Call it the umbilical cord syndrome. The New York office of London-based Bartle Bogle Hegarty continues to rely on home turf clients like Diageo and Unilever and mostly imported CEOs, including Cindy Gallop, Gwyn Jones and Emma Cookson.
That would be understandable for a startup, but BBH New York opened 14 years ago last month. In that sense, it has broken the cardinal rule of agencies entering foreign markets: hire local leaders with proven track records and get out of the way. The U.S., after all, is a daunting market, particularly when you drop anchor in New York.
Now, in the wake of a 25 percent staff cut that shrank New York’s staff to 95 and yet another reshuffling at the top—Cookson has taken the reins again after the exit of CEO Greg Andersen—former BBH New York execs are questioning the agency’s casting, strategy and culture. In short, they think BBH has misread American marketers, overrelied on its mothership and let its strongly held beliefs interfere with becoming a big player in the U.S.
BBH, for example, generally rallies behind a single campaign idea for marketers rather than present multiple options and disdains presenting speculative creative work in new business pitches. The New York office has bent on both principals, but in the case of spec creative, it took years for the shop to change.
“BBH has a set of beliefs and behaviors that are revered in the company, and they really tried to transfer that culture to every office in the network,” said one former BBH exec. “That’s a strength, but it’s also a weakness. It’s a double-edged sword because it can lead to inflexibility. And if you’re inflexible and you don’t adapt to local culture, you have a harder time.”
That’s not to say that BBH has floundered in the U.S. Hardly. Its provocative ads for Axe and emotive work for Google have garnered awards and further burnished BBH’s global creative reputation.
Also, through the years, New York has punched above its weight class, winning big accounts like Miller Lite, Cadillac, Ally Bank and Levi’s. Each account has left, however, creating the impression of a shop that’s had as many downs as ups.
Gwyn Jones, who’s now global CEO, could not be reached last week. Three weeks ago, though, he attributed the business swings of the New York office to the vicissitudes of the U.S. market. “It’s much more of a roller-coaster ride. The highs are higher and the lows are sort of big blows,” he told Adweek.
Another former exec blamed the stumbles on poor casting at the top. “Many of those [hiring] decisions have been flawed. It’s in part because they’re leaning ...way toward British people,” said the ex-exec, who added that successful shops “have somebody in their management team who is adept at [managing marketer] relationships, and BBH has overlooked that aspect of life.”
That said, yet another ex-exec remains bullish that BBH will eventually break through in the U.S. “I bet you any amount of money that they crack it,” said this exec, though he admitted, “It might take a bit longer” than expected.