The Musings Of An Opinionated Sod [Help Me Grow!]

How To Outrun The Inevitable …
February 17, 2012, 6:15 am
Filed under: Comment

There are a lot of agencies out there.

In China alone, there’s said to be tens of thousands.


However amongst all those – not in China, but generally – there’s a few that have a ‘global’ name.

Traditionally, they fall into 2 camps:

Those who are living off their legacy and those creating it.

Yes, that’s harsh – and there’s a whole host of reasons for it – but that’s pretty much how it feels.

Of course, these two states are in a constant state of motion … one good campaign can lift an agency from the past to the present and vice versa … however the agencies that tend to have the greatest momentum are the ones that seemingly are continuously creating their legacy rather than riding on their past.

Now in no way am I suggesting an agency purposefully ‘takes a back seat’ – there are many reasons why that can happen – however the point of this post is that as much as there are many agencies out there who are grabbing a bunch of the headlines right now, there’s 2 that are seemingly always at the forefront of commercial creativity.

BBH and W+K

Now without doubt there are some fundamental differences between the 2 companies – some good, some not so good – however the thing I find fascinating are their commonalities, of which a number of them, I believe, have directly enabled them to succeed while others have fallen.

I should point out that what I’m about to write is my perception.

The fact is I’ve never worked at BBH and while I know many of the guys there very well – I am still basing my views on observation and here-say.

And as for W+K. Well while I have had the pleasure of meeting Dan and his senior management team, we’ve not really talked about this sort of thing … most of the time I’m getting bollocked for something.

But that aside, here are 5 things that have made these agencies so creatively influential for so long.

1. Consistent Management.

The guys who run both these agencies have been at these agencies a long time.

Better yet, they are the people who founded these agencies – so they have a vested interest in maintaining the culture of the place rather than just go after the profit, regardless of the implication.

That said, they are constantly introducing new people into positions of influence and power.

Younger people. Talented people.

People who bring new perspectives and thinking to the table so while the principals of the company will stay the same, the expression of it is at the forefront of the times.

2. Control, Not Controlled.

In short, when you own your company rather than a holding company with masses of shareholders, you can control how your company grows and where your company goes.

Basically, control means you can focus on the longer-term, bigger play rather than purely focusing on hitting the next quarterly target.

It’s probably the best ad for communism you could have, ha.

3. A Willingness To Fail.

Both agencies try stuff.

Better yet, the want to try stuff.

There is a reluctance to rest on their laurels.

This isn’t just because they believe to stick with what you know is the surest way to future failure, but because they are adventurous by nature and they believe great things happen from experimentation, even if on first impressions, the result is not quite what they hoped.

They also put their money where their mouth is.

They don’t expect clients to fund their adventures into the unknown, they’ll pay for it … be it in the activities they do or the people they hire.

For both, failure is NOT trying stuff.

4. Culture, Not Function

When I first joined W+K, people talked about it’s unique culture.

To be honest, I’ve heard this sort of thing before and almost always it’s turned into a crock of shit … because the culture that was there was because of the people in the place rather than the company.

But in W+K and BBH’s case, I believe it’s true.

Sure, the people that work there enhance and develop that culture, but there’s a strong philosophical view that permeates every element of both companies.

It’s not about the press releases or the credentials deck … it’s about their standards … their expectations … their beliefs.

They actively encourage trying new things … exploring new approaches … not going for the lowest-common-denominator or the category convention … standing up for what they believe in …

In short, it’s about filling their company with interesting and creative people who share their beliefs [even if they express it in radically different ways], rather than simply those who can perform a specific job function at the lowest price.

5. Involvement, Not Observation.

Northern wrote a blog post recently where he said he was convinced the reason older, senior people lose their dynamism and originality is because no one challenges them and they don’t get in enough situations to be told something they don’t know.

Very true.

However one thing I really like about W+K is that while the senior guys are ridiculously talented and smart and experienced … they welcome opinion, debate and challenge. From everyone. Literally everyone.

I remember the first time I met Dan and John and had an ‘out of body experience’ where I saw myself telling, arguably 2 of the most respected ad guys in history a bunch of stuff I think we should be doing.

OK, so Dan said, “you’re fired” … but he listened and that’s more than many would do.

The other thing is they are all deeply involved in what’s going on.

Not in the sense of dictating outcomes or decisions, but being part of the chaos – contributing, listening, exploring.

Sure that doesn’t happen on every single piece of business on every single campaign, but you’d be amazed how knowledgable about what’s going on. Seriously, you just need 2 minutes in the company of Dan or John or Dave etc and you know that they are absolutely bursting with dynamism and originality, even though by the protocol adopted by many agencies, they should be put out to pasture by now.

Why are they like this?

Because they still care. I honestly think it’s that simple.

They still want to learn. They still want to do stuff. They still want to push boundaries.

It’s fantastic and I honestly believe that one of the reasons this is the case is because they seek out people they regard as talented and interesting … people who can push them … their colleagues … their clients … and their agency to a different place.

Not being scared of change or youth or provocation shows people who are very confident with who they are … which for all the ego and posturing that goes on in this industry, is very rare indeed.

Of course you might think this is all bollocks … and maybe it is, however I can tell you from my time at W+K and my relationship with BBH that I see all this time and time again.

Sure it’s not always perfect, sure there have been some bad mistakes – but that aside – the fact they have been at the forefront of mass market commercial creativity means they must be doing something right … something few other companies have been able to pull off over 30 odd years which is why I honestly believe these are things we could all benefit from following or learning – whether we work in a company or want to start our own.

Making money is not hard.

Being the creative industry darling for a moment in time, is not out of the reach for all.

However making money while sticking to your principals and being an acknowledged leader in [effective] creativity for 3 decades is, and that’s why W+K and BBH stand out from the crowd.

While both agencies shun propriety processes in favour of being judged by what they do [rather than what they say they do] … the reality is you can’t ignore how their principals, philosophies and approach have directly contributed and impacted to the work that so many of us [general public, not just adland] hold in the highest esteem.

Saying “it’s all about the work”, might make a nice headline that people can gravitate to, but a great creative legacy starts way before the brief lands on the table.

52 Comments so far
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First to comment on a post? What an honour.
I enjoyed this post. I’ve not worked at either of the agencies, but from what I know about them, it all feels instinctively right. I think you provide a lot of food for thought for the people who talk about doing “shit hot” work or those who use their proprietary tool as a crutch to justify their blandness.
Another interesting post Robert. I much prefer this side and I’m impressed it’s been in such supply on here so far this year.

Comment by George

you know i blame you for campbell writing all this serious type of shit dont you. you might like it. not a single other fucker on the planet does.

Comment by andy@cynic

As much as I hate the ‘proprietary tool’ bollocks that some agencies bandy about, at least they accept that there has to be some sort of approach to doing good work, it’s not simply a case of deciding, “today, I’m going to do some good shit”.

That said, thinking a machine can churn out “creative” is both misguided and irresponsible … that’s why I am such a believer in philosophical approaches that are closely managed, guarded and nurtured, some of which I’ve talked about in this post.

Don’t know how long this “trend” will last, but glad I’ve finally done something to please you, ha!

Comment by Rob

Last comment. Your view that agencies can be judged by “those who are living off their legacy and those who are creating it”, is great. It is also a great way to look at how you are living your life (& how others may be viewing it) from both professional and personal perspectives.

Comment by George

want to know how i think youre living your life?

Comment by andy@cynic

No need, I have a wife and 3 children who give me continuous feedback and evaluation.

Comment by George

i bet they fucking do.

Comment by andy@cynic

It is quite a good benchmark isn’t it … though it’s also important to know which side of that evaluation scale the people who matter in your life think of you.

Especially at payrise time.

Comment by Rob

#3 = BBH labs…

Comment by niko

evil. but fucking nice.

Comment by andy@cynic

Evil? Why?

Comment by Jumbo

fucking corporate bastard toady.

Comment by andy@cynic

you think we cant tell youre hedging your bets in case uncle dan comes to his fucking senses and fires your ass? and therell be no fucking point coming running to me, i wont save you with great fucking ideas so you look good and clever. not afuckingain.

Comment by andy@cynic

it wont work either campbell because youve used the most unflattering fucking photos of bbhwk you could fucking find. thats not planning thats twatering.

Comment by andy@cynic

And Freddie is best mates with Johnny and Nige, they already know all there is to know about Mr BK

Comment by northern

this post also fucking highlights cynic would have made a fuckload more cash if wed called it by our initials, though something tells me bbc might already be fucking taken.

Comment by andy@cynic

id be the first fucking b obviously.

Comment by andy@cynic

First name initials?

Comment by northern

He’d never let me go first.

Comment by Rob

making money is fucking easy when you steal it from your partners fucking pockets. do you understand what im saying campbell?

Comment by andy@cynic

Another keeper, Rob. What I observe of how they both handled arriving at the culture I’m pretty sure it will survive them.

Comment by Ciaran McCabe

It was OK till you used their photos and I saw you were praising a bunch of guys who look like sex tourists.

Comment by Billy Whizz

My previous comment sounds like I’m complimenting this post. That wasn’t intended.

Comment by Billy Whizz

dont ever make a fucking mistake like that again. the last thing you fucking need is planners liking you.

Comment by andy@cynic

but the sex tourist comment was fucking gold in a disrespecting little fucking shit kind of way.

Comment by andy@cynic

Brilliant post with 5 points that really help explain the magic behind the magic.

Didn’t they both open on the same day? Something in the air perhaps.

Comment by Pete

And it’s great professional advice too. Even for people who have no desire to open their own agency. Or even if they do but in a different industry. really good post Rob, another great week of reads.

Comment by Pete

An enjoyable read Robert.

I would say the 5 points you detail in this post also represent some of the ingredients that have contributed to my employers success, as well as the 2 highlighted creative powerhouses.

Comment by Lee Hill

Yes Lee, I think you’re “employer” would fall in to a similar sort of philosophical approach. Funny, you sound like you’re the tea-boy in your comment.

Have you been promoted? Boom Tish.

Comment by Rob

Great read. I can think of other agencies busy creating their legacies but none so impressive that they’ve held it for 3 decades.

BBH is quite impressive as well for the fact that they do indeed have shareholders to report to. Of the most evil publicis kind as well.

Comment by Omar

Hi Omar – you’re right, they do have shareholders and yes, it’s the evil Publicis, but apart from it being [I think] a relatively small share [at least by agency network standards], they had a clause written in their contract that basically [again, I think] ensured that unless they failed to hit their global targets for 3 years in a row … then, and only then, would they have to take orders from the Froggies.


Comment by Rob

Well said. Does BBH deliver on time by the way?
Judging by your empty APSOTW promises I doubt this of WK.

Comment by northern

Hang on … hang on … it’s Gareth’s turn so I’m innocent. Mind you, the poor bugger is packed so if he can’t, I’ll do it and then – when you fail to send your feedback on time – I’ll gloriously take the piss for years on end.


Comment by Rob

I was on time the last time you did it. I actually got up at 6am and furiously typed to make it such.
If I fail this time, you can of course mock me at your leisure.
And then post the results late.

Comment by northern

Touche. Bastard.

Comment by Rob

Oh, and BBH is alledgedly ruthless, wonder how true this is

Comment by northern

Ruthless is in the eye of the recipient … it could also be argued they are hugely protective of their standards.

With that definition, I’d say W+K are just as ruthless. Except in hiring me … which was a distinct – and momentary – lack of taste and judgement.

Comment by Rob

For me #2 is vital. It’s the focus on long term that allows them to do the other things. The mentality of ‘do good work and the money will follow’ that requires bravery and the desire to challenge and push yourselves forward.

Comment by Rob Mortimer

Hi Rob,

It’s been a while. Hope Shanghai’s been treating you well. And hope you remember me.

Regarding this post, I must say I’m someone lucky enough to have worked at both – interestingly, at both their newest offices (until W+K Sao Paolo came along) – and I can tell you with 100% certainty, from personal experience that you’re BANG ON RIGHT! About everything you said, especially the fact that both are very different fundamentally, in some ways for the better and in some other ways, not so.

And yes, the interesting thing about being at both these agencies is that while they’re nearly 30years old, you don’t feel it. The sense of vibrancy and zing is not just felt, it’s visible.

Maybe because I’ve worked at their youngest offices but I was in W+K London too on work trips and never felt the looming of age. The balance between local independence as well as control by the global management through its philosophies is almost an art that both BBH and W+K have perfected.

Yes, both have issues but I’m sure they can be ironed out. If an agency can manage to stay fundamentally unchanged yet be at the forefront of driving change for 30 years, sorting out wrinkles is hardly a worry.

I’m in Mumbai. you must give me a tinker whenever you drop by. And yes, regards to Nick.


Comment by Yousuf Rangoonwala

Hi mate, good to hear from you and thanks for your comments. I do find it interesting that when the press [not ad industry] talk about W+K, they use words like “trendy” and “cutting edge” even though it’s run by a man in his 60’s. That’s possibly the greatest testimony to him, especially as he’s really involved in the business – not some token figurehead.

Of course, if that press ever met me, it would all disappear in an instant, which is possibly why I am located in China.

Anyway, thanks for the comment and hope all is good.

Comment by Rob

so campbell, you got a fucking job to go to this week or has uncle dan come to his senses even after this sychofuckingphantic post?

Comment by andy@cynic

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theyre fucking different now. one of the fuckers has sold out to those french fuckers. the fucking french. another nail in englands fucking coffin.

Comment by andy@cynic

Funny how this was announced after Hegarty had done his speech with Wieden. Would’ve been great to hear their chat if it was after.

Comment by DH

Great post. From what I have heard and read about these companies I believe you are right. These 5 things should be used by more ad agencies.

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