Opinion

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

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