I’m pretty sure I can remember the first time I saw Ben Fennell. It was Fresher’s Week September 1991 and he was stood on a table thumping the ceiling of the college bar and chanting rugby songs. Well, that’s how I remember it anyway.
In truth, that’s possibly not what happened but it helps illustrate the sort of person he is (was). Fennell was very much part of the Durham rugby set – as a mere 5 feet 8 inch weakling I was not – and our encounters were fleeting. However his presence at BBH, which he joined as a graduate trainee in 1994, has been rather more enduring, even if his modus operandi has at times changed just a little.
Fennell’s departure from BBH, announced last week, was both a complete surprise, and not a surprise at all. It’s rare these days for an employee to spend the bulk of their working life at one company, particularly in advertising – so Fennell is exceptional for that. After being posted abroad, where his reputation for partying was further strengthened, he returned to London and became chief executive in 2008 – a role that he’s had ever since.
While other former BBH shareholders drifted off following the completion of its sale to Publicis Groupe in 2012, he remained a symbol of continuity and consistency – the epitome of BBH’s inherent desire to win. Who can really imagine a BBH without him, thumping the palm of his hand (it’s not the ceilings of bars these days) to emphasise his point, motivating his team with sporting metaphors, leading from the front, and forcing people around him in bars to play him in the coin game ‘for fun’?
His continued presence is all the more surprising given that he cashed out on his remaining shares in the agency nearly six years ago so there was no real incentive to stay on – it seemed that he was doing it for fun; because he loved creative people (something he wrote about last year) and he loved BBH.
The path of love rarely runs smooth and Fennell has understandably overseen ups and downs in his decade in charge – there have been periods when it has sunk into depths that no one who respects and values what BBH stands for enjoyed seeing, before he drew on his reserves of energy and vision to put it right.
Insiders say that he was ready to quit a couple of years ago but the need to put BBH back on the right track after another blip prolonged his stay. With the agency only relatively recently re-emerging from one of these nadirs Fennell has decided it’s time to go and move on to a new career in growth development, and on a bigger stage.
In the space of just a few months two of the big beasts – in their own different ways – have moved on: Sorrell and now Fennell (it’s almost as if the thymes they are a changing). Much like the ceiling in the college bar that may or may not have been down to Fennell, BBH won’t be the same again.
Jeremy Lee is contributing editor at Campaign