Earlier this month, McGarryBowen Founder and Chairman Gordon Bowen took on the dual role of chief creative officer for Dentsu Aegis Network, a move that coincides with the agency’s 10-year anniversary as part of the holding company.
McGarryBowen opened its doors in 2002, which employee number eight Jen Zimmerman, global and U.S. chief strategy officer, refers to as an "audacious act."
"The smoke was still rising from the World Trade Center and it was the worst recession until the Great Recession," she told Campaign US. "Everyone was saying advertising was dead in favor of a weird thing called ‘digital.’ And there were only two flavors in the market: big holding companies and the young tattoos with heat and energy but not a lot of sophistication. Into this environment came Gordon and John McGarry – the gentlemen rebels."
The duo had a lot of respect for and experience with big iconic brands and a focus on ethos and culture, she said, including for McGarryBowen’s launch client, Verizon.
"At that time, McGarryBowen was taking a risk on us. A lot of people were saying, ‘Dents-who?’" said Tim Andree, Dentsu Aegis’ executive chairman and CEO.
McGarryBowen was Andree’s first acquisition at the holding company in 2009.
"Every holding group was talking to them. I was very fortunate they chose us," he said. Shortly after McGarryBowen joined the Dentsu family, 360i came onboard too.
But like all agencies, McGarryBowen has had its tumultuous time. In 2015, the shop lost two of its biggest clients, JPMorgan Chase and Verizon Retail, and both Chicago and New York office CEOs left the agency.
"It’s a little bit of a ‘Rocky’ story in that we were on such a trajectory where we never lost – I was even told that agencies wouldn’t pitch against us – but then we had blows in 2015," said Bowen. "It forced us to double down on who we are, what our story is and how we are going to get our mojo back."
One of the problems, he said, was that McGarryBowen grew too quickly, which is why after the shop won American Express in 2017 it "put everything on hold."
"I said, ‘We are going to concentrate on Amex and onboard this account properly. They’ve invested a lot and we’re going to deliver,’" said Bowen.
So far, McGarryBowen has been delivering. Last year, the agency launched the first global platform for Amex in its 168-year history.
The momentum didn’t stop there. McGarryBowen added 11 new clients in 2018 and grew by 20 percent. And as for its creative work, the shop helped iconic brands take things to a new level, including releasing a hit single for Kool-Aid; creating – and selling out - the Planters’ IPA nut craft beer; making pigs fly with the Oscar Meyer Super Hotdogger; and giving artists a big canvas with the American Express global billboards campaign.
McGarryBowen also turned inward, rolling out a four-month parental leave program and ensuring that women make up more than 40 percent of its leadership.
Through all of the ups and downs, Zimmerman said Dentsu never lost faith or tried to take a hand in operating the agency.
"The ethos of the agency is unchanged," she said. "We’re more ‘gentlemen rebel’ now than before we joined."
Zimmerman added that Dentsu’s aim has always been to scale and galvanize McGarryBowen and all of its sibling agencies, like 360i and iProspect, rather than change them. "They take what’s great about each agency and find ways to combine it and collaborate and make everything more uniformed," she said.
Enhancing its coordination with sibling agencies is on the agenda for the shop, said Bowen, adding that he has a great deal of respect for his counterparts that represent different disciplines. Every year, he said, Andree brings together all of the Dentsu Aegis Network agencies at a global conference to figure out how to better amplify each other’s offerings.
"I know a lot of people in the industry that have sold to holding companies and they hate it. Ten years later, and I have nothing but good things to say about our Dentsu partnership," said Bowen. "They are respectful, supportive, believing – and not just believing- they put their money where their mouth is."
What’s next for this burgeoning agency? Bowen said he wants to focus on globalization and increasing the agency’s coordination
Andree added that he wants McGarryBowen to continue to expand into new creative areas and develop new strengths, which is what its Swirl acquisition in 2017 did in the digital, technology and social space. "They’re going to be much more tech-enabled and data-informed at the heart of what they deliver," he said.
Over the last 10 years, though, Andree said what defines McGarryBowen – and what the agency will keep pushing – is its sense of "family," specifically in acronym form: "Forget About Me, I Love You."
"I’ve never seen an organization as client-devoted as McGarryBowen other than the parent company I sit at," he said. "That is a binding belief, and they really make it a family."