BBH’s Big Week Proves Big Clients Can Think Smaller

When British Airways and Unilever last week parked roughly $275 million in global billings at Bartle Bogle Hegarty, it was the latest illustration that size doesn’t always matter.

Thanks to media unbundling, technology and clients seeking strategic more than brand- management counsel, smaller, creatively driven global players such as the five-office BBH can not only compete against larger rivals, but thrive.

For BA, BBH beat out such global networks as JWT and DDB (as well as the incumbent, M&C Saatchi), and for Unilever’s Omo detergent line, the shop bested JWT and Lowe. Another recent example: the two-office independent StrawberryFrog beat McCann Erickson in August to land a global Heineken assignment.

“For some clients and some brands,” said an exec involved in Unilever’s review, “it’s no longer necessary to have a footprint in every country.”

More broadly, BBH’s global wins represented a great week for Publicis Groupe, which holds 49 percent in the 23-year-old agency. It was quite the opposite for WPP Group, whose JWT failed to win BA and was the only agency to come up empty-handed in Omo. (Interpublic Group’s Lowe kept a relatively small portion and will execute against BBH’s strategy.) And the bad news came a week after WPP’s Berlin Cameron/Red Cell lost its $200 million U.S. Coke Classic account.

The agency-size differential was particularly acute in the review of creative duties on Omo, a brand that spends more than $250 million annually. In fact, BBH executives had to talk their shop into the contest back in the spring, when client executives were eyeing just the two incumbents: Lowe, which has 80-plus offices and handled about two-thirds of the business, and the 300-office JWT, which had the rest. “They were skeptical, to say the least, at the beginning,” said BBH worldwide COO Simon Sherwood, who described the execs’ ultimate decision as a “huge testament to their commitment to change.” Said Keith Weed, Unilever’s group vp for global home care: “BBH offered the greatest strategic insight, creativity and vision for the future of the brand.”

BBH now handles a dozen Unilever brands around the world, making it the shop’s No. 1 client by revenue.

The revenue hit to JWT will be $5 million to $7 million; and to Lowe, about $5 million, leaving an estimated $10 million in revenue, said sources. Though the review had been billed as winner-take-all, BBH became lead agency, assuming “strategic and creative stewardship,” while Lowe—which had more to lose than JWT—managed to keep pieces in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, Unilever said. Lowe’s remaining Omo business is in markets where BBH has little or no presence; for example, BBH has no offices in India or Africa.

Unilever’s selection on Thursday came just two days after BA ended a 23-year relationship with Maurice and Charles Saatchi and awarded its $100 million global creative account to BBH. The airline sees BBH as a long-term partner and signed a five-year contract with the agency, client commercial director Martin George said.

The shop pitched a strategic concept that highlighted BA’s attention to detail and pride in providing extra customer service, with the theme “Upgrade to BA,” sources said. BBH chairman John Hegarty described the winning concept as a philosophy that his team illustrated through three “mood edits,” or short videos. BBH interviewed more than 100 current and former BA employees, and “we found a tremendous sense of pride,” he said. “It was about unlocking that.”