Agency of the Year: BBDO

As many shops struggle to reinvent themselves, a transformed BBDO takes flight, scoring business and creative plaudits

For any agency, to weather the flaccid global economy of recent years would be tough enough. But consider recovering from the loss of one of your largest and longest-standing accounts on top of that.

BBDO stuck by Chrysler Group through its bankruptcy only to suffer the automaker’s defection in January of last year. Detroit was one of the agency’s largest domestic offices outside New York, and its closing and the layoff of nearly 500 staffers were a low point for the Omnicom shop.

Since then, Adweek’s Global Agency of the Year for 2011 has more than recovered from the hit, this year enjoying a bump in global revenue of 18 percent to an estimated $2.47 billion, on 15 percent greater U.S. revenue of about $690 million. BBDO estimates that since March 2009, it has won 90 percent of the global pitches in which it was a finalist, including major reviews such as S.C. Johnson (a win shared with Ogilvy & Mather) and ExxonMobil.

But the numbers are only part of the story. BBDO was the most recognized network for creative and effectiveness at Cannes this year, and the most awarded at the CLIO Awards.

“We were dealing with a ghastly economy and the loss of Chrysler. One of the things I am most proud of is that given all of that, we could have been forgiven if the quality of the creative slipped a little, but it didn’t,” says Andrew Robertson, BBDO’s perpetually tanned, suspenders-sporting worldwide CEO. “We’ve just had our fifth consecutive year as the most awarded network at Cannes. We’ve doubled down on the things we do best.”

Steve Pacheco, director of advertising for FedEx, which has done business with the agency for 22 years, says, “BBDO is not just a TV shop anymore. They’ve evolved in interactive and digital where they are as good as they are in TV. There’s a consistency and proven reliability where we know they’ll knock it out of the park with whatever they do for us.”

As other agencies struggle to reinvent themselves in a world of shifting business, technological, and geographic realities, BBDO has successfully transformed. For example, Proximity—its global digital, direct, and CRM network, with 67 offices in more than 50 countries—grew this year by more than 10 percent in the North American and Asia-Pacific markets, and 8 percent overall.

Omnicom, like its peers, has aggressively expanded in emerging markets, including the BRIC countries, and BBDO is playing a major role. Brazil’s AlmapBBDO this year was named Agency of the Year at Cannes for the second consecutive year. In Russia, BBDO and its associated companies now comprise the country’s largest agency group. Just three years ago, Josy Paul, chairman and chief creative officer of BBDO’s upstart in India, was running the office out of his car. Today, it boasts a staff of 70, and this year won four Cannes Lions, including one for effectiveness for Gillette.

Among other honors at Cannes this year, London’s AMV BBDO won the inaugural Grand Prix for Creative Effectiveness, for its work on Walkers crisps. In the spot, the brand, contending it can “make any sandwich that little bit more exciting,” proceeds to invade the sleepy English town of Sandwich with celebrities like Pam Anderson. The agency was also rated as the most effective agency network in the Global Effie Effectiveness Index. While awards shows tend to laud small, showcase accounts, BBDO has been singled out for its work on behalf of global clients including AT&T, FedEx, and Gillette.

“We’re one of the few agencies right now that doesn’t have an identity crisis,” says Troy Ruhanen, BBDO chairman and CEO of the Americas. “It’s the work, the work, the work. We know who we are, clients know who we are. One of the benefits is . . . you don’t focus on being introspective.”

When it came to winning accounts, BBDO this year was the agency to beat. In addition to S.C. Johnson and ExxonMobil, BBDO’s global wins included digital business for Visa’s 2012 Olympics initiative, BlackBerry, Cutty Sark, Western Union, and Hewlett-Packard’s Imaging and Printing Group. Domestic wins included Arby’s, Frito-Lay’s Lay’s and SunChips brands, the American Red Cross, Guinness Black Label, and Foot Locker. Beyond Visa and HP, other existing clients that expanded their relationships with the agency included Wrigley and PepsiCo.

The addition of several global Mars brands was a big score this year as well. In a major consolidation, BBDO picked up Twix, Dove, Whiskas, and Pedigree.

“BBDO has demonstrated they do great creative work, but they’ve also built a lot of confidence that they will deliver it around the world,” says Bruce McColl, Mars’ global chief marketing officer. “Mars is very decentralized, and that creates a bit of tension for an agency. They can’t get away with weakness in any of the agency networks. BBDO leverages that very well. They can pull together a group of people from different offices and make it work very well locally.”

The Mars consolidation also underscores the progress BBDO has made in China under Carol Potter, who was named CEO in ’06. Prior to her arrival, BBDO China had a reputation for a lack of leadership and struggled to attract talent. It was unable to convert many network clients, meaning that global accounts including Gillette, Wrigley, and Mars worked with rival agencies in the country.

When Mars awarded BBDO China the M&M’s brand a year and a half ago, the assignment amounted to further evidence of the transformation. The recent consolidation handed the agency Dove, Mars’ largest brand in China, and amounted to a significant vote of confidence. “When BBDO has been given challenges, particularly in the last couple of years, they step up to it,” says McColl.

It wasn’t only emerging markets that fueled BBDO’s growth this year. London’s AMV BBDO and CLM BBDO in Paris made waves by snagging new clients, including Foot Locker and BlackBerry in London and EDF (Électricité de France) in Paris. Meanwhile, Australia’s Clemenger BBDO won Most Effective Agency at the Effie Awards for the second consecutive year. Even the hardest hit countries of the Eurozone fared well—notably Ireland, where BBDO added Aer Lingus.

“We believe the worse [the economy] gets, the more opportunity there is,” says Peter Sherman, managing director of BBDO Europe. “If you start as one of the strongest brands in the [local] market and then you have a healthy global brand, you can win at the expense of the competition.”

David Lubars, chairman and chief creative officer, North America, likes to describe BBDO as a global boutique. “We have long hallways from one another as opposed to a hub and spokes,” he says. That’s a different structure than in the past when BBDO was perceived as a New York-centric agency home to celebrity-studded TV ads and a certain degree of arrogance.

“Back then we were a film studio,” says Lubars, who joined BBDO in 2004 after making a name for himself on BMW, among other brands, while at Fallon. “The culture today is one where people are constantly stirring things up, so nothing turns to concrete. Tough times like these play to our strengths when you have to go out there and show what you can do for a client and spend less money.”

But best not bring up tough times to Lubars’ boss. “Some things you can’t control, like the economy—but there is a lot you can,” says Robertson. “No one at BBDO is allowed to start a conversation by saying how difficult 2012 is going to be. It’s a matter of how good can we be.”

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