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Has M&C Saatchi given Bohemia its much-needed lifeline?

Client losses, staff churn and the departure of seasoned talent – one year ago Bohemia, once riding high, was in danger of crashing and burning. Then it was bought by M&C Saatchi. Mumbrella's Abigail Dawson sits down with M&C's group CEO, Jaimes Leggett, and Bohemia's managing partner and co-founder, Brett Dawson, to reflect on the acquisition, what's working, what's changed, and whether anyone is still wearing Speedos to work.

One year ago, Bohemia, a struggling but talented media agency, was given a miracle lifeline when it was bought by M&C Saatchi.

The creative agency had been harbouring ambitions to launch a media offering for a long time, and eventually landed on the decision to buy Bohemia, the media agency once described as a “hyped up toddler on red cordial”.

Bohemia founders Chris Christofi, Brett Dawson, Peter Leaver

The media agency was launched in 2011 by former Ikon stalwarts Brett Dawson and Chris Christofi and Commonwealth Bank’s Peter Leaver, and now has clients including Caltex, Best & Less, MLC, Ubank, Unibet, Rip Curl and Open Colleges.

One year after launching, Bohemia won Vodafone’s strategy account, taking on its media buying business just a year later.

In 2014, the media agency picked up the $35-$40m Lion account, handling the brand’s media strategy, buying and planning.

The next year, the indie agency landed its third significant account, Caltex.

It had other wins along the way, too, including  Quick Service Restaurant Holdings – the parent company of Red Rooster, Chicken Treat and Oporto – and Aspen Pharmaceuticals.

Three years after winning the Vodafone account, the telco called a media review, later handing its media account to Group M’s MEC.

That same year, the independent media agency parted ways with its second-biggest client, Lion, only to lose another client, Pandora, six months later.

Mumbrella subsequently likened Bohemia’s quick string of impressive wins, followed by a succession of losses, to a hyped-up toddler having a monumental sugar crash.

Dawson concedes the assessment was fair, but believes the toddler is emerging from the haze.

“I didn’t like it [the analogy] whatsoever.

“We had a couple of knocks the year prior, so there was pressure on our business to rebound. Was it fair? I suppose so. Do I move on? Yeah, I am incredibly proud of what we have achieved. There aren’t many independent media agencies that have had our success and I honestly believe the best is yet to come.

“Maybe other agencies should drink red cordial,” Dawson says.

But the agency didn’t just lose clients. It also parted ways with some heavyweight talents, including Karen Halligan, who departed after six months and is now at KPMG. There was also former Mi9 COO Marc Barnett, who left after nine months to reunite with his former boss Mark Britt at iFlix in Asia.

“We did lose some staff which coincided with losing two accounts,” says Dawson. “We’re not the first agency to have gone through that, and we won’t be the last.”

If the perception of high staff churn still exists, he “isn’t sure where that perception is coming from”. Bohemia, he says, has a churn rate of 10%, compared with the industry’s 36.9%.

Since being acquired by the M&C Saatchi Group, Bohemia has also made a string of new hires, including appointing Rebecca Hamilton as its media director; Jeremy Bierma to lead the UBank team as performance director; and Sam Westaway, who is now the agency’s media director in Melbourne.

When the media agency was bought by M&C Saatchi, its clients were Ubank, Unibet, Caltex, Twitter and News.com.au.

Since then, the agency has gone on to add jewellery chain Michael Hill and skincare brand Paula’s Choice to its client portfolio.

This time around, Dawson says the agency has learnt its lesson from a period of “rapid-fire entrepreneurial growth” and will be focusing on “considered growth” with the right type of clients.

“Considered growth for the right type of clients, the value in what we do, where we can make a difference to their business, we’ll run at it,” he explains.

Dawson says being part of the M&C Saatchi Group enables the media agency to handle its growth in a different way.

“Where we are at now, when you take the best of M&C Saatchi and put it into Bohemia, we could totally handle growth in a different way this time.

“I often do wonder would our past have been different if M&C Saatchi and I were together from start? Potentially yes, who knows.

“I just know the way we are structured and the way we are organised, the processes, the access we have to creative talent of all shapes and sizes, is significantly different, so our ability to deliver considered effective growth is much, much better,” Dawson says.

So what does this mean for the agency’s strategy and structure a year into the new arrangement?

Dawson says the agency will be keeping strategy and data at its core with the company “doubled down” on it.

These two core principles are how the agency differentiates itself and finds its competitive advantage for its clients, Dawson says.

“It’s our future and its a key point of differentiation.”

Leggett says Bohemia kept its name so it could maintain its “Bohemia-ness”

When M&C Saatchi gave the once-struggling media agency a lifeline, the group decided to keep the Bohemia name and brand, leaving the creative shop and media agency in separate offices.

Jaimes Leggett, group CEO of M&C Saatchi, says the decision to keep the brands and businesses separate was important for Bohemia’s ongoing success.

“Bohemia is a great name, it’s a great business with great people and it has a great culture. Why would we fuck with that?

“Part of the deal was about helping Bohemia be a better version of themselves.

“So how can we use our capabilities, our skill sets, our people, our resources, our structure, our operating systems, and what can we do with those things to help them be a better version of what they were?

“The second part of it was how could Bohemia help us be better versions of ourselves? How can we infuse media thinking, media strategy, understanding of people and environments and data to make better, smarter creative decisions?

“There was also a third component, which was we fundamentally believe that content and context have to be brought back together, and it’s madness that they have been separated,” Leggett explains.

The separation of content and context, he says, was never the right thing for clients, but was driven by commercial gains.

“So it was about doing the businesses that we had better, and then, more importantly, bringing them together to do a better job for our clients.”

The group CEO of M&C Saatchi says the reason the two agencies remain in separate offices is so Bohemia can “maintain its Bohemia-ness” but says the two companies are increasingly working together.

“The way the M&C Saatchi Group works is big clients come to us and they buy us in our entirety and what they want is a fully, seamlessly integrated offering.

“They know we’ve got lots of different businesses, but they don’t really care about that, what they want is the best people brought together in the most efficient way.”

Despite its collaboration with other agencies in the group, Bohemia will continue to operate as an independent brand and “do the thing that it does”, Leggett insists.

Leggett knows not all of its clients work with the agency for its integrated offering, and says “they may in the future, they may not”.

“We work with other media agencies and Bohemia work with other creative agencies and those are incredibly important relationships for us and they need to be treated with respect.

“What we aren’t doing is trying to flog media to our creative clients and creative to our media clients. There will be a time and a place for things.

“What we are trying to do is make Bohemia better and make M&C Saatchi better and when it’s appropriate, bring the two together.”

The group CEO says the ambition for all of its agencies is to have 40% to 60% of the agencies’ revenue group aligned.

It’s not just revenue which needs to be aligned though.

Dawson says when Bohemia and M&C Saatchi were in discussions about the acquisition, the “chemistry” took a while – five or six months – but it was a thoroughly considered decision.

Leggett says moulding two cultures together was very “interesting” and both agencies have been extremely “lucky” because M&C Saatchi and Bohemia have similar cultures.

“Fundamentally the core of the businesses were the same. I don’t think M&C Saatchi has changed at all and I don’t think Bohemia has changed, but they have clicked into place together very naturally.

“From that perspective, we’ve been very lucky,” he says.

When Dawson and Leggett announced Bohemia as the new addition to the M&C Saatchi Group – which includes M&C Saatchi Sports and Entertainment, RE, Hidden Characters and Tricky Jigsaw – Leggett told Bohemia staff the agency was not being bought to be changed, it was being bought to make the business better, Dawson recounts.

“If your thing is wearing Speedos to work, I want you to continue to wear Speedos to work,” Leggett said to the Bohemia team at the time.

“It was a moment that just gratified that decision,” Dawson remembers.

Reflecting on the year that has been, Dawson says the biggest learnings have been bringing together two different operating systems, “learning a new rhythm” and getting comfortable with having a boss.

“For me, being comfortable in having a boss and establishing a relationship where I can bounce things, shoot the breeze and someone that kind of pulls me up and pumps my tyres up in the right way.

“When you’re an agency owner and independent, it’s lonely at the top, but then when you have it, you’ve got to work out how to ask for help and how to ask for guidance.”

Leggett says his biggest lesson has been learning to think and feel like the owner-operator who has sold the business, Dawson.

“Empathy is a really important and powerful word,” Leggett says.

When asked if he is in it for the long haul, Dawson doesn’t hesitate: “Absolutely, our best is yet to come, 100%”.

“I’m really enjoying it. I’m more motivated and stimulated and I can see potential well beyond what I could see previously, simply by being part of a bigger group with different talents,” Dawson adds.

Leggett agrees, saying that despite the rumours, he is not going anywhere.

“I love what I do and there are some brilliant agencies in Australia and I have a lot of respect for a lot of the leaders, but I don’t see anyone that I would rather work for.

“I can’t imagine anywhere better to be.”

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