Recreating BBDO

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Plano, Texas, is a flat patchwork of malls, construction projects and corporate headquarters. It is far from Manhattan, far from just about everything.

"People don't seem to actually live there," said Charlie Miesmer, senior executive creative director at BBDO Worldwide, New York. "I never saw any houses."

Yet Mr. Miesmer's boss, Ted Sann, BBDO New York's chief creative director and co-CEO, journeyed to this no-man's-land earlier this year to pitch the $300 million J.C. Penney Co. account. He walked away empty-handed. DDB Worldwide, Chicago, grabbed the account.

"All pitches are disappointing when you lose," Mr. Sann said. "In this particular case, we had the right answer for the client. And I still think so."

In late summer, Mr. Sann took another trip to a provincial outpost -- this time Maynard, Mass. -- to court Monster.com's estimated $90 million advertising assignment. The agency pitched its heart out and came close to winning, said Ron Plotkin, marketing director at TMP Worldwide, parent of Monster.com. Once again, though, BBDO walked away without the prize. (Arnold Worldwide, Boston, was the victor.)

HEADING SOUTH

Two weeks ago, the agency tried again, heading south to join a team from BBDO's Atlanta office in a pitch for the $300 million Cingular wireless account.

Mr. Sann brought Mr. Miesmer and other creative groups in the New York office with him. He was able to do so because of a reshuffling; the agency had recently elevated Jimmy Siegel, a 20-year BBDO veteran, to exec VP-executive creative director. That freed Mr. Miesmer to pitch Cingular.

This time, BBDO won. The creative department shuffle obviously paid off, helping spread the workload around the office and freeing other resources and talent to nail down new business.

NEW POINT OF VIEW

"We've never been known as a pitch agency," said Mr. Sann. "Lately, we've changed our point of view and we started pitching more business. The toughest thing about pitching is you have to have people free to work on it. The last thing you want to do is shortchange your existing clients."

The agency that prides itself on its blue-chip client roster, creative prowess and its dogma ("The work. The work. The work") is in a soul-searching phase. The search has led the shop to make adjustments at the very heart of the operation, in the creative department.

"Over the last year, we've reassessed what we've been doing, where we are going and the people we want to bring with us," Executive Creative Director Al Merrin said. "We made some changes and I think we are more poised for the future than we were a year ago."

The changes come none too soon. There are rumblings that the shop is under pressure to perform from parent Omnicom Group and CEO John Wren. Allen Rosenshine, chairman-CEO BBDO Worldwide, has indicated he will retire soon and has been looking for a successor. But that search has taken longer than expected and is said to be fraying nerves at the parent organization.

In addition, BBDO Worldwide was recently put on alert by its largest client, DaimlerChrysler Corp., which plans to consolidate its $1.6 billion account at one agency. The review pits BBDO, which handles Dodge globally, along with media buying and planning in the U.S., against True North Communications' FCB Worldwide, which handles the Chrysler and Jeep brands globally, plus media buying and planning outside North America and Germany.

EFFICIENCIES

The agency that can slash its fees and still provide the same level of creative, media buying and planning will be the winner, according to DaimlerChrysler. Many ad industry observers have taken note that the client has asked the agency to cut costs in creative. Marketers traditionally look for efficiencies on the media side.

Although the Troy, Mich., office of BBDO handles the national and regional Dodge dealer accounts, the overall agency -- thanks to the work of the flagship office in New York -- has a reputation for big budgets in the creative area, cranking out lavish, celebrity-drenched broadcast campaigns for advertisers such as Pepsi-Cola Co., FedEx Corp. and M&M/Mars. These high-profile BBDO minifilms tend to appear in prime TV real-estate slots, especially the Super Bowl.

BBDO, New York, is taking great pains to change that lopsided perception. It's launched a strategic services unit led by Exec VP Karen Olshan, whose mandate is to assist the creative department in focusing on brand messages. It also introduced an integrated marketing department run by Exec VP-Director of Integrated Marketing John B. Osborn, who is beginning to introduce clients to alternative media besides TV, and an interactive agency called @tmosphere led by Susan Pinkwater, president-CEO.

RESTORE GLORY

The critical adjustments in the heart of the agency, the creative department, were made with an eye toward restoring BBDO to its former glory.

Lately, the agency has had a disappointing new-business record. Although it has won numerous creative awards, BBDO has not taken top prizes at the most prestigious events, such as the coveted Gold Lions at Cannes' International Advertising Festival, in recent years. Nor has its recent work generated much buzz (exceptions include the Snickers campaign for M&M/Mars). It has also taken some flak for its unsuccessful attempts to revive Campbell Soup Co.

For many years, Phil Dusenberry was the chief creative officer and all of the accounts in the department were handled by his underlings: Mr. Sann, 54, who joined the agency in 1970; and Mr. Miesmer, 53, who started in 1968. Mr. Sann was elevated to chief creative director in 1993, succeeding Mr. Dusenberry when he moved up the ladder to chairman of the New York office.

PROMOTIONS

Mr. Sann's ascension was accompanied by other promotions that began building the department into the organization it is today. Senior Executive Creative Director Michael Patti, 46, began working at theagency as a copywriter in 1983 and 10 years later he became an executive creative director. He now leads a group that handles FedEx, HBO, Pepsi, Mountain Dew and Texaco.

Al Merrin, 53, came on board in 1977 as a copywriter trainee. In 1993, he ascended to his current post as executive creative director in charge of Frito-Lay, General Electric Co., Gillette Co. and Pepsi One.

Those executives, working under Mr. Sann, were the foundation of a creative department that led the agency to win Advertising Age's Agency of the Year recognition in 1994, as well as the International Advertising Festival's Agency of the Year in 1997. At the end of 1998, the agency won two large pieces of business, Charles Schwab & Co. and Dell Computer Corp.

Since then, however, the momentum has slowed. The agency did win the O'Toole Creative Award last year for the second time in three years. And the Snicker's campaign won a Silver Lion at Cannes last year. But there have been no significant brand agency wins since 1998 in awards or new business.

A GOOD SHAKING UP

Mr. Sann said he realized the shop needed a good shaking up and was determined to break a BBDO tradition of promoting from within in order to get it.

The agency has a long history of rewarding those who go the distance. "Ted, Charlie, Jimmy and myself -- this is the only place we've ever worked," Mr. Merrin said.

That group, including Mr. Sann, has worked at the agency for a cumulative century. Knowing new blood was needed, Mr. Sann reached outside to rehire Gerry Graf, a creative director who spent three years at BBDO and left in 1997 for Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, San Francisco. Mr. Graf, 34, was the copywriter on Snicker's "Not going anywhere for a while?" campaign. Although he had not spent as many years at BBDO as the other executives, Mr. Graf was named executive creative director.

Following Mr. Graf's appointment, Mr. Siegel was also elevated. He is well-known for penning the famous Visa USA ad featuring Bob Dole and, more recently, the Anna Kournikova spot for Schwab featuring the line uttered by another participant, "Some of the other players are kind of jealous of, uh, you know, her portfolio."

The department also recently hired a senior creative director, Mike Fromowitz, who came from TBWA Asia Pacific, where he was a regional creative director.

`HANDS-ON PLACE'

"What has happened here is that we've always been a hands-on place," Mr. Sann said. "We've been getting bigger and bigger and you don't want to lose the ability to be hands-on with important, high-profile brands. We thought we needed to expand our capabilities and we got a lot of terrific people."

BBDO also broke down walls that had been built internally.

"BBDO used to be sharply divided," said Mr. Miesmer, whose group now handles Dell, Pizza Hut and Snickers. "We started out with two groups, mine and Ted's. Then it became three groups: mine, Michael Patti's and Al Merrin's. And those groups took a kind of perverse pride in not getting any help from one another. And I think that Ted [Sann] agreed that was non-productive."

Mr. Miesmer said he believes the new structure will foster cooperation between the creative groups.

"It is a good idea to break it up into smaller units, and I personally love not having the crushing amount of work that I had. When Ted and I were sharing the place there were too many accounts between us. It was brutal. Your life was ruined. It's better now . . . better for clients."

Although the changes at the agency appear minor from the outside, to some observers, including former employees, the very fact that Mr. Sann is starting a reform movement within the "boys club" is big news.

ADDRESS A WEAKNESS

"It's a very good sign that Ted is looking at where he's got a weakness and trying to address it," said an executive at another agency who requested anonymity. "A couple of years ago, there would have been more of an impulse to say, `We don't have a problem' or `Who gives a shit.' "

Mr. Merrin even predicted something that would have been considered impossible two years ago -- a woman may one day become a BBDO executive creative director. "There are more and more women coming in here to work," he said.

Meanwhile, Mr. Graf is enjoying his position as the youngest creative executive in a hardboiled Madison Avenue shop.

`A LOT OF FUN'

"I'm having a lot of fun, kicking back with my partner, which I couldn't do here before when I was just a creative," he said. Mr. Graf's partner is copywriter Harold Einstein, another former Goodby creative who went free-lance several months ago. Mr. Graf said Mr. Einstein doesn't plan to join BBDO full-time, another indication of the loosening atmosphere at the shop.

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