BBDO's retooling pays off with business bonanza

By Published on .

Most Popular
You can forgive David Lubars-complexion pale, tuft of hair a bit wild, conversation ADD-addled-for being scattered.

It has, after all, been a busy year, one in which he's helped BBDO rack up more than $1 billion in new billings while trying to make the Pepsi Generation's ad agency into something that matters to Generation Y. Just talking with him about his craft is a scramble from inscrutable business metaphor ("We need to be chefs, not waiters") to unanswerable questions ("Can we be a gigantic global boutique?"). There are also less expected turns, such as an impromptu demo of a keyboard shortcut on his Mac followed by a touching anecdote about a deceased colleague.

And, then, amid the digressions, false starts, self-defenses and groping for a way to explain the extraordinary success of his agency this year comes maybe the most honest statement made in the ad business in a long time: "I can't really say what I do all day, but I know I get home at 10:00 every night and I'm really tired."

Since the digitally savvy creative director joined in 2004, BBDO has been on a mission to take a giant, old-line ad agency known for making big, cinematic, celebrity-stuffed TV spots and repurpose it for a time when the boob tube no longer dominates. There have been some high-profile firings and hirings, a lot of high-flying rhetoric, and even some client work that suggests BBDO might actually be able to shed the perennial dis that it's too TV-centric.

Corporate America has responded favorably.

Last year, Bank of America, Lowe's, Mitsubishi Motors North America, Motorola, eBay and E-Trade were among the major marketers that parked their accounts at the Omnicom Group-owned network, leading to growth of about 15% to 20% for BBDO in the U.S.

"It's not a flavor of the week," says Marc Lefar, Cingular chief marketing officer. "They're very good, intuitively, at finding a single insight and making it really big."

Beyond filling Omnicom's coffers, BBDO's success demonstrates that big agencies still matter in a year when upstarts gnawed into the dominance of Madison Avenue's giants and a rapidly changing media landscape called into question the worth of the 30-second spot.

The Robertson agenda

Just about everyone-from marketing partners like Pepsi and Cingular, to insiders, to rival agency executives-attributes that to the vision of Andrew Robertson, a smooth-talking industry wunderkind who ascended to the worldwide CEO role in 2004 with a clear agenda. His first major move was to replace a famous creative in Ted Sann with Mr. Lubars. In the first full year of that partnership, both worked with longtime players like New York President-CEO John Osborn to overhaul a famously insular environment that has been described by some as a "fear-based culture."

There were setbacks. The biggest was the defection of Visa USA, a client for 10 years, to sibling shop TBWA/Chiat/Day, Playa del Rey, Calif. There was the adverse reaction a major client had to the Robertson/Lubars revolution. The sacking of Mr. Sann shook up Pepsi, leading the major BBDO and Omnicom client to call the move "shocking" in The New York Times. Months later, it threw its Diet Pepsi account into review, moving it to sibling shop DDB in what some insiders saw as a move that had personal undertones.

Dawn Hudson, president-CEO of Pepsi-Cola North America, said there were no regrets about the agency switch, but she praised improvements Messrs. Robertson and Lubars are making.

"They didn't throw out the old and bring in the new," Ms. Hudson said in a recent interview. "They tried to protect that what makes BBDO strong and add to it more integrated work and more unusual kinds of marketing that's becoming the future of marketing."

To say the agency merely recovered from the Diet Pepsi debacle would be an understatement. Over the following months, it went on a new-business binge that even longtime industry observers have trouble finding a precedent to match. By the end of the year, Mr. Robertson, in a potential sign of accounts to come, was even getting public shout-outs from Procter & Gamble Co. Chief Marketing Officer Jim Stengel, after the agency was added to the P&G roster following its acquisition of BBDO client Gillette Co.

BBDO, which brought in Fallon and Lowe vet Mark Goldstein to lead its new-business efforts, won in a lot of different ways. It shared in the Omnicom win of Bank of America, a $600 million review that was the biggest of the year; it turned project work for E-Trade into an agency of record relationship. To clinch Mitsubishi, it bested a field of tough rivals.

Team pitch for Lowe's

To bring in the Lowe's business, the BBDO pitch team collaborated with events, multicultural and sports-marketing specialist agencies to come up with the insights that won the day. "They got the rational and emotional qualities of the brand rather quickly," says Pete Woods, VP-advertising at Lowe's. "And they brought a holistic team to the table that wasn't defined by the bricks and mortar of BBDO."

Being able to play well with others is increasingly important in today's media landscape where consumers have to be reached on cellphones, PDAs and any number of other digital channels, as well as traditional media. That's why marketers talk so much about ideas that can cross media, and why it's so tough for any one agency to be fluent in all those media languages.

"What we like more and more is their brainpower and how they're attacking things strategically," says Steve Pacheco, director-advertising for FedEx Corp., a client since 1989. "They're partnering more often with smart people, especially in the new-media space, when in the old days they would have stayed within the confines of BBDO. It's become a much more open and flexible shop."

That versatility came after uprooting layers of executive bureaucracy and flattening reporting structures for both account teams and creative departments. It's a stab at that idea of the global boutique, a perhaps unattainable agency model that is streamlined and accountable but still has a deep enough bench to reconfigure to meet the demands of prospective accounts. "We've really tried to strip out bureaucracy," says Mr. Osborn. "I like to say we're proud of being a big agency, and we bring all those resources. For instance, every team we put together to pursue a piece of business this year was a different, customized team. But we try to organize like a small agency."

As BBDO moves forward an obvious challenge will be trying to encroach on the turf that smaller, creative agencies have dominated: generating a big, infectious ad idea that wins Cannes Lions and brings in the real coin of the marketing realm: buzz. What's missing is its "Subservient Chicken," the Crispin Porter & Bogusky Web stunt for Burger King, or "Grrr," the Wieden & Kennedy idea for Honda U.K. that dominated awards shows last year-what Mr. Robertson describes as "ceiling-shattering pieces of work."

In 2005, Mr. Lubars and company made marginal improvements, especially in its print and outdoor work for HBO and Pepsi's Aquafina and Mountain Dew. A campaign for eBay showed off more integrated thinking. Strong Internet work from interactive Atmosphere BBDO also supplemented big, effective TV blasts for Cingular.

Trying to one-up its own business performance, however, will be another story entirely. While advancing on P&G's roster will be the No. 1 mission, Mr. Goldstein, exec VP-chief marketing officer of BBDO North America, estimates there are 75 or so categories that BBDO could still handle, chief among them fashion and apparel.

Recent agency of the Year Winners:

2004: Crispin Porter & Bogusky

2003: Berlin Cameron/Red Cell

2002: Deutsch

2001: Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide