Raahil Chopra
Jul 26, 2016

Building a broader creative canvas for the ‘Black Sheep’ network

Scale with specialisation, without jeopardising agency DNA, is the approach for Neil Munn, global CEO of BBH.

Neil Munn
Neil Munn

Neil Munn's tryst with India began almost 25 years ago, when he proposed to his then girlfriend in front of the Taj Mahal. She said yes. The global CEO of BBH intends to bring his four daughters to the country soon.

On the work front, India represents a challenge and an opportunity for the marketer-turned-agency pro, who was elevated to his current role at BBH almost two years ago. After eight years, the agency’s Mumbai office still doesn’t count among the top five by revenue.

The agency’s long-awaited Delhi office will be up and running this year, becoming its second in India and eighth globally. The other thing that kept Munn busy on his recent trip to India was the content and entertainment vertical announced a month ago. Like the last office in Stockholm which brings in mobile expertise, the one in Delhi / NCR too is expected to contribute to the larger ‘Black Sheep’ network—now owned by Publicis Groupe—with expertise in a specific domain, in the longer term. To start with, though, it will be an ‘extension’ of the Mumbai set up.

Asked about the spate of exits at the top rungs globally in recent times, Munn points to the talent from within who have taken over, into positions such as CCO and CSO. Strategically, when the ad pipe is shrinking, one needs to find more avenues to help clients, reasons Munn, in conversation with Campaign India. As for India, the quest is for famous work, and scale, without jeopardising the BBH culture.

How has the agency grown in the eight years since the India launch? Would it be in BBH's top five offices in terms of revenue?

It's grown well. The important thing for us is that each office is a strong and healthy representation of the BBH Black Sheep. We look at outstanding strategy, creative excellence and BBH professionalism and ethics. Outside of that it's up to the local leadership team to deliver the best expression of the brand.

I'm in the Indian market talking to clients; we've definitely built a good BBH proposition. The challenge for us to is scale it and give it more breadth and impact. We have all the ingredients to do this. Part of the ambition behind Delhi (setting up an office there) is to deliver on the same agenda.

Mumbai isn’t in the top five in terms of revenue. We want it to be one day though. The current top five would be London, New York, China, Singapore and LA.

What's the reason behind the launch in Delhi? How many people are you expected to have?

Initially we'll have the same offerings as the Mumbai office. It's born out of the fact that we have a number of clients in Delhi and have more incoming opportunity. The triggers have now arrived. Priority number one is to be a high quality extension of our Mumbai office, but in phase two we want it to bring in its own specific dimension of BBH creativity.

Our geographical expansion plans are based on how can we develop new creative capability as part of the overall BBH mix. Our last two offices—Los Angeles was opened to plant a flag in the entertainment business and Stockholm was built for expertise in mobile. So, our eighth office will be another extension of our creative capability.

If the Delhi office evolves beyond being just an extension of our Mumbai offerings, it could very well number eight.

Is the Indian operation today as big and strong as you would like it to be? How do you envisage it evolving?

I'm never satisfied with progress we are making. I think I'm very happy that it's a healthy expression of the BBH brand and culture. I want it to have more scale and impact, and that's the challenge for the leadership team here. We want to broaden the set of services we offer the clients—that’s not just deliver creativity through the advertising pipe, but through production, design, social and then for example by putting a separate team in Delhi. My challenge to the guys here is that in the next two years, before we get to the 10th birthday of BBH, to drive for additional impact and scale but not jeopardise the BBH culture.

What’s the impact you’re looking at?

We want to be as creatively influential as possible. I want really famous work coming out of our BBH Mumbai office that cuts through culture and makes a statement that generates fame for the brand and our client’s brand.

Within Publicis today, we see initiatives like 90 to incubate startups. You started off with BBH in 2006 launching ZAG—consulting and early stage venturing. How have those evolved for BBH? What scope do you see for them in India?

We pick up business challenges that are not necessarily solved by some communication solution which would come through a BBH door. We are helping big pharma companies develop their IP defence strategies, we are helping banks move into new spaces.

The more exciting part is venturing and it’s gone through two phases. It started with us creating our own ventures where we were the majority owner. It has now evolved to where we are taking stakes in other people’s businesses. We are creating a portfolio of equity stakes, almost now exclusively in the digital or technology space.

At the moment our ventures are exclusively in the UK or US. About India, it’s still about building a really strong, stable creative platform with clients and then extend into arenas like ZAG.

In London, we got ZAG after 20-plus years.

BBH was bought by Publicis in 2012. In recent years, there have been a spate of exits—a new CCO was named (promoted) in Jan 2016, and CSO in April. Can we expect more additions / changes to the leadership team in London?

You won’t expect any more changes because I have first class partners in that respect. We want people who are steeped in BBH DNA and people who have a progressive view on how we want to build our business and interact with clients.

NY won a Cannes Lions Grand Prix, among others, for Netflix work this year (FU2016). Between the different offices in Shanghai, Singapore, Mumbai, London, NY and LA, how would you rate each on creative firepower?

I’ll be shot by the ECDs if I do that!

Should awards be a parameter to rate creative strength of an office? What is your view?

The award is just one indicator of how strong an office is. We are a business with absolute creativity at the heart of our DNA.

Judging purely on the basis of Cannes, our New York office would be most successful, but our LA office is delivering some stuff that may not suit the Cannes jury. The London office too, is doing some great work. The latest piece for Audi (Spin) is amazing too. We’ve had that relation for the last 34 years.

You forayed into Stockholm in March this year. How big do you see that becoming?

Mobile was the big draw there. We have 40-odd people now. It’s a super illustration of how agencies need to evolve. We have 40 people plus freelancers because it’s a project-based business. We’ve just set up a partnership in Ukraine (with a local player) which links into our Stockholm business, which is based on, effectively, lower cost technology delivery to service our clients. It’s a good demonstration of how we are evolving with the time. Clients want delivery and execution particularly in markets like India and China at lower rates. So, working with capabilities in Ukraine helps us on that front.

You mandate as CEO (from your bio) covers design, brand experience, content, social, sport and pharma. How well-formed is each offering and what is the depth of specialisation? Is there a move towards specialisation in each of those? Does this vary by market?

And more (categories).

The overall strategic approach is to build a broader creative canvas for BBH. Rather than delivering creativity just through the advertising pipe, which is shrinking, we need to use our creative muscles to generate value for clients across more areas. Within that context we have a series of products and services we want to take to the market on behalf of the Black Sheep, but they don’t need to be the same in every office.

For example, in LA, the focus is very much on content and IP. In Stockholm, it is very much about mobile communications and utility apps, product platforms. In London, we’ve got a CRM and sport capability. In Singapore, we’ve got a consultancy and design capability.

So, when you look at it globally, we are building a broad platform that’s available through centres of excellence through BBH’s network.

What’s Mumbai’s specialisation?

We are still working on it. Definitely, agile production and the play we’re making in entertainment, and having a bridge between LA and Mumbai, are exciting.

It's been only a month since the foray into content and entertainment marketing. What prompted it? Globally, how big is this and how much does it contribute in terms of revenue?

We have had a lot of success with the office in LA and Hollywood. We want to use those learnings and implement them in India.

It’s not been a month yet, it’s a matter of weeks really. Pelle (Sojnell) is making sure he understands what the assets he can leverage within BBH Mumbai, and businesses across the BBH network, alongside his capability and his connections and what’s the best way he can mix those together. We have one or two really exciting, tangible things that we are going to market with soon.

In terms of revenue, it’s relatively small, but the business model is different. If we get it right, we want some participation rights in some of the content. Even if that may not be content fees in the orthodox sense, it may be some back end commissions or royalties that we are able to benefit from.

What are the challenges you’re seeing?

(Lots of them!)

One needs to change one’s organisational footprint to reflect that there’s a greater emphasis on projects rather than long-term relations. So you need a more fluid and cost-based approach to reflect that reality.

Two, we are wrestling with procurement with clients. They’ve strengthened their muscles so we have to be absolutely at a point to demonstrate BBH value. We are constantly having conversations around value.

Thirdly, we have to set the right priorities as we build out the larger creative platform so that we don’t get too extended.

Finally, we’ve to keep it fun. We are lucky to be working in the creative industry and we shouldn’t forget that.

Campaign India

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