What’s wrong with BMF?

BMF, one of the best ad agencies of the last decade has gone off the boil, argues Robin Hicks.

There is a sinking feeling you get as a marketing trade hack when it is finally appropriate, after months of chronicling their decline, to describe an ad agency as ‘troubled’ in a story you’re writing about them.

Most recently, it was a description applied by pretty much the entire trade press to The (now dead) Campaign Palace.

I should be clear that it is not appropriate to describe BMF – for many years one of Australia’s leading creative lights – as ‘troubled’. But at the same time, it would struggle to lay claim to currently being Australia’s best agency.

So what can be said about BMF, one of the most highly prized assets of its owner Enero (née Photon)? Last year it topped the Mumbrella Creative Agency Review which records the perceptions of an expert panel and the wider industry. It was also named one the most effective agencies on the planet last year based on its trophies in effectiveness awards. A few weeks ago in Cannes, Leo Burnett’s global creative director Mark Tutssel described it to me as “the BBH of Australian advertising”. And it’s not even three years since B&T magazine named BMF as agency of the decade.

So there are many agencies that would love to be in BMF’s shoes, even right now.

But at the same time, this is an agency that is not at its best.

The trigger that prompts me to write this piece was not the latest round of redundances at BMF, reported today. It was one of their recent pieces of work. Because troubled was how I felt after watching this curious attempt to make paying bills fun for BPAY.

BMF celebrates 'Happy beefgiving' for MLA

This, from the agency behind the famous work for Meat & Livestock Australia (the Gillard and Abott kissing above Parliament House video being a great, recent example) and the popular ’Nocturnal migrations’ spot for Tooheys?

Sure, every agency produces the odd stinker. But this 90-second 3D cinema ad, launched a few months ago, is hardly one for the agency reel either.

And this effort, for Toohey’s in May, is part of a wider campaign around the idea of supporting mateship that just hasn’t fired.

Then there was this spot bringing back the Solo Man in March. Again, creativity is subjective. I hated the spot – but it was voted ad of the month by Mumbrella’s readers.

Even BMF’s MLA work has taken flak for jumping the shark with popular brand ‘Lambassador’ Sam Kekovic’s ‘Address to the nation’ for Australia Day (even though the agency says the most recent ad was the most effective in the campaign’s eight-year history).

And this ad to encourage us to eat lamb on week days, featuring a man on a lawn mower…

…and another man on a lawn mower for CommBank:

Taylor: left after 8 years

The release of the BPAY shocker came just after the exit of managing partner and former-ECD Dylan Taylor, a highly respected direct marketer who over an eight-year stint was a big part of the 12-year old agency’s best years. If the comments beneath our story Taylor’s departure are to be taken seriously, his exit was – to borrow a word from the most alarmist of these posts – a warning sign.

‘Keeping score’ wrote:

“The talent drain out of that place over the last twelve months is nothing short of alarming. And not just the creatives either. History would infer that the consequences of allowing such a thing to continue to happen, either by inaction or design, will be severe. Such a shame for a once-great beacon of creativity in Oz. And, unless I missed something, no lions this year either. Not even a finalist? Or did I miss one? In any event, hardly the showing you’d expect from an agency once ranked 3rd in the world for direct. All the signs are there, should you care to read them. Time to divest yourself of photon shares, should you be mad enough to hold them.”

This comment is wrong in that BMF did win at Cannes – a silver and a bronze in Film Craft for Tooheys Extra Dry ‘Nocturnal Migrations’. But is it wrong otherwise?

The latest round of departures, Taylor’s included, are not the first to be reported this year, and point to an agency going through a period of adjustment.

Various theories – from rival agencies, former clients, industry watchers and other journos – have been circulating on BMF’s rough patch:

The split. Eight months ago BMF divided into three groups. North, South and Melbourne. The idea, the agency said, inspired by modern tech firms and the Roman army, was to be nimbler, get senior people closer to clients and to manage, as CEO Jeremy Nicholas explains, ‘soft conflict’ between client groups. The move, though denied by the agency, was also supposedly to shore up CommBank, the lion’s share of which went to M&C Saatchi after a review in February. The fate of the below-the-line account remains something of a mystery.

Rippon: exit after 11 years

The split came with the departure of MD Martin Rippon, an 11-year stalwart. Planning director Gareth Cooper also left, and a week later creative director Dennis Koutoulogenis, eight years a BMFer.

When the agency announced the divide in November last year, it reported as having 240 staff. The claimed staff number is now 200, including the Melbourne office.

The reason for the first round of departures was declining client spend. Though still armed with an enviable client list that includes MLA, P&O (a successfully defended account), Schweppes, Weight Watchers, Bing, Expedia and Lion, BMF said goodbye to Domino’s, which took its advertising inhouse in May.

BMF may be going through a period of consolidation. But it has been noticeably quiet on the new business front and rivals are saying that they no longer fear it in pitches. Worrying for an agency that – unlike an Ogilvy, Leo Burnett or JWT – cannot rely on a holding company for business handed on a plate.

Brown: back seat

Where’s Warren? The arrival of Spanish creative team Carlos Alija and Laura Sampedro as ECDs came with a few ‘what do these foreigners know about Australia’ grumbles from industry watchers. Would they have batted an eyelid if the multi-award winning duo had popped up from New York or London? Carlos&Laura (they count themselves as one) formed a tripartite with Shane Bradnick in Sydney and Dave Klein, who joined last year, in Melbourne. Comparisons with the work of the B in BMF, Warren Brown, who has taken a back seat as the agency’s creative founder, are probably unfair so soon into their tenure, but inevitable.

CEO Jeremy Nicholas

New management. Jeremy Nicholas, BMF’s planning director since 2001, is now two years into the top job having succeeded founder Matthew Melhuish, who moved upstairs to a role at Enero, but remains as executive chairman. Nicholas joined a small band of agency bosses with planning backgrounds, including Sudeep Gohil at Droga5 and Todd Sampson at Leo Burnett Sydney. Much newer is BMF managing partner Stephen McArdle, who stepped up from client director to replace Taylor less than a month ago, having joined from London agency CHI in February. Ricci Meldrum is just one month into her role as managing partner in Melbourne.

Words to describe BMF that will hurt the most are “once-great”, a label that has haunted The Campaign Palace and irritates the likes of GPY&R, an agency that still trades off the back of past glories as “Australia’s oldest ad agency”.

Is it unfair to pick on BMF? The “once-great” tag could arguably be hung on another of the best agencies of the decade, Host, while fashionable hot shop The Monkeys went home miserable that the much-loved Ship Song Project didn’t get on a shortlist at Cannes. Indeed, are any of Australia’s top shops really firing at the moment?

Yes, BMF is an agency with firm foundations. It has a strong brand trading on rigour, discipline and planning nouse – much like BBH. And it is reinventing itself as a creative business that is part integrated agency, part digital hub and, with the help of a photography studio for Aldi, part publisher. Indeed, its reinvention partly explains the job losses, as new people come in to fill newly created roles.

The frustration comes from seeing a great ad agency go off the boil when it should be leading the industry. Like Ikon is in media. And of course every great agency does go through peaks and troughs before coming back stronger – that was certainly the story of media agency PHD globally.

BMF has ambitions to ‘become a globally influential creative company’. It compares itself not to other Aussie ad agencies, but to the likes of Uniclo, Pixar and HBO. But BMF seems to have become less influential locally, let alone globally (if it had converted a pitch in London last year, BMF would have opened a UK office). If the Mumbrella Creative Agency Review survey ran today, would BMF find itself at the top of the chart? Probably not.

BMF was described in last year’s survey as a “benchmark agency”. It still is. Which is why – for the industry’s sake – I hope it can raise its game.

Robin Hicks

Comments


  1. H-boy
    16 Jul 12
    11:31 am

  2. A detailed analysis Robin.

    Here’s one for free:
    The secret to agency success is to make really good ads.

    Over and out.

  3. Notmyrealname
    16 Jul 12
    11:53 am

  4. When Peter Clemenger sold a minority of his agency to BBDO in 1972, he (unselfishly) took the opportunity to establish the share scheme that still, after 40 years, makes Clems the place to be for loyal staff with skin in the game. How much of a business legacy did the sale to Photon leave? How many of the staff now have a personal stake? Possibly a missed opportunity to ensure the future of a great business?

  5. Keeping score
    16 Jul 12
    12:03 pm

  6. H-Boy is on to it. Stop with this faddish business modeling, photography studio and content team revenue experiments and get back to what made you great – advertising. Oh and trying to tempt back a few of the people who helped make you great probably wouldn’t either, although somehow I doubt they’d come. Momentum, good or bad, is a very hard thing to arrest. Good luck BMF, I hope you can turn it around before a fourth successive redundancy round is needed.

  7. People person
    16 Jul 12
    12:13 pm

  8. Just goes to show that advertising and the Kay-os theory don’t work

  9. BMFer
    16 Jul 12
    12:30 pm

  10. Yes some great people have left, but there are lots of great people still in the building. That is a body of great work there, creative and effective. Obviously the BPAY video is not an ad.

  11. DT
    16 Jul 12
    12:35 pm

  12. “indeed are any of Australia’s top shops really firing at the moment?” Good point. Can we expect a series of What’s wrong with articles? You could start with Monkeys, Mojo, Clems Sydney, Whybin, Host, BWM…

  13. Anonymous
    16 Jul 12
    12:49 pm

  14. DT,

    BMF is the market leader. That’s why they deserve to be looked at more closely.

  15. Rob
    16 Jul 12
    3:23 pm

  16. Just make ads? really? wow. good luck to you my friend. because it is a sad day when clients are more innovative than they’re agencies. ad effectiveness is on the decline, agencies globally are struggling.

    Unless agencies like BMF continue to evolve their business models we will all die a slow death. I congratulate BMF for it’s desire to innovate, I also respect their courage for knowing when things are and aren’t right. It’s a good article, but i think there is a lot more to come from BMF.

  17. Keeping score
    16 Jul 12
    4:01 pm

  18. Um, er, Rob I think the overall thrust of this piece is that you are already dying a slow death (at least you’ve developed a tumor that the medical profession can’t identify, not good). You’re from BMF I take it? The point being all that other stuff is all well and good, provided the agency is performing, and it’s not. Off the boil is a good assessment, so then it becomes hard to look at everything BMF is doing and make sense of it. Get back to great ads (in any bloody channel). And to your last point, I hope there’s more coming to. It’s op/ed pieces like this one, and also some hard self assessment within prompted by some ‘concerned citizens’ that kicks BMF back in to gear. And hopefully someone will stop delivering koolaid to the BMF boardroom. They seem to be drinking way to much of it. Enough of the backheels and scissor kicks, get back to completing some passes.

  19. Richard
    16 Jul 12
    9:58 pm

  20. I’d say that what BMF seems to have done is a pretty good lesson in what an agency (or any business for that matter) should NOT do. Sure, innovation is great. That’s what used to make them the benchmark. Then they forgot what and who made them great.

  21. T
    16 Jul 12
    11:15 pm

  22. I’m with Rob.

    ‘Just making ads’ is perhaps too simplistic of a response. Agencies locally and globally are all in the same boat, and they should be asking ‘what now guys?’.

    Only the smartest and bravest agencies will change themselves in order to create the new demand in our industry.

    Good on ya BMF.

  23. Anonymous
    17 Jul 12
    12:16 am

  24. Actually now that you post all those ads together in the one place they’re actually pretty good.

  25. Bob
    17 Jul 12
    8:15 am

  26. Half of this is ‘information’ is fiction. Hicks is about right.

  27. CT
    17 Jul 12
    8:43 am

  28. Tabloid journalism at best.
    You’re better than this Mumbrella.

  29. Anonymous ii
    17 Jul 12
    9:55 am

  30. Um…. The ads you show are pretty good….I think they are just warming up when you look at this batch… U wouldn’t find this consistency in such a short amount of time elsewhere

    Things go in cycles and if anything, watching the work shows promise not defeat

    As for the bpay thing, well…. Um.. It isn’t an ad

  31. Phoenix
    17 Jul 12
    10:43 am

  32. BMF’s work is always above average. And you can’t beat Guillards’s Beefgiving, Lamb or Solo. They are just in a chage of era.

  33. FromTheInterwebs
    17 Jul 12
    10:44 am

  34. I’m really surprised by this post.

    Not because from my little knowledge there isn’t some facts sprinkled in here, but because there are so many half-truths, un-truths, and general lack of proper fact verification that it loses a lot of credibility.

  35. Alison_F
    17 Jul 12
    10:47 am

  36. I have to say, that I loved the Solo ad when it came out! It really took me back to the original feel of that brand… and no, I’m not a BMF’er… I’d say this article may help them to re-evaluate things and come back stronger.

  37. mumbrella
    17 Jul 12
    10:51 am

  38. Phoenix and FromTheInterwebs,

    You know we can see your IP address, right? You’ve got a bit more than “a little knowledge” haven’t you?

    Cheers,

    Tim – Mumbrella

  39. Dean
    17 Jul 12
    11:37 am

  40. That’s funny Tim. You mean BMF’ers can’t speak up here? My IP will tell you I respect BMF more than tabloid journalism.

  41. Rapper
    17 Jul 12
    11:46 am

  42. BMF appears to be ‘Blowin Money Fast’.

    Check it.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bdTAlbL72W8

  43. mumbrella
    17 Jul 12
    11:50 am

  44. Hi Dean,

    Everyone’s welcome to have a say, but as with any other story, I do call people out if they seem to be attempting to mislead people to think they are a disinterested third party when they are not. “We”, not “they” goes a long way towards transparency.

    Cheers,

    Tim – Mumbrella

  45. Peter Rush
    17 Jul 12
    11:58 am

  46. This entire proposition of going-off-the-boil is based on creativity right? That means on awards, right? These ads that aren’t funny or clever enough for award judges around the world may in fact be working their buts off. How can you declare an agency “once great” on the basis off creative awards? Creatively, they haven’t got worse, they’ve just been caught out. The Lambassador campaign was painfully trite right from the start. The deer were a creepy visual wank with no emotional engagement and so on and so on. But, if these ads get great brand or sales results then BMF are a great agency.

  47. Gary
    17 Jul 12
    1:39 pm

  48. Who’s BMF?

  49. Jake
    17 Jul 12
    2:33 pm

  50. The fish rots at the head. BMF = Weak leadership.

  51. Nonny
    17 Jul 12
    3:41 pm

  52. Boring Mediocre Factory

  53. pro BMF
    17 Jul 12
    3:56 pm

  54. I would argue that most people in the industry would want BMF to get back to doing well, being on top and being an agency to be reckoned with. No one wants to see them go down, under or produce work less than their best.

    As an ex BMFer I hope that the ship turns around and turns around fast. I think the article is fair, but I also think that the people that are still at BMF would be working hard to bring about the innovation and change required to put this agency back on top.

    The leadership there (new and old) and all the staff are some of the hardest working, amazingly talented bunch of people around. I wish only good thoughts to them all and I hope 2012/2013 is the year of comeback!

  55. bob is a rabbit
    17 Jul 12
    4:07 pm

  56. I’d like to see more op ed articles about agencies. Just be careful with facts – seems Robin has of late certainly stirred the pot with enero pieces.

    Have to also agree with @ Peter Rush wholeheartedly re: creative vs effective however.

  57. Trevor Factsman
    17 Jul 12
    4:37 pm

  58. I find these poorly timed (meaning deliberately) opinion pieces unpalatable, it’s Telegraph journo SOP to a tee and would be inexcusable from mUm except in this case, it’s mostly true. BMF will undoubtably survive, theyre mot the Palace, but just as undoubtably things will get worse (perhaps much worse) before they improve. Simple facts are these, they’ve fired, retrenched or allowed to leave too much talent to not have an impact. The new people, particularly at the senior levels (for they are the only ones that matter) aren’t firing. Im not even sure theyre awake Something’s got to give. Either that or Melhuish will double tap the entire Board and bring in a FIFO ad squad from Brazil. But I think we all hope it doesn’t come to that and BMF turns this whole thing around. I do.

  59. Gary
    17 Jul 12
    4:49 pm

  60. pro BMF = yawn

  61. @ Gary
    17 Jul 12
    5:04 pm

  62. I take it you’re a disgruntled ex-BMFer. Poor you.

  63. nick williams
    17 Jul 12
    5:57 pm

  64. Robin,

    along the theme of not misleading people, isn’t it true though that the BPay film isn’t an ad at all but is targetted purely towards an internal audience?

  65. mumbrella
    17 Jul 12
    6:09 pm

  66. Hi Nick,

    The language in that BPAY work is addressed to consumers – my sense if it was intended for an internal audience it would talk about them (as most sizzle reels do).

    I see that it’s had nearly 1000 views since being uploaded by the agency to YouTube. I suspect that those are not an internal audience.

    It’s also cut to precisely 30 seconds.

    Certainly, it may not be a TV ad – but it looks like a message for consumers to me.

    Cheers,

    Tim – Mumbrella

  67. Matt
    17 Jul 12
    6:21 pm

  68. This article is tenuous at best. It’s like saying that there’s something wrong at the Brisbane Broncos – they’re still in the top eight and churning out wins, but that doesn’t mean that Gus Gould goes out and writes a pre-emptive post mortem about their season when there’s nothing really awry.

    Sure BMF have gone out and looked at new ways to innovate their business model and I genuinely take my hats off to them for it. But to allude that the sum of the managerial decisions are resulting in sub-par work is frankly a poor estimation of the state of their agency, and the state of the industry in general.

    I agree with someone above that the body of work you’ve posted on this page is actually reasonably strong across a pretty diverse portfolio of clients. Toohey’s is particularly average, yes, but anyone with a bit of industry nous can sniff out an agency has to work with the best of what they’ve been given at any point in time. Not every campaign’s going to be a firecracker. Take a peek at industry-darlings D5 for that, and there’s no finger-pointing there.

    Guys, the worst part is that you ran this story from an editorial point-of-view when it was a question that no-one really asked and it probably made a lot of hard-working people kinda sad about their job. The last time an editorial “think-piece” was run on this site that seemed vaguely news-worthy half the industry was baying for one poor girl’s head. Let’s report some industry news.

  69. jed
    18 Jul 12
    8:52 am

  70. i used to really respect BMF as a place that was genuinely leading the way in terms of Australian communications. The BPay Bingo idea has to be the ‘turkey’ of the year – i saw the bus stop poster last week and thought to myself ‘i wonder what crappy little shop put out that rubbish’ – couldnt believe it when i saw it was BMF….just goes to show what happens when you drop your creative standards and ‘let one get out the door’ just to keep a client with a stupid idea happy…

  71. M.R.
    18 Jul 12
    9:37 am

  72. Lets be clear on two things.
    1. When an Agency sells to a holding company it goes through a state of flux – maybe see how quiet Host is at the moment; the people in charge push the profit not the work to get their earn-out and then when they leave there is clearly going to be a great deal of change as the company needs to find its feet again. Seems like this is happening and as an industry we should support our better brand names as our industry will be worse off without them.
    2. Apart from the said owners of the company and probably the Garretts and Langleys nobody who has left in the last few years has gone on to better things so maybe it was time for that talent to leave so they could spend more time blogging on sites like this and maybe we should give the talent coming in from overseas a chance as its only good for our market if we can continue to attract seemingly top talent from elsewhere.

  73. Not anyone special
    18 Jul 12
    11:43 am

  74. Well I’d still go and work there if asked

  75. archie
    18 Jul 12
    4:19 pm

  76. i agree wholeheartedly with Matt. This article was nothing more than a kick of the hornet’s nest for pretty transparent reasons. Nasty tabloid ‘tall poppy’ stuff with no care nor consideration of the BMF staffers who’d feel pretty sucky about the offending article and the comments stream.

    and for what? So Mumbrella can serve up some beefier stats to its advertisers.

    If nothing more this piece was a reminder that media is a business like any other

  77. Doug Chapman
    18 Jul 12
    4:27 pm

  78. Unlike most people who comment on this blog, I am more than happy to put my name to whatever I write. Anonymity is nothing to be proud of. Now that’s off my chest … Tim what is the point of an article like this? Did you pay Robin Hicks for this contribution? I have read it over and over and I still can’t understand what you are trying to achieve. At best it’s a bad attempt at putting a spin on someone leaving the agency and at worst , it’s the senseless derision of a successful business that has a client list and a creative history that most agencies would die for. Tim, if no one else says it, I will. Mumbrella is fast becoming the toxic waste dump of advertising journalism in Australia. You can do better than this. How about celebrating the craft of advertising and marketing, rather than wasting valuable pixels peddling scuttlebutt, ex-employee vitriol and rumour mongering.

  79. mumbrella
    18 Jul 12
    4:52 pm

  80. Hi Doug,

    Thanks for your comment. To your first question – yes, Robin was paid for this contribution in that he is the managing editor of Mumbrella, so receives a salary from us.

    Robin was also the author of the book we published just over a year ago, the Mumbrella Creative Agency Review. In that publication, he researched and wrote about Australia’s top 30 ad agencies. You may recall that at the time, as Robin mentions in his piece, BMF scored most highly. To your point, that’s not a bad example of us celebrating the craft of advertising and marketing.

    Robin was honest in his assessment then that BMF deserved to top the list back then, although you’ll see it came with the caveat that there was a question over momentum as the new management bedded in.

    He is just as honest in his reluctant assessment now that the market leader is not at present at the top of its game.

    I should be clear. There was no falling out with BMF before this was published. There is no hidden agenda here – we like the personnel of BMF and hope the agency gets back up to the pinnacle it was once at. As Robin observed, agencies do go through peaks and troughs. Unreservedly, we wish them well.

    This piece did not come out of the blue – it’s on the back of a series of conversations in the office going back some time as a number of piece of work have emerged that don’t live up to the agency’s high standards.

    Before writing this piece, Robin made contact with Jeremy Nicholas and we delayed publication until Jeremy could come into our office and give us his perspective, which took place on Friday.

    Only at that point, did Robin share his views. I’d challenge you to read his piece again. There is no derision, no scuttlebutt, no vitriol, no rumour.

    Your note suggests a misunderstanding of our role. It is not to make agencies happy, although if that happens, it is a positive by-product. It is to honestly tell it to our readers how we see it.

    When the institution is as respected and liked as BMF, being the first to publicly criticise is a tough call to make. But that’s our job.

    I note that you are not saying that Robin is mistaken. By all means disagree with his conclusions. But please don’t claim he is not qualified or entitled to draw them.

    Cheers,

    Tim – Mumbrella

  81. FMB
    18 Jul 12
    5:52 pm

  82. It’s a shame to be watching a once-great agency brand/business in this situation, but not overly surprising.

    Business cycles happen and there is little anyone can do about them – you can’t be the flavour of the month forever. And when you’re on top, the only way to go is down, and suddenly you are defending, not forging ahead.

    And let’s face it, this is an extremely fickle business and lots of decisions are made on pretty loose criteria – “that Hansel, he’s so hot right now.”

    I’ve peeked inside BMF and one thing I never understood was the Aldi scenario – a sweat shop within an ivory tower never made sense to me. Though it appeared Aldi’s rivers of gold funded some indulgent creative work for other clients. This is not a sustainable scenario.

    Domino’s was in the same category – where’s the pride and holding firm to criteria that protects the integrity of the business (clients that want us do brilliant work for them), as opposed to chasing money for it’s own sake by regurgitating the same-old same-old pizza ad dross?

    I also thought the photo/production studio (branded BMF no less) was completely at odds with what the agency stood for – why the hell didn’t they call it Acme Studios and hold it at arms length?!

    For all that, these guys aren’t dumb, they’ll be back.

  83. Hmmm
    20 Jul 12
    1:18 pm

  84. My two cents would be they’ve been on the decline creatively for a long time. When Dylan was in charge of integrated and Warren still on the creative ‘board’ they were firing on all cylinders. Sure there were a few things that were ridiculously silly, such as harvesTED, but that stuff still had awesome production values and a strong digital / integrated approach.

    The coffee moment without the moment was possibly the last thing I saw that I really liked. But there’s been some stinkers as well (Amaysim anybody? Barbie girl?). They’ve just done some ok stuff for athletes foot, but it’s nowhere near the ‘we gave blood’ or the tongue ad, or even stolen glasses or ducks (even if those two were a little scammy).

    I think it all comes down to where the business is focusing itself at the moment. If your aim is to maximise profit, you’ll cut creative resource, giving them less time to develop an idea and cut production values, which leads to incredibly bad advertising. If your goal is to leave at the end of your buyout period, I can see why you’d do that.

    I disagree with any comparison to a BBH in Australia. Glue Society are heading into directing and BMF is being bought out and the founders stepping back. John Hegarty has only now just stepped down after 30 years, and are only being bought out now under strict terms.

    And maybe that’s the difference.

  85. barry
    25 Jul 12
    4:06 pm

  86. Who’s Gary?

  87. Gary
    26 Jul 12
    12:19 pm

  88. Who’s Barry, Barry.