Building BBH

It started with a random e-mail to John Hegarty almost two years ago. Right on time for his seven-year itch, Lowe group creative director Kevin McKeon heard that Bartle Bogle Hegarty was looking to hire an executive creative director for its 2-year-old New York office.

With a click of the mouse, McKeon told BBH’s London-based founder and creative director that he was a big fan and inquired whether Heg arty would be interested in seeing his work (a reel that included the Hein eken spot “Best of a Bad Situation” and a Sony spot, “Cat and Dog”). “I’m sure he had no idea who I was,” says the 45-year-old copywriter.

Impressed with McKeon’s initiative—Hegarty said he received surprisingly few cold calls for the position—Hegarty arranged a morning meeting at a café near the agency’s Flatiron-area offices. When the perpetually late McKeon failed to arrive on time, Hegarty began having doubts. But that quickly changed.

“We hit it off immediately. I thought he had great integrity,” says Hegarty. In McKeon he saw not only talent but leadership qualities. “A lot of creative people are gut feelers—they feel it and do it, and that’s ter rific,” he says. “But for a manager, you need intellect behind the gut feeling. I know some creative people who I wouldn’t let run a bath, never mind run a creative department.”

In a bid to re-create the magic of the famed London agency in New York—BBH already had outposts in Singapore and Tokyo—Heg arty temporarily moved stateside to open the shop in October 1998. After two years, creative director Ty Montague left to join Wieden + Kennedy’s New York shop. “He didn’t think he was the right person for the job,” says Heg arty. “I’m a great believer in these things working out for the best.”

So far, they have. Since McKeon was hired in March 2001, the New York office’s billings have jumped to $250 million from $140 million, and in January, the agency was awarded its most significant account, the $60 million Levi’s business (the London office has had the client’s European account for 20 years). The creative department has more than doubled, from 18 people when McKeon came on board to a team more than 40 strong.

When McKeon first arrived, his enthusiastic outlook hardly matched that of a staff that had been without an ecd for six months. Ad dress ing the agency with what he thought was a rousing speech, Mc Keon proclaimed that staffers should have a swagger in their step because they worked for one of the industry’s most highly regarded shops. “I found out later people were really angry,” he says. “They were thinking, ‘Who does he think he is? I haven’t gotten a raise … he doesn’t realize how much work I’ve had killed.’ I was so psyched to be here—I was the hyper-energetic puppy released into the place.”

“Kevin absolutely put his shoulder to the wheel with the rest of us,” says agency president Cindy Gallop. Mc Keon’s cheerful, calm demeanor, she notes, has served as a “tremendously stabilizing and tranquilizing influence” during pitches. “He’s also a very compelling presenter,” she says. “When he talks about his creative vision for the brand, he will absolutely hold the room spellbound.”

Since winning Levi’s, the agency has added the Road Runner cable Internet service, Bertolli olive oil’s global account and ING Direct. In April McKeon hired William Gelner to help manage the department, and handed creative reins on Levi’s to Thomas Hayo (see sidebar).

“For this place, it was just [a matter of] getting it going,” says McKeon. “I feel a tremendous responsibility to keep the momentum going.”

The son of a New Jersey plumber, McKeon used to spend his weekends renovating old houses. (“I love learning about the history of them,” he says, “and I love the craft of returning them to their original state, working with my hands.”) He no longer has much time for that, spending any free time with his wife and two young sons. “I’m not above sneaking out at 4 o’clock when I haven’t spent enough time with them,” he says, smiling. “I get back the next day and miraculously the place is still standing.”

A graduate of the School of Visual Arts, McKeon started out in the industry on the Xerox account at Needham Harper Steers, moving on to Korey Kay, Ammirati Puris and Scali, McCabe, Sloves.

Among his staff, he’s known for an easygoing man agement style—not hovering but offering help where needed. “He really trusts you with you what you’re doing,” says Hayo. McKeon tends to meet with creatives “on the fly,” he says, making rounds much like a doctor seeing patients. That way his influence isn’t as intrusive as it would be in formal meetings. Plus, he adds, no one has time for meetings. The team is working on efforts for Levi’s, Axe deo dor ant, ING, Johnnie Walker and Partnership for a Drug-Free America.

In the last few months, BBH has broken a dark-toned campaign for Levi’s and a controversial campaign for Cantor Fitzgerald, featuring reflections from the company’s Sept. 11 survivors. (After the disaster, McKeon and other BBH staffers helped Cantor respond to calls from employees’ loved ones and went to hospitals in search of survivors.)

Bounding up a stairwell during his office rounds, McKeon notes that the agency will soon expand to a third floor. He’s excited but also wary of the rapid progress. “One of the big things is to manage our growth without getting impatient,” he says. “You can make mistakes, hire the wrong people, maybe not be quite so careful in the way you think about a campaign.”

And, he adds, as BBH assumes more financial burdens—for added staff and real estate—he wants to ensure the creative doesn’t suffer. “I don’t ever want to have a client that we hide,” says McKeon. “Like, ‘We have these really great showcase clients. And, yeah, we also have that one, but we kind of tuck it in the back and it just makes money.’ ”

McKeon wants to see BBH grow from “the little quirky agency to more of a force—more like Goodby or Fallon.” But, he adds, he doesn’t want to develop a house style. He points to the diversity in the work: “We have the Levi’s fashion account; eSpeed is a b-to-b; Axe is kids; Johnnie Walker is the sophisticated businessman.”

After four years, the agency seems to have finally found its rhythm. And it may even have found a way to combat McKeon’s tardiness (a sincere listener, he tends to have difficulty breaking away from discussions). It’s a problem, says Hegarty, that “drives Cindy crazy.” And so Gallop has charged McKeon’s new assistant with acting as a “meeting policewoman,” a kind of punctuality marshall.

It may take some doing. After that first breakfast with Hegarty, admits McKeon, “I’ve been late to every meeting since.”