Stefano Hatfield On Advertising
Adland has a few showmen, but there'll only ever be one 'Baulky'
Monday 20 March 2006
To sit across a table in Langan's from Michael Baulk and watch the chief executive of the Abbott Mead Vickers group shoot his cuffs as he settled down in his regular spot was one of the joys of schmoozing the London advertising community.
Around us the old media world's "fat boys' club" would be gorging itself to cholesterol hell. But Baulk's lunchtime ritual was a consistent source of entertainment. He would study the menu, but always order the same thing: a half-melon starter of which he ate three scoops, and then the chicken of which he ate the same number of forkfuls - all the while encouraging his companion to tuck in.
At some stage, he would switch his focus entirely towards that same companion and ask unsettlingly, "So, how can I help? What are YOU going to do with 'brand Hatfield'?" You actually believed he cared, but as with most journalists, the question made me break out in hives.
He did this, as everything else, with the inimitable flair, discipline and enthusiasm that he brought to his entire career. Over 40 years, at Ogilvy & Mather and then AMV, Baulk was one of the most effective, and - arguably - one of the more underrated, London advertising bosses.
It is difficult to recall the time when Abbott Mead was a safe, mid-table player behind the duopoly of Saatchi & Saatchi and JWT for much of the Eighties and Nineties. When Baulk arrived from Ogilvy & Mather in 1986 he brought a double-shot of street smarts and enthusiasm to the classy but conservative agency built by David Abbott, Peter Mead and Adrian Vickers.
It was as solidly middle-class as some of its clients: Volvo, the Radio Times, Sainsbury's and the Economist. Baulk energised AMV, bringing a new hunger and ambition to this most principled of agencies.
Under Baulk and his protégé Andrew Robertson, now global CEO of BBDO, new business ensued: BT, the Prudential, Guinness and more. But his crowning achievement was to lead the agency through its transformative deal with BBDO - a process completed in 1999. BBDO brought with it clients like Mars, Gillette and Pepsi-Cola.
Baulk managed that rarest of feats after such a deal with an American giant: he led the agency to greater business success while enhancing its creative reputation and ethos, which included no tobacco accounts, and no redundancies during the recessions of the 1990s.
Baulk's time was not without controversy, but persistent mutterings about what some AMV old-timers made of him paled by contrast with his almost unparalleled success, marrying extraordinary new-business growth to A-grade creativity.
Baulk was in The Ivy recently (times have changed) in dress-down Friday mode. He was Ralph Lauren-esque in jeans, but the leather jacket wasn't distressed enough. Can you shoot your cuffs in a leather jacket? Given that 14 tables were filled with ad industry types, you'd have thought there might be some sniping. Instead, there was universal respect, even affection. Believe me, it's not like that for many.
After 16 years of writing about advertising, AMV is the only agency for which I would ever have wanted to work (BBH might be the best agency in the world, but Nigel Bogle's too scary, and is it actually fun?). I am by no means alone. And that's primarily down to Baulk, who allegedly turned down the chance to have his name added to messrs Abbott, Mead and Vickers above the Marylebone Road door.
He has left the agency he so cared for in the capable hands of Cilla Snowball, equally imbued with AMV's values. But, she would be the first to say there's only one "Baulky". Now he's driving off in the Ferrari to enjoy his cleaning company interests, east-European mine investments and bingo calling. Happily, I can no longer recall which of those is real and which I just made up.
WITH BAULK gone, there's only two real advertising showmen left: (arguably) Trevor Beattie, and the irrepressible Robin Wight. With the Churchill Insurance account following Weetabix and Bulldog into Wight's WCRS, and successes like 118 118, the agency is on a roll, yet again.
WCRS FOUND it extremely hard to bounce back from the loss of Orange, which the agency had launched to huge acclaim. The client moved to Mother, which has in turn now lost the £50m account after three years.
Losing Orange to Fallon because of international realignment is the worst thing that has ever happened to Mother in its short, stellar history. It will be fascinating to see how the agency bounces back from the loss of its largest client.
Instantly, Mother is propelled into new territory: being forced to deal with the vagaries of large multinationals' tortuous politics that so often result in re-alignments for reasons that have nothing to do with the ads. It is no longer invincible.
Will Mother bounce back? Of course. There's far too much talent and drive there for this setback to prove fatal. Indeed, it is already pitching for the PG Tips account held forever by DDB London. A hungry Mother will be an agency to watch for the rest of this year.
If you've ever seen Robin Wight's lunchbox, e-mail email@example.com
YET, DESPITE 15 years of being "Robin'd", nothing prepared me for another recent Ivy encounter. The bow-tie may have gone, but Wight was a vision in purple, and brought along "Robin's lunch-box": a presentation kit containing a peacock's tail, a crucifix, a model of the brain and a miniature Angel of the North statue.
While the likes of Bruce Haines, Nicola Mendelsson and Michael Finn looked on from nearby tables in understandable bemusement, I got the full Robin sales pitch at the table. This was not on behalf of WCRS, but Engine, the new parent company set up by Wight, his old mucker Peter Scott, Stephen Woodford and the rest after buying themselves out from Havas.
Because of the dazzling suit, arm-waving and eternal optimism, it is easy to dismiss the extraordinarily clever Wight as an amiable eccentric. However, his current work alone on how advertising acts on the brain made for a more fascinating sales pitch than I can recall in a long time.
If you want to know what that is, then you'll just have to be brave and delve into Robin's lunch box yourself. With Michael Baulk retiring, there is no one else I know (perhaps Bill Muirhead?) who can sell shamelessly for 80 minutes and still leave you smiling and willing to come back for more. I promise to plug Wight's excellent Hackney education initiative, "the Ideas Foundation" another time. Until then, ask him about it.
Robin should be blue-plaqued as a genuine London landmark. He's living proof that multiple alimonies can be a wonderful motivator, and can coax an old dog to learn new tricks.
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