After Cadillac Curse, BBH Looks for a Reset

Losing the Biggest Account It Ever Won Set Off Series of Turbulent Months Filled With Executive Departures

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- When Bartle Bogle Hegarty's contract with General Motors for Cadillac expired Oct. 1, you could almost hear a collective sigh or relief. The account -- which initially seemed the biggest boon in the history of BBH's U.S. office and turned into something of a curse -- is gone.

Ironic, since it was the very thing that seemed to validate the British import. It had finally, after a dozen years on U.S. soil, earned the respect of a large, iconic American brand.

It was late 2009 and Emma Cookson, then-CEO of BBH, New York, had called an all-hands meeting to brief the 140 or so staffers how it was going to restructure to be more nimble. She was so sure the shop had knocked its recent Cadillac pitch out of the park that she viewed this reorganization as a precursor to handling the complex $270 million client.

At one point, Ms. Cookson said "If we win Cadillac," then stopped in her tracks and stressed, "when we win Cadillac..."

She was right to be so sure: In January, BBH learned it had beaten the likes of indie McKinney; Publicis Groupe's Publicis, New York; and Interpublic Group of Cos.' shops Martin Agency and Gotham for GM's Cadillac business.

But it lasted a mere six months before BBH was fired in June in favor of Publicis' Fallon, Minneapolis, by GM's new CMO, Joel Ewanick.

As BBH, New York, CEO Greg Andersen puts it, "We won the premier pitch of 2010 in Cadillac, only to lose it as a result of mind-boggling client turnover and direction changes."

To be sure, the office has had its ups and downs, but Cadillac marked an unprecedented period of turbulence that's had the industry wondering: will the U.S. outpost of the famed British micronetwork ever find solid footing on this side of the Atlantic?

It was enough to prompt Ms. Cookson, who after the Cadillac win stepped down as CEO to run the car maker's account, to take a two-month sabbatical in Europe. And it was the point in time after which several other top leaders in the office (much like that Johnnie Walker spot) took a long walk.

"I don't know if Cadillac was the last straw, or the only straw," said one search consultant. "Oftentimes at agencies ... once someone leaves, people start to pour out."

July saw the exit of chairman and industry veteran Steve Harty, who was charged with growing BBH in the U.S. by creating new offerings and examining potential acquisitions. In August, Ben Malbon, one of the founders of BBH Labs, announced he was going to Google. Last week came the most surprising departure of all, that of Chief Creative Officer Kevin Roddy, a move that BBH principal John Hegarty publicly chalked up to a disagreement "over the creative direction of the office." Mr. Roddy didn't return calls for comment.

That the shop has so far this year come up short in pitches -- it was just cut from the Prudential review -- is a thorn in BBH worldwide CEO Simon Sherwood's side. "We're not winning as much as we need to, but we're getting into the pitches," Mr. Sherwood told Ad Age. "We've come second a couple of times, which is frustrating, and we're trying to figure out why that is the case. Confidence is a part of this. It's like being a part of a sports team; you get used to winning pitches, and then you do."

For his part, Mr. Andersen is pretty defensive about the perception that BBH is wobbly.

"While it might look like a company going through a difficult time, the reality is we are making changes to our business that set us up for the future," he said. "We're not waiting for the industry as a whole to figure it out before we make our move.

Added Mr. Sherwood: "We're now through that turbulent period. What happened [last] week is the end of it."

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