As ad world 'Americanized,' Bungey became hamstrung

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Michael Bungey has long been among the most enigmatic of the major advertising holding company big cheeses-"enigmatic" in its original sense (puzzling) rather than in its corrupted, contemporary usage (intriguing).

Bungey announced last week he will step down as CEO of beleaguered Cordiant Communications Group, parent of the once venerable Bates agency network. Given Cordiant's struggles, his forthcoming "retirement" was greeted with a shrug. But his story is a parable for the modern global advertising business.

In another era, Bungey would be regarded, in the vernacular of his native London, as a boy who "done well." A truck driver's son, he worked his way up through a free education system, graduating from the London School of Economics, and got his first taste of marketing at Nestle. He later established Michael Bungey & Partners, specializing in medical advertising. It was not an unqualified success.

After becoming part of the Saatchi's empire in 1988, Bungey was made chairman-CEO of Bates Dorland and then Bates Europe. He became CEO of Bates Worldwide in 1994, and, in turn, CEO of Cordiant in 1997 upon its split with the old Saatchi & Saatchi. At each step there were, it must be said, some in London who asked, incredulously, "What's his secret?" It's a question for which there are two different, but equally valid, responses.

The first: He was good at being an agency chief. He turned lumbering Dorland into one of the U.K.'s better large agencies-despite it being part of the Backer Spielvogel Bates network, a poor relation of the Saatchi empire at a time when Saatchi & Saatchi swept all before it. The second: He cared about the agency Ted Bates built when not many did.

Of course, Bates never truly recovered from the client defections that followed its acquisition (and the enrichment of then Bates chief and controlling stockholder Bob Jacoby). Bungey picked up the pieces, and did a creditable job until he, too, found himself CEO of a public company.

From that day, his competitors were not D'Arcy and Burnett, but Omnicom and WPP. He entered the era Sir Martin Sorrell defines as the Americanization of business-with the massive handicap of a significant weakening in his dominant American business.

In the end, Bates wasn't special enough globally. This was Bungey's Achilles heel. Bates/Cordiant could have done better if it had achieved the right merger. But Bungey believed he could be hunter, not prey. Recent client losses, most notably Hyundai Motor America and Wendy's International, meant Cordiant was not even deemed satisfying prey. Hence, the decline in share price, and the inevitable personal consequence.

In another era, Bungey would still be running a thriving, middle-ranking privately held global ad agency network. But now is not then. In a world of publicly held ad agencies, it is no longer enough to succeed by your own standards, answering to your clients. Today you must do better than your competitors, and answer to that even more enigmatic bunch: shareholders.

Stefano Hatfield is editorial director of Creativity, AdAgeGlobal.com and AdCritic.com.

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