Church’s Cuts Spur Departures at Bayless

A string of account losses capped by cuts at the shop’s biggest client, as well as personal disagreements among management, contributed to the departure of two top executives at BaylessCronin, according to the agency and sources.

Executive creative director Jerry Cronin and president Steve Bowen resigned from Omnicom’s 25-person Atlanta shop within hours of each other on May 2. Founder Tim Bayless said the shop will keep its name.

“I like Jerry’s name,” he said. “This isn’t a divorce.”

The resignations were spurred by budget cuts at financially strapped Church’s Chicken, BaylessCronin’s biggest client, Bayless said. The AFC Enterprises chain, which has spent about $15 million a year on ads, cut the agency’s monthly retainer nearly in half earlier this year, sources said.

The loss of income “got everybody pretty focused,” Bayless said. “It accelerated some of the thinking.”

While Cronin left amicably, the departure of Bowen is a more “Shakespearean” story, Bayless acknowledged. “It’s had more than its share of naked ambition and thwarted dreams,” he said. “The fit with Steve wasn’t working, and he’s moving on.”

Bowen was formerly director of business development at sister shop Merkley Newman Harty & Partners in New York; Omnicom moved him to Bayless 11 months ago in an effort to stem the shop’s losing streak. Sources said Bowen and Bayless never got along. “We know the place wasn’t big enough for both Tim and Steve,” one source said.

Bowen, 58, declined to discuss details of his resignation and said he has not decided on his next move, although he will continue to consult on Merkley’s BMW account.

“It’s disappointing,” he said. “I had high aspirations for what this agency could become. It would appear that it’s not going to happen.”

Cronin, 46, who was a creative director at Wieden + Kennedy in Minneapolis before joining BaylessCronin four years ago, is “taking a breather,” Bayless said. Cronin, who could not be reached for comment, is expected to take part in some new-business pitches and project work for the agency.

Cronin joined the shop as it was merged with Merkley’s Atlanta office.

Beginning this week, BaylessCronin’s eight-member creative staff will be overseen by copywriter Devon Suter. Bayless credited Suter with playing a key role in the agency’s win of a creative assignment from The Discovery Channel last November. That win began as a project but is now a full-time account, Bayless said. Billings were not disclosed.

Since 2001, the shop won and lost Johnston & Murphy ($5 million), Alabama Power ($2 million) and Waffle House. The biggest hit came in December 2001, when Merkley, partnering with BaylessCronin, lost the $120 million BellSouth account to Grey.

Billings and revenue were down 8 percent last year, to $47 million and $6 million.

Remaining clients include ESPN and the Atlanta Hawks, as well as Discovery. Spots for the latter are scheduled to break this month.

Church’s is spreading its budget among roster shops, including creative boutique Gecko Motion Brand Builders in Johannesburg, South Africa, which sources said is a favorite of chief marketing officer Ann Stone.

It was not known if the cuts would lead to layoffs. Bayless referred calls about layoffs to Omnicom’s Tom Harrison, vice chairman and CEO of the network’s Diversified Agency Services unit, who could not be reached.