The year was 1982. Nigel Bogle, John Bartle and John Hegarty, three of the UK’s best advertising men, had just quit their jobs to start up their own creative advertising agency, Bartle Bogle Hegarty (BBH).
When they started, they had no office, no clients, and no legally constituted limited company. Their only business asset was a battered fake-leather suitcase. A little over a year later, BBH was an award-winning business with a seven-figure turnover and globally-recognised clients.
So how did they do it?
The BBH Team in 1981
Before founding BBH, Bogle, Bartle and Hegarty had worked together as directors of another agency called TBWA London. They worked hard and delivered great work at TBWA, but the global ownership structure of the business went against them. TBWA London was part of a global group of agencies, headquartered in Paris. At the time, eighty per cent of TBWA London’s hard-earned profits were funneled back to France to support sister offices in cities like Frankfurt and Milan. At TBWA London, Bartle Bogle and Hegarty were leading a team of one hundred and fifty people and delivering award-winning work, but the ownership structure meant that they weren’t seeing the fruits of their labour.
It wasn’t good enough, so in February 1982, the three men walked out of TBWA London, turning their backs on everything they had built. Starting from scratch, with literally everything on the line, the three men were determined to do something different.
No Creative Pitches
At the time, if an advertising agency wanted to get a global brand onto their client list, they needed very deep pockets. Clients expected to see finished work as part of the agency’s sales pitch, so creative teams would spend weeks writing slogans, designing billboards and sometimes even producing full thirty-second commercials just for the chance to present to clients like Audi and Levi Strauss. The whole creative pitching process was painfully expensive, time-consuming and competitive, but in 1982 it was the only way business was done.
BBH needed to avoid this trap. It was too easy, as a new agency, to overspend on creative proposals and go bankrupt before a single client had signed on the dotted line. It was also no different to what every new agency was doing … and BBH was planning to be different. In response, Nigel Bogle came up with an idea: No Creative Pitches. No slogans, no billboards, no fully-finished campaigns. Bartle, Bogle and Hegarty would not — under any circumstances — present so much as a mood board to a client until they had signed a contract.
Getting people talking
Almost everyone in the advertising industry said the strategy was bonkers. By rights, Bartle Bogle Hegarty should have been trying twice as hard as established agencies to win every pitch meeting they could. BBH had no clients or cash flow — the three directors needed to win pitches like they needed air to breathe. What’s more, they had oodles of creative talent in the form of John Hegarty. Creative work was — without a doubt — their greatest strength as an upstart agency. Yet here they were refusing, point blank, to deliver creative pitches.
The strategy got people talking and won a lot of attention. Trade journalists wrote articles debating the merits of showing creative work in presentations. Within weeks, everyone in the industry knew who the BBH team were … and that they had a different way of doing business.
No Creative Pitches wasn’t a completely original idea; other advertising agencies had attempted similar strategies in the past. In the late 1950s, New York agency Doyle Dane Bernbach (the people behind the famous ‘Lemon’ VW ads), refused to prepare any artwork until they understood the client’s business. Ogilvy, Benson & Mather took a similar approach, preferring to start every new campaign with a thorough research period. But in London in the early eighties, the idea of No Creative Pitches was completely unheard of.
A Carefully Planned PR Strategy
Back in the 1980s, whenever a new advertising agency was formed, the agency would normally submit a press release to industry publications like Campaign magazine. These short PR reports would be read by almost every advertising manager and media planner in the UK, which made them worth writing. The problem was that — all too often — the new agency would be forgotten about when the next week’s issue of Campaign landed on their desk.
The No Creative Pitches promise was certainly a bold statement worthy of a press release, but the BBH team knew that their PR efforts would amount to no more than a flash in the pan if they didn’t manage the announcement correctly. With so much on the line, BBH couldn’t afford to be forgotten. They had to establish themselves as a truly special top-tier agency with teeth, and to do that, they needed press coverage that could run for weeks on end.
So BBH went straight to the source. The three directors approached the editor of Campaign and agreed on a schedule of exclusive announcements that would run weekly. The first press release would announce their exit from TBWA London, then the following week another release would unveil their plans to start a new agency. Their ‘No Creative Pitches’ policy would be announced the week after that.
Stretching out the PR campaign over weeks and weeks effectively tripled or quadrupled BBH’s exposure. The agency took the ‘industry norm’ of trade press announcements and approached it from a slightly different angle. It was a mode of working that would come to define BBH’s style in the years that followed.
Slogans that stuck
The ‘No Creative Pitches’ approach led to three incredible clients in the first year: Audi, Whitbread and Levi Strauss. In every case, BBH sat down and listened carefully to the client’s needs before delivering their work, and the creative results were breathtaking. For Levi Strauss, they sold black denim jeans with a picture of a lone black sheep facing the wrong way in a flock of white sheep (complete with the slogan ‘When the world zigs, zag’). For Audi, they came up with the immortal slogan ‘Vorsprung Durch Technik’, a phrase that’s still in use almost four decades later.
With a knack for producing strong, stylish advertising that tapped into the zeitgeist, BBH’s unorthodox approach won sales for their clients and awards for the agency. What’s more, by June 1983, BBH’s first profit & loss report showed a turnover of £1,603,162 — a breathtaking amount of money today, never mind the early 1980s.
Different … but not too different
BBH stepped away from the normal ‘done thing’ of the industry every chance they got, but they never strayed too far from the path. The No Creative Pitches promise didn’t mean no pitch meetings – it just meant that they would focus on strategy when they sat down with prospective clients. BBH were still pitching for new business, but they were pitching with strategy rather than artwork.
The same applied to their track record as a ‘new business’. The limited company was new, but the directors were seasoned professionals at the top of their industry. BBH had the contacts and creative talent needed to deliver an exceptional advertising service before it had a phone line, and that mattered. BBH clients were going to get the experience of an established agency, combined with the freshness and energy of a new startup.
What’s more, everything that BBH did came from a place of authenticity. The No Creative Pitches approach wasn’t a marketing gimmick; it was an approach that BBH believed would lead to better creative work. They believed that, by discussing a client’s business and strategy first, the creative work that was subsequently produced would be much better. They believed that — as long as prospective clients could step out of a BBH meeting knowing what the agency wanted to do to move their marketing forward — they could win clients on the basis of strategy discussions alone. Within 12 months, BBH’s instincts had been proved correct.
Learn more about Bartle Bogle Hegarty
In 2007, John Hegarty became Sir John Hegarty in recognition of his services to the advertising and creative industries. In 2011, he wrote a book called Hegarty on Advertising. Part memoir, part industry commentary, the book is an excellent first-hand account of the formation of Bartle Bogle Hegarty — it’s also a vivid and entertaining review of the British advertising industry over the past three decades.