Opinion

Bohemia: Can M&C Saatchi revive the ‘hyped up toddler’ from its sugar crash?

Yesterday saw the sale of what was, for a time, one of the hottest media agencies in Australia. Miranda Ward asks if the story of Bohemia is a lesson in agencies growing too quickly.

It was in 2013 that Mumbrella’s The Source published a review of the biggest media agencies in Australia.

In that review, the panel of senior media consultants and media industry leaders widely lauded the new kid on the block for its focus on data and strategy, with Bohemia described at the time as a “hyped up toddler on red cordial”.

bohemia-logo

Today, in the wake of a spate of client losses and yesterday’s sale to M&C Saatchi, you have to wonder if that analogy has held true and whether – like all sugar highs – the buzz wore off, and wore off fast.

The journey of independent Bohemia, launched in 2011 by former Ikon stalwarts Brett Dawson, Chris Christoffi and Peter Leaver, has been been a remarkable one.

The new indie, backed by former Ikon founder Simon White, was quick to leverage its knowledge and relationships, winning a steady stream of clients, with many – such as Vodafone and Caltex – moving over from Ikon. These wins allowed them to lure talent and maintain the hype around the new company.

Looking back it was an incredible winning streak for an independent without the full support of a big multinational, with the agency picking up the likes of Vodafone’s strategy and then later the whole account, Lion alcohol and beverages, Quick Service Restaurant Holdings – the parent company of Red Rooster, Chicken Treat and OportoAspen Pharmaceuticals, and others all in the space of a couple of years.

Indeed the buzz grew to such a point that rumours abounded that STW, who from its inception held a small minority stake, might seek to buy out Dawson and co and merge it with their floundering agency Ikon, which hit choppy waters around the same time that Bohemia became ascendent.

For what was really an independent, Bohemia’s 2013 win of Vodafone was impressive but it was really Lion which became the agency’s defining client in more ways than one.

vodafone-logo-800x464

Invariably for indies, big clients are both a blessing and a curse. On one level they give you the cachet and kudos to lure big name talent to the agency and to reassure other big name clients to put you on their pitch shortlist.

But, on the flip side, clients like Vodafone and Lion are notorious for being highly demanding with stories of long hours and high churn at Bohemia quickly spreading around the industry, if not necessarily in the trade press.

While the agency’s churn rate flew under the radar, there was some signs of trouble: Dawson and his Bohemia team often lured in media heavyweights only to lose them quickly. For example: Karen Halligan (now at Zenith) who joined the team from Slingshot Media, and former Mi9 COO Marc Barnett. Both jumped ship after about nine months, Barnett to take a role with Asian streaming firm iFlix.

It is to Bohemia’s credit that while it didn’t manage to retain Halligan or Barnett it did hold onto well-respected trading director Theo Zisoglou who joined the agency from Match Media in 2016 .

Zisoglou: 'TV drop a worrying trend'

Holding onto Theo Zisoglou is to Bohemia’s credit

Zisoglou joined the agency the year that the tide turned on Bohemia and the hyped-up toddler faced its sugar crash, losing clients left, right and centre.

Vodafone was the first big client to walk, with Lion alcohol and beverages departing soon after, while QSRH shifted at the end of last year.

Today the agency still has some nice accounts with Caltex, News.com.au and Pandora (which is currently pitching) on the books but none of this was going to keep Bohemia’s golden child reputation.

For Bohemia, M&C Saatchi’s buyout was a much needed lifeline.

For the wider market, the rise and fall of Bohemia raises an important question: Can independents compete in the new media agency world in which they need to be smarter, more strategic, more data driven and at the same time be able to deliver everything, cheaper?

The agency most worth of comparison here is John Preston’s Match Media.

While they’ve both now sold their operations – with Match selling to Publicis – there is a key difference in Dawson’s and Preston’s approaches.

Preston took 10 years to slowly build up his agency. He took the time needed to build a foundation, even shutting the doors to new business for a year after picking up Pfizer in order to bed in the account.

It was a lesson Dawson could have heeded post Vodafone or Lion: take the time to get the business settled and staff across it.

Preston very carefully grew his business while Dawson went at it as fast as possible and if M&C hadn’t swooped in with the cheque book, the agency’s future was clearly in question after losing such big accounts last year.

Since selling Match to Publicis, Preston has now rebranded the agency to Blue 449 – and while M&C Saatchi CEO Jaimes Leggett tells Mumbrella the Bohemia brand will remain, the question for him is why?

The gloss has clearly worn off Bohemia’s brand as a result of growing too quickly and discovering the foundations beneath the growth weren’t solid.

But the M&C Saatchi brand is one associated with innovation, creativity and strategic thinking.

Potentially it has more brand cache than Bohemia. Arguably, it would be better to move Bohemia into the group and create a full-service offering, or at the very least cash in on the M&C brand with an M&C Saatchi Media offering.

Leggett has told Mumbrella Bohemia will retain its own structure and own office in Redfern rather than moving to co-locate in M&C’s Macquarie Street HQ where all the group’s agencies are housed.

Jaimes Leggett stays on as chair of the Commuications Council

M&C Saatchi CEO Jaimes Leggett says Bohemia will retain its own structure and branding

It shouldn’t be a surprise, however, if Leggett and M&C in the future do rebrand Bohemia, similar to Publicis rebranding Match Media to Blue 449.

The match makes sense – Bohemia has always been quite a creative media agency, indeed it dipped into the creative space in May 2015 with a campaign for news.com.au, while M&C Saatchi has also been a very, at least in recent years, strategic, creative agency. Putting the talent together in the same building would work.

But for Bohemia to regain some of its gloss, M&C is going to have to seriously invest and deep dive into where Bohemia has gone wrong – and what they did very right in the early days.

Dawson and his team did a phenomenal job at building an agency and a reputation, and while the wheels have fallen off somewhat in recent months, there is still something there. With a shot in the arm from M&C, it could regain some of its former glory.

Bohemia was an agency needing saving – M&C was an agency that wanted a media offering. It was a match well made but for Bohemia to flourish once again and win back clients, and reputation, it’s going to need to go it a little slower and more carefully. For M&C that means the group will need to be patient.

If Bohemia is given the right resources, and time, to rebuild its foundations, the agency could transform from that hyped-up toddler on red cordial suffering from a sugar crash into a quiet achiever. It all depends on how M&C want to play it.

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