You could say Matthew Bull is taking the U.S. ad market by the horns.
After a 15-year career at Interpublic Group of Cos.' Lowe Worldwide that had him oversee his own agency in South Africa and the network's all-important London office, Mr. Bull, a newcomer to the States, is hanging his own shingle in New York with the backing of MDC Partners.
Toronto-based MDC is taking a majority stake -- 51% -- in the agency, dubbed The Bull-White House. It opens its doors with two clients: beer company AB-InBev Labatt and Syncapse, a social-media consultant with offices in the U.S., Canada and London.
After wrapping things up at Lowe last month, Mr. Bull met with Ad Age to share his plans for the shop, for which he has recruited two partners. They are Andrew Whitehouse, who will leave behind the Cape Town-based agency FoxP2 to lead The Bull-White House creatively, and Lee Davis, who spent a decade at Wieden & Kennedy in Portland, and more recently, led new business at JWT, New York.
"My focus for many years now has been a CEO or running an agency and I know that I need someone who is genuinely focused on the work," said Mr. Bull. "When [Andrew] was working for me in South Africa, he was never afraid to tell me what he thought and if you are going to get any better in life, you have to have a partner who's not afraid to tell you what's wrong."
In contrast, Mr. Davis is a new acquaintance for Mr. Bull; they met via a recruiter. His hire stemmed from the fact that Messrs. Bull and Whitehouse were eager to bring on a third partner who's more entrenched in the U.S. market than they are, and has worked with American brands.
The biggest challenge will be differentiation. Post-recession, there's been no shortage of indie startup agencies, and for marketers it's only becoming harder to distinguish what's really unique about a shop -- especially since so many today have overlapping capabilities.
Asked what will set The Bull-White House apart, Mr. Bull replied: "We're not going to come up with any fancy-schmancy way to describe what we do. We just don't want to be boring, really. We want our work to be fresh and inspiring. And every time we don't achieve that we will be miserable bastards."
Mr. Bull is one of a wave of creatives who've gained notoriety and grown rich off of large agency networks, but, when it comes time for their second act, they opt for something more entrepreneurial. Several have reached out to holding companies for funding. Roger Camp and Jamie King turned to French holding company Havas to launch their shop Camp & King, while Jan Jacobs and Leo Premutico's agency, Johannes Leonardo, has the backing of WPP.
Launched over a Cocktail
The Bull-White House venture, and MDC's investment in it, began -- as so many things in the ad business do -- over a cocktail.
"We just met for a drink because someone told me Matthew Bull has moved to New York and is a cool guy," said Chuck Porter, CPB chairman and MDC Partners' chief strategist. "I knew of him and his work and was already really impressed by it."
For Mr. Bull it was his only meeting; he didn't spend time talking to a host of potential suitors. Asked if he ever approached Interpublic with the possibility of funding his venture, he said "definitely not," adding: "We could have approached a bank like WPP or Omnicom but instead we wanted to go to a place with like-minded-people. …I wanted to have my own agency again. I didn't want to be a part of a big conglomerate, it didn't suit me."
For MDC, which typically gobbles up agencies several years after they've launched, this move marks a rare launch of a new agency under its umbrella. It also gives the holding company some entry into Mr. Bull's native South Africa, both to service clients down the road and to mine talent.
In the near term, The Bull-White House is operating out of a temporary space in Manhattan's West Village before it moves to a permanent office in the Flatiron district. It has a staff of six and doesn't plan on growing too large, perhaps somewhere between 50 and 200.
And according to Managing Partner Mr. Davis, the agency plans on doing more project work than having agency-of-record relationships. "That's the way the world is going ... clients are seeking more variety, more options, rather than long-term relationships where things get staid."