Unilever christens BBH a 'partner'

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For years Bartle Bogle Hegarty was just one of the creative shops that Unilever occasionally favored with local assignments. Now, with a burst of brand moves in four different product categories last month, Unilever said it is making BBH a "key strategic partner."

In December 2003, BBH won Unilever's $14 million Surf laundry detergent account across Europe from Interpublic Group of Cos.' Lowe Worldwide, then snatched the $35 million Birds Eye frozen-food business in the U.K. from Interpublic's McCann-Erickson, London. In Asia, BBH picked up unassigned Close Up toothpaste in several countries and a snack-foods company called Taro that Unilever bought in Indonesia.

Unilever is now BBH's biggest client, even though BBH has offices in only five countries. And the London-based shop poses a growing threat to the global agencies on Unilever's roster-Interpublic's Lowe and McCann-Erickson Worldwide, and WPP Group's J. Walter Thompson Co. and Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide.

Michael Brockbank, Unilever's VP-brand communication, does not see BBH's scant five offices-in London, New York, Singapore, Tokyo and Sao Paulo-as a barrier to their new global strategic partnership.

model for the future?

"Even our biggest networks may only create ideas in two or three centers around the world," he said. "For the last two years, Unilever has worked with a system of global brand managers, handling brand development work at global and regional levels."

In those two years, BBH added its Tokyo and Sao Paulo offices, and handled the major U.S. launch of Unilever's Axe male toiletries brand.

"Three or four years ago we were not a credible global option," said Simon Sherwood, BBH's worldwide chief operating officer. "Some at Unilever now think our model is the future."

Unilever is dismissive about the conflict created by Publicis Groupe's 49% stake in BBH. Publicis owns Procter & Gamble Co. networks Saatchi & Saatchi and Leo Burnett Worldwide. "It is not an issue for us or for Unilever," Mr. Sherwood said. A Unilever executive agreed it "doesn't matter."

Perhaps BBH's greatest success so far is Axe (called Lynx in the U.K.). BBH, New York, creates U.S. work, while London handles South America, Europe, South Africa and Australia, and Singapore handles the Philippines and Thailand. Mr. Sherwood said, "The `Axe effect,' which is built around seduction, works everywhere and can be adapted locally."

Some practical limits do exist within BBH's Unilever relationship. "There are still some brands that need to remain localized," Mr. Brockbank said. Knorr seasoning products, for instance, vary by market, as do cooking needs, he said.

"A few brands moving around is not a seismic shift," Mr. Sherwood said. "We are only scratching the surface. We want more Unilever business."

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