Mark Wnek on Advertising

You're reaching for the stars Trevor, but you seem to be lost in space
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Trevor Beattie is tired, but happy, as I arrive to have breakfast with him at London's Sanderson Hotel, the morning after the night of his beloved Labour Party's electoral triumph. The former chairman and creative director of ad agency TBWA hasn't been to bed yet, having spent the night at the National Portrait Gallery, Labour's election-night rallying post. Gordon Brown's parting shot - "what are you doing next?" - is the reason I'm about to grill Beattie: what he is doing next is starting his own company having dramatically resigned from the agency he worked at for 15 years and announced his new venture on the eve of the election.

Trevor Beattie is tired, but happy, as I arrive to have breakfast with him at London's Sanderson Hotel, the morning after the night of his beloved Labour Party's electoral triumph. The former chairman and creative director of ad agency TBWA hasn't been to bed yet, having spent the night at the National Portrait Gallery, Labour's election-night rallying post. Gordon Brown's parting shot - "what are you doing next?" - is the reason I'm about to grill Beattie: what he is doing next is starting his own company having dramatically resigned from the agency he worked at for 15 years and announced his new venture on the eve of the election.

Beattie's new partner in crime, former (as of last week too) TBWA CEO Andrew McGuinness, comes into view. "Bill [Bungay, Beattie's art director and final partner] will be here in a minute," says Beattie, alerting me that this will be the first interview with the whole new outfit. I should be quite excited by this, but my heart sinks a little as I remember how resolutely McGuinness jumped in to fend off my (quite harmless) questions to Alastair Campbell at a TBWA dinner in the spin doctor's honour at Nobu restaurant last year.

And that's the direction the interview moves: instead of a chinwag between two mates, McGuinness's presence and his interjections always feel like damage limitation. But initially, Beattie is on song, keen to make clear the fact that Chris Evans is not involved in Beattie McGuinness Bungay (BMB). At least not yet, and maybe never. "Chris and I are mates, but he's not involved," he says. "In fact, I saw him last night and said, 'I hear we're going into business together', and we had a laugh."

Bungay arrives. He clearly hasn't been up all night. He says hello, sits down and isn't really heard from again: that's art directors for you.

Beattie is now telling me that, unlike Evans, Matthew Vaughn, the film director and husband of Claudia Schiffer, is involved with BMB. The boys are "working" on his next movie, though it isn't clear in precisely what capacity. I get the impression product placement is involved.

So, BMB is not an advertising agency? McGuinness jumps in and gives me what I assume is the "party line": advertising will be an important part of BMB, but by no means all; there will be content and film involvement.

Perhaps sensing my lack of excitement, Beattie jumps in with a bombshell: exclusively revealing BMB's first client. It is Virgin Galactic, Richard Branson's move into "space tourism". "This is Branson's most important project in the next five years," says Beattie. "And, by the way, when the first ship blasts off in 2007, I'm going to be the first paying passenger." Probably the only top adman able to convincingly play the "ordinary bloke" card, Beattie sees Virgin Galactic as everybody's chance to climb to the stars. But, currently, the going rate for a ticket is a far from ordinary-bloke £100,000.

Returning to BMB, and McGuinness rugby tackles me with an earnest exposition of client frustrations at the narrow-mindedness of current ad agency practice, of the beauty of broader thinking, and integration and content. Beattie, seriously tiring now, chips in with a diatribe against "the cult of D&AD" (the Design and Art Direction Association), a system he believes is turning out hundreds of young advertising creatives obsessed with keeping the client's logo tiny. "It's not turning out any ... serious people genuinely interested in improving their clients' businesses," he says. This is what separates Beattie from the boys - his proven ability with clients like French Connection (FCUK) to help truly revolutionise a business; not the empty pursuit of ad awards.

But I remain troubled. Several things don't feel right. The guys seem trapped between a number of conflicting forces: they're keen to appear buttoned-down, but at the same time they're loathe to say that they've been putting this together and plotting it for a long period of time - not least because this may raise loyalty and contractual issues.

I go away convinced that when Beattie denied his breakaway to me last week, he meant what he said, and the decision to go may only have been taken this week.

There is a vast amount of what CIA listening outposts would call "radio traffic" coming from TBWA regarding what many would have one believe was the increasingly wobbly position of McGuinness over the past months. There is even an entirely unsubstantiated but persistent rumour that McGuinness and TBWA agreed to part company a week earlier and he promptly went to work on a perhaps demotivated Beattie - demotivated by recent TBWA account losses which various trade publications have put at anywhere between 30 and 40 per cent of its billings - over the weekend.

While I can't begin to pretend to know the precise details of the past week of BMB's founders' lives, were some of the above true, it would gel with the sense I had throughout our interview that the guys were not only extremely ill-prepared, but were also, well, hiding something.

Waxing truly conspiratorially now, I'm fascinated by the extraordinary sang-froid of TBWA European president Paul Bainsfair, who is going about his business like a man not entirely devastated by recent events. Is this brilliant management? Or a man relieved that, with Beattie's departure, power at TBWA has shifted out of the unpredictable confines of the creative department and back to account handling, where the engine room of more and more ad agencies now lies? How devastating, or otherwise, this is for TBWA, only time will tell. But only a fool would ignore the possibility that the pulling power of Beattie - adland's most sparkling figure - has been the driver of most of TBWA's success.

Critics may point at the unbalanced nature of BMB's partnership (with all the fame residing with Beattie), but there is no doubt in my mind that clients will flock to Beattie as the one person who has an infectious passion for the possibilities of commercial communication. "Our business is to help people sell stuff, put messages in front of people," he says. "Why do we get so fixated on two or three ways of putting those messages across? The best medium could be an exhibition, a movie or an advertising campaign. Then again, it could be a logo on the side of a spaceship."

Comments