sources: Adweek, agency reports and CMR