BaylessCronin: How a Hot Startup Lost Its Promise

Ken Bowes of Atlanta consultancy Wanamaker Associates remembers a day less than four years ago when BaylessCronin, the new shop in town, showed all the talent and energy of a promising startup.

It was June 2000, just nine months after the agency opened, and the occasion was the review for the Atlanta Hawks ad account. Three shops had gathered at the Hawks’ Omni stadium offices, but it was BaylessCronin’s presentation that wowed the client and consultant.

After the usual pleasantries, Jerry Cronin showed a reel of impressive ESPN work from his days at Wieden + Kennedy. Then he and partner Tim Bayless talked for more than an hour, demonstrating an intimate knowledge of the potential client and sports marketing. “That was a terrific presentation and typical of the way they ran stuff,” Bowes recalled last week. “They were sincere communicators when they knew what they were talking about, when they spoke from the heart.”

BaylessCronin won the account and went on to add a string of new clients that first year. Billings jumped by $20 million—from such clients as Jefferson Pilot Financial Services and Church’s Chicken—an admirable accomplishment for a regional startup.

But BaylessCronin would not fulfill its promise, undone in four short years by an overdependence on a single client, a string of management changes and the often erratic behavior and unannounced absences of CEO Bayless, who left the agency in November without notice.

Last week, Omnicom Group’s Merkley + Partners, to which Bayless reported following the holding company’s purchase of Bayless & Partners in August 1999, said it would close the shop on Jan. 30 and fold what’s left—a few staffers and three small accounts, including the Hawks—into another Atlanta agency.

Sources said that shop is Omnicom’s Grizzard Advertising, which the only senior-ranking executive left at Bayless, CFO Michael Deaderick, is expected to join.

Mike Palma, who joined BaylessCronin in June as director of business development, said he expects to open his own agency. “Maybe I’ll call it Dark House,” he joked. “Or Dark Horse.”

BaylessCronin was anything but a dark horse when it opened in 1999. Omnicom that year had acquired 6-year-old Bayless & Partners and merged it with the Atlanta office of Merkley Newman Harty to build a strong agency closer to the Atlanta headquarters of Merkley client BellSouth.

At the time, Bayless cited a “need for a new creative powerhouse in the Southeast” to rival The Martin Agency in Richmond, Va. To back that, he had enlisted former colleague Cronin, a senior creative at Wieden who wrote campaigns for Nike, ESPN and Subaru. Bayless and Cronin had worked together early in their careers at Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopulos in Boston.

Cronin gave the shop creative credentials, but Omnicom and Merkley’s real reason for the merger was a consolidation of BellSouth’s $120 million account. Bayless’ $45 million agency handled BellSouth Mobility, the telecom’s fledgling mobile service.

Bayless added BellSouth assignments, and the business soon totaled 20 percent of the agency’s revenue, according to Rob Gerds, management director at the agency who left in December 2001.

The early momentum peaked in October 2000 when AFC’s Church’s Chicken hired the shop over Publicis in Mid America, Dallas, for its then-$15 million account in a review.

That, as it turned out, was to be as good as it would get. Small account losses in 2001 culminated in September, when BellSouth launched a review, ultimately moving its business. “The air began to go out when BellSouth left,” Gerds said.

The agency had reported directly to Merkley, but now was put under Omnicom DAS president Tom Harrison. Several sources said Bayless chafed under Omnicom’s leadership after the BellSouth loss. Neither Harrison nor Bayless could be reached for comment.

“In 2002, if you didn’t have solid relationships and a marketing plan that was humming, you couldn’t have any success,” Gerds said. “The money dropped out of the market. It was an ugly year. 2003 wasn’t a whole lot better. They weren’t able to regain momentum.”

The BaylessCronin deal with Merkley had been brokered by then Merkley executive Jerry Brown, who stayed on in the new agency’s president’s role (although he held no title) before leaving for OneSource in December 2000. Bayless took over Brown’s role, but sources said he was not a strong leader, was often absent for extended periods and had trouble following through on plans.

After a poor 2001, Harrison installed former Marine Steve Bowen from Merkley in New York as Bayless’ president in spring 2002. It was an effort to turn around a shop whose billings were now down to an estimated $45 million. But in the 11 months of Bowen’s tenure, the agency won just one project. And a new CMO at Church’s led to that account’s exit in late 2002.

Last May 12, Bowen and Cronin left within hours of each other. Bowen was fired by Omnicom. Cronin, sources said, got tired of the chaos. Last month Cronin joined BrightHouse Ideas as executive creative director.

Bowes, who like the rest of the Atlanta ad community had high hopes of BaylessCronin leading a creative renaissance for the city, said last week that the dazzle shown by the agency in the Hawks presentation was too seldom carried out. “There has to be some consistent follow-through and executional skills,” Bowes said. “It’s not just the concepts.”