It’s tempting to think that the installation of Neil Munn as the worldwide chief executive of Bartle Bogle Hegarty at the beginning of this month marks the beginning of a new – and, more crucially, the end of an old – era. Filling a role formerly occupied by BBH’s long-serving Gwyn Jones, it also coincides with the completion of the two-year lock-in period for the considerable number of senior staff who held BBH shares in the sale to Publicis Groupe.
With Jones’ departure (among others) and the scaling back of the presence of the totemic founders Sir John Hegarty and Sir Nigel Bogle, industry chatter has turned to whether BBH will ever be the same again. Will some of its abundant magic that makes it such a potent and dominant force in UK and global advertising be diminished as the agency becomes "Publicisized" into a holding company that is notorious for its frustrating and tight financial and management constraints? And what of the famous management stability in its London offices? Will there be more departures as BBH staff are finally able to leave after cashing in their chips, thereby unsettling the shop further?
Munn, a brisk and businesslike (if rather guarded) former BBH client, dismisses speculation that the end of the lock-in has led – or will lead – to a brain drain. "I don’t think it has led to departures – Gwyn has spent 27 years here," he says a little testily. Munn also rejects any suggestion that there is instability by pointing out that, of the UK team, the chairman, Jim Carroll, has been there since 1991, the chief executive, Ben Fennell, since 1994, the managing director, Mel Exon, since 1997 and the executive creative director, Nick Gill, since 1998 (the tenure of the deputy executive creative director, Rosie Arnold, stretches way back to 1983). "There are people who are steeped in our culture," he says. So that answers that. In comparison, Munn is a mere stripling with only nine years’ service under his belt, but his point is that the DNA chain is unbroken.
Rather than pose a threat, he considers the change in ownership to have presented BBH with opportunity. "I feel encouraged with the backing of a network with data-centricity and benefits of scale. It’s up to us to use that." Mentioning the dreaded "D-word" is something that might make Hegarty blanche, but Munn has forged closer relationships with the sister network DigitasLBi as he looks to take BBH to the next stage of its evolution and broaden its capability, which he thinks Publicis Groupe will help accelerate. In this regard, perhaps a fresh pair of eyes (and, as the founder of BBH’s innovation business, Zag, he is clearly no slouch at spotting an opportunity) is no bad thing.
From a London-centric stance, this has already started with the launch of BBH Sport and a joint venture with Simon Hall and Warren Moore’s CRM business, SevenSeconds, which was instrumental in its success in the British Airways pitch. This, Munn says, is part of a strategy of "giving its creativity more teeth" – in other words, finding more platforms and capabilities to work across for its clients. Content production and design are two other areas that he has identified as strategic investment and expansion areas.
The corresponding structural changes at the UK agency at least resulted in a relatively quiet Cannes for BBH – something that Munn acknowledges. But he refutes that it is evidence of the foot coming off the accelerator. Indeed, from a global perspective, Munn believes that BBH has had a good year, with its US business (which had a rocky start) in good health and its Asian outposts enjoying high-double-digit growth as well as great creative acclaim. By investing in new capabilities – just as in London – he aims to strengthen these "citadels" further and is wedded to the idea of the micro-network without any need for more flags in the ground.
So how does Munn sum up his agenda? "First, I want to make sure that the importance of creativity remains pre-eminent. Second, to make sure we capture more value, and my client background will help this. And, finally, to protect the BBH culture while continuing to evolve."
While there’s nothing too revelatory in any of that, others have pointed out that Munn may find his background as the former global brand director on Axe/Lynx a comparable role to the one he now holds (he’d probably be too modest to make the comparison himself).
Through positioning and maintaining Axe as standout and distinctive among Unilever’s array of everyday, humdrum and functional products, so he has also been entrusted with ensuring that the BBH brand remains special and interesting and unique in not just the homogeneity of Publicis Groupe but also the wider advertising industry.
It’s a neat analogy for the new keeper of the BBH flame: for the vitality of the industry, the importance of him pulling it off is considerable.