Agency of the Year: BBDO’s Tenacity Turned a Major Client Loss Into a Minor Setback

With a cohesive worldwide talent pool, wins are pouring in

Even for indefatigable account man Andrew Robertson, BBDO’s global loss of Gillette's men's product line in 2013 was devastating. Looking back, the global CEO, in characteristic bespoke tailoring and confident poise, betrays a rare moment of vulnerability as he recalls the demanding focus and pressure of trying to retain an iconic marketer while separately working on its current initiatives. (Defending any large account in review is hard enough, but Gillette was a P&G brand handled by BBDO and its predecessor shop for more than 80 years and generated more than $40 million in global revenue.)

After the search began in September 2012, BBDO staffers worked long days, nights and weekends to save the business, undeterred by New York City’s turmoil following Hurricane Sandy and personal priorities around the holidays.

“The P&G outcome was tough, a real body blow,” Robertson remembers. “It came at the end of an intense pitching process, and it was incredibly draining. But as painful as it was, the sun comes up the next day, you pick yourself up and go out and replace the business.”

Which is exactly what BBDO did, with persistence and optimism, earning it recognition as Adweek’s Global Agency of the Year for 2014. The Omnicom Group network more than replaced lost Gillette fees, with global revenue rising 4.5 percent to an estimated $1.57 billion, while U.S. revenue increased by the same percentage to $577 million.

Pulling that off was no easy feat, given the size of BBDO and the number of marketer categories it often has to avoid because of conflicts.

None of that slowed down the agency. At one point early this year, BBDO made four final pitches in five weeks—a fairly unprecedented industry occurrence—and won two of them, Wells Fargo and CVS, within days of one another in March.

At the Epicenter

For Robertson, losing Gillette wasn’t the only setback that could have been a distraction over the past year and a half. The CEO, who had been in the top role since 2004, was running an Omnicom flagship during the holding company’s proposed merger negotiations with Publicis Groupe, and the future prospects of Robertson, as presumed heir apparent to Omnicom chief John Wren, were called into question even as rival companies courted the industry leader. He didn’t lose focus during the uncertainties of the ill-fated merger, and neither did global chief creative officer David Lubars. The pair rallied the troops, urging them to continue to do what they do best.

As a result, BBDO was named as the most creative network in the world by the Gunn Report for the eighth year in a row, while the agency won a Grand Clio Award in the film category for Guinness’ “Sapeurs” spot, which also helped earn the brewer recognition as Clio Advertiser of the Year. The agency delivered on results as well, winning the Effie Effectiveness Index for 2014 and laying claim to having the most effective agency in the world with Colombia’s Sancho BBDO.

BBDO has one of the industry’s longest-running top management teams, and that consistency has helped the agency maintain its sterling creative reputation and ride out downturns like the loss of Gillette.

This year marked the 10th anniversary of Robertson and Lubars’ working partnership, along with John Osborn, CEO of BBDO’s New York flagship. The sense of collaboration is apparent throughout the agency, say marketers who note the persuasiveness of the chemistry between BBDO execs during pitch meetings like that for Wells Fargo this year.

“The BBDO team looked cohesive, and you could see the mutual respect. Everyone in the room had a value and a voice,” recalls Michael Lacorazza, head of integrated marketing at new client Wells Fargo. “With some of the other agency contenders, it didn’t look as if they even knew each other.”

Andrew Robertson, CEO | Photographed in New York by Kevin Scanlon

Even in Asia, where talent retention is one of the industry’s main challenges, BBDO’s top management in China has been in place for the last 10 years; in Singapore, seven years; and in India, six years. Chris Thomas, CEO, BBDO Asia, Middle East and Africa, says that stability has fueled account wins. New business revenue growth across the Asia region rose 20 percent on average in the past year, with China adding Mercedes-Benz. At the same time, BBDO earned honors like Asia-Pacific regional network of the year at Cannes and network of the year at Spikes Asia for the second time in three years.

“Consistency has been key, consistency of the leadership team and the results in terms of regional dominance of effectiveness, creativity accolades and stable growth,” Thomas says. “It also drives collaboration.”

From the Ground Up

Teamwork was very much on display in an October ad for Mars' Snickers that featured Rowan Atkinson as comic character Mr. Bean in the latest installment of the “You’re Not You When You’re Hungry” campaign.

BBDO offices in Beijing and London developed the spot, which was set in China, filmed in the style of a martial arts epic and ran in Mandarin with English subtitles. It’s a new twist in the global campaign that originated in the U.S., and Bruce McColl, Mars’ global chief marketing officer, says BBDO’s work on other Mars brands is increasingly traveling across borders.

Case in point: For Uncle Ben’s rice, the “Ben’s Beginners” pitch, which encourages kids to cook with their families, started three years ago in the U.S. and is now in 16 global markets via platforms like social media, YouTube and events as well as traditional advertising. “This kind of work shows the power of the BBDO network,” McColl says. “We’re quite pleased and proud of the way BBDO creates a big idea that can be executed both globally and locally and across media.”

That network power reflects the stand-alone strength of its components. Unlike many competitors, BBDO was not built off the expansion of multinational marketers. Instead it was assembled through the acquisition of what the company considered the best like-minded agencies in a region.

David Lubars, Chairman/CCO | Photo: Kevin Scanlon

“We were built from the ground up; it wasn’t a case of starting with a client and exporting BBDO on the back of marketers. You see that in the strength of our individual agencies,” says Robertson. “Our results as a network are a function of our results both collectively and individually. We didn’t colonize the world.”

Local and global success on brands like those belonging to Mars underscores one of the key objectives Robertson set out to achieve a decade ago. “We wanted to get our network agencies to realize the full value of being part of a network, not just for working on global clients but on local clients as well,” he continues. “We wanted to get everyone to use the contacts, talent, knowledge, experience and ideas of the network to build local as well as international business.”

Consider São Paulo’s AlmapBBDO, which has carved out its own identity as an Agency of the Year three times at Cannes. In addition to local accounts, AlmapBBDO works on multinational marketers including Pepsi and Visa. In fact, the office’s local work on Visa helped the agency regain its global creative lead on the brand two years ago.

“BBDO has a very good way of working globally,” says Marcello Serpa, co-president of the board, AlmapBBDO. “It respects the work done in local markets and realizes you have to have great, solid offices locally. It’s not just about having offices everywhere, but it’s about having the local strength to support the larger network.”

That collaboration is not just a way of partnering internationally. In the U.S., BBDO offices working together helped win accounts like San Francisco-based Wells Fargo, which spends $130 million in media annually.

Such unity isn’t lost on New York chief Osborn, who last month gathered office staffers to celebrate the win of American Family Insurance ($150 million in media spend) in the agency’s cozy “Central Filing” bar. “This is a story about many people coming together and rallying around a common interest,” he toasted at the time. Global creative chief Lubars concurs. “You have a team mentality here, it’s not like Mad Men,” he says. “Boats float higher when the team works together.”

As for creative highlights this year, Lubars cites London’s “Made of Black” spot for Guinness Africa, which celebrates black identity as an attitude and mind-set, not as a skin color, and São Paulo’s Volkswagen “Kombi Last Wishes” film, which eulogizes the end of the production of the automaker’s iconic bus.

Other highlights this year include New York’s “Ideas Are Scary” for General Electric, which acknowledges that while ideas are sometimes messy, they can become something beautiful. Singapore’s striking “Two Worlds” print work for Chrysler’s Jeep earned Clio Hall of Fame honors. Amsterdam, meanwhile, produced a Cannes winner, “Raw for the Oceans,” in which Pharrell Williams and G-Star partner to turn ocean plastic into denim. And BBDO in Melbourne, Australia, produced “Aussie Builders” for Snickers’ “You’re Not You When You’re Hungry” campaign, featuring construction workers shouting out feminist messages as opposed to heckling attractive young female passersby with catcalls.

A Head for Business

Given BBDO’s award-winning creative profile, the agency’s business smarts could be underestimated—but that was a determining factor in BBDO’s win of the hotly contested Wells Fargo account. The financial giant was not only impressed by its competitive work for previous client Bank of America but also its efforts in other categories. Two examples stand out: BBDO’s work to distinguish AT&T in a parity category and the breadth of its initiatives for Starbucks, from a broad understanding of brand image to more granular customer experience strategies.

“With BBDO, yes, you can expect great creative, but we were also really impressed by the depth of understanding of their clients’ business,” explains Wells Fargo CMO Jamie Moldafsky. “In selecting them, we were looking for a thought partner. And we want to be challenged strategically.”

That ability to combine attention-grabbling creative with solid business strategy reflects BBDO’s determination to straddle its network strengths while respecting its entrepreneurial roots around the world.

“We’ve wanted to become a sort of global boutique where you’re nimble and fast, trying things and doing things and responding, yet doing it all in a big, mass way across the world with a lot of depth,” says Lubars. “The day we become a big, giant agency is the day we’re not unique—we just become like another big, giant agency. So it’s not just cool to work the way we do, it’s imperative that we keep doing it that way.”