The ad agency that turned into a fast-food business

What happens when you encourage creatives to develop business ideas? Ian Burrell finds out
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The Independent Online

As the economic downturn bites, a new stylish portable device that, when activated, emits a deafening shriek followed by a human voice yelling “Help me!” may find a market among executives across the hard-pressed media sector.

But, strangely enough, the Ila personal alarm, a fashionable chrome accessory that would clip neatly onto a handbag, has been developed by one of Britain’s biggest advertising agencies as part of a remarkable adventure into the world of the client. Bartle Bogle Hegarty, through its spin-off company Zag, has set up the company Ila Ltd as a joint venture with the security firm Locca. The personal alarms will go on sale in Marks & Spencer from later this month. This is not a gimmick. BBH anticipates that Ila will be making £25m a year in retail sales within three years.

Even more weirdly, the ad agency is behind the launch of a new food range that has gone on sale in 800 Tesco stores in recent weeks, offering such delights as “Shepherd’s Pie (Without the Sheep)”, “Vegalicious Masala” and “Nutballs with Nuts (and Herbs)”. Zag founder Nigel Bogle, the BBH chief executive, predicts this “Pick Me” vegetarian meal range will be a £10m retail sales business within a year.

The thinking is this: smart advertising guys know how to develop a brand, while their partners can take care of the production and distribution side. Bogle has wanted to do something

such as this since his early days at the Leo Burnett agency when working on the Cadbury account. When a seven-year-old boy told a Leo Burnett research project that he’d like to eat some shoe-laces made up of chocolate and toffee and all tangled up, the agency came up with the Curly Wurly, a product that became a Cadbury staple. “It occurred to me that Cadbury was getting a fantastic service from Leo Burnett that was outside the normal scope of advertising,” says Bogle.

So Zag was set up two years ago, headed up by Neil Munn, who had 17 years at marketing powerhouse Unilever (a BBH client) and was global brand director of the men’s deodorant Lynx. The name Zag comes from BBH’s first campaign, for Levi’s new range of black jeans in 1982: “When the world zigs, zag.”

One of Zag’s advantages is it allows staff to develop their understanding of business and not live in a creative bubble. But Bogle stresses this is no mere laboratory for his creatives to develop business acumen. “I see Zag as a serious part of our future,” he says. “Who knows where we are going right now in terms of the economy, but having different revenue streams away from our core business allows us to go on investing and is an important thing to have when times are tough.”

The idea for Ila came about when Zag identified “an area of brand lag”, says Munn. “There’s quite a lot of anxiety among young women when they are out and about. How many brands are going in and trying to find solutions? Very few. That’s what we term a brand lag.”

He claims that although women in the target demographic of 18 to 35 recognise the concept of a personal alarm they don’t know where to buy one and are not aware of any brand leaders. Named after the Hindu goddess of speech, the Ila – which lets off what one BBH employee describes as “an actual horrible scream” – is marketed on the idea of giving women back their voice (the vocal chords of attack victims often seize up).

The idea for “Pick Me” meals came from the opposite direction, with the Boutique Foods Group looking for branding advice and then agreeing to a joint venture. According to Munn, the product is aimed at “Bi-tarians”, carnivores who want to cut down their meat intake by going vegetarian on occasional days. The food is smartly boxed up with lots of references to “five a day” and slogans such as “lentil rhymes with mental because they are good for your brain, not because they’ve got a temper”.

The business nous of BBH was recently demonstrated by a “cash in the ball” game, whereby £2,008 was dangled in the agency reception as a prize for whoever could come up with the best brand invention. The winner, now on maternity leave, came up with a pregnancy nutrition brand. See it in stores soon.