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New York can be a tough place for outsiders who arrive with dreams of big-city success. And that’s been true for ad agencies that have come from outside cities and tried to put down roots in New York: Stellar advertising names such as Fallon, Wieden, Chiat, Riney and others have found the Manhattan terrain challenging.

So when the storied British agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty launched a small outpost in New York City seven years ago, there was reason to be skeptical. After opening small, BBH in New York grew very slowly over the first five years of its existence. But suddenly, in the last two, it has emerged as one of the hottest, most buzzed-about ad shops in the New York market.

It hasn’t been simply a matter of winning new accounts, though the agency has done its share of that (during the past two years, BBH/NY’s business has grown by 45%, as its client roster has more than doubled and its staff has swelled to 160 people, housed in a new, enlarged TriBeca office with sweeping views). What’s perhaps more impressive is the way BBH/NY is achieving that growth. The shop has lately emerged as one of the bold new leaders in a current movement to reinvent advertising and fundamentally change the way it looks, feels and works.

With its work for clients such as Axe, Levi’s and Johnny Walker, the agency is blurring the lines between commercials, TV shows, viral Web films and other forms of entertainment/communication. BBH/NY is not the only one on the cutting edge of this movement—agencies such as Crispin Porter Bogusky, TBWA\Chiat\Day and Fallon are out there on the same limb with them. But those are stalwart American creative ad names, and as such, are expected to lead an American ad revolution. It’s more surprising to see a young British “outpost” take on such a role.

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Of course, BBH/NY doesn’t see itself as just an “outpost,” and that may explain why the agency isn’t behaving like one. The New York office’s current leadership—spearheaded by Kevin Roddy on the creative side, Gwyn Jones on the business side, Emma Cookson heads up global strategy and last year Steve Harty joined the management team as North American chairman—took charge about two years ago, determined to give the shop its own distinct mission. Jones came over from the mother ship in London, where, as managing director, he’d helped to guide BBH through a recent period of resurgence. He was eager to take on the New York challenge because he saw an opportunity to do things in the United States that BBH couldn’t do in London.

“I think BBH was already leading the charge in Europe, in terms of trying to use new technology and new media to engage audiences differently,” Jones says. “But in the U.S., there was an opportunity to take it much further, because here you have great penetration of digital technology, and you have Hollywood, and there is also a different attitude about the relationship between advertising and the entertainment world.”

Indeed, Jones notes that while the British have tended to believe in maintaining a rigid separation between ads and entertainment (influenced in part by the anti-commercialism of the BBC), in the U.S. the wall between advertising and content has been coming down for some time. These days, American advertisers and television producers are both exploring ways to merge and blend ads with entertainment. And BBH was eager to not only join in this exploration, but, if possible, to lead it.

To do that, however, the New York office needed a creative director who could spearhead the effort to produce this new hybrid form of communication. That person arrived, around the same time as CEO Jones, when Kevin Roddy signed on as the executive creative director two years ago.

If it’s hard-sell or feels like an ad in any way, people will reject it. You have to play by the rules of entertainment, not advertising, in order for this to work.” —Kevin Roddy

Roddy, 46, was well-suited to lead a creative transition, having gone through his own personal transition in the ad business some years earlier. He started out as “a suit”—the impolite term in advertising for an account person. After ten years of shepherding other people’s creative ideas, Roddy decided he had a few of his own. On his own time, he put together a portfolio of spec ad campaigns (“with a lot of stick figure drawings,” he admits), and then worked up the nerve to show it to his agency’s creative director, who encouraged him to turn in his suit and become a copywriter.

At that point, Roddy basically started his career over again. He rounded up his own roster of small local clients, for whom he created free ads. He entered some of those ads in award shows, and that led to a series of creative positions at Berenter Greenhouse & Webster and Odiorne Wilde Narraway & Groome, culminating in a stint at Cliff Freeman and Partners. It was there, during the late 1990s that Roddy emerged as a top award-winner and creative star. He went on to work at a couple of other agencies before receiving a call from John Hegarty, one of BBH’s founding partners, who offered him the creative helm at BBH/NY.

Roddy didn’t automatically say yes. “I told John I wasn’t interested in just picking up where the previous creative director left off,” he says. “It seemed to me that the New York office had strong potential, but was still trying to find its way at the time. I felt like it needed a jolt and a new sense of direction.” When Roddy learned that Hegarty shared that view—as did the incoming Gwyn Jones—he jumped in with both feet.

“One of the first things I did,” Roddy recalls, “was to gather together the creative department. I said to them, ‘My agenda is not just to do better advertising, but to broaden the whole definition of advertising.’” It was a big, bold statement—the kind often tossed around by ambitious advertising people—but it didn’t take long for Roddy to begin putting those words into action. The agency’s subsequent work for Axe, a men’s deodorant brand from Unilever, went way beyond commercials to include a series of “viral” films, designed to look almost homemade, that were passed around on the Web. On the Axe Web site, interactive games were created, inviting guys to submit information about what types of women they were seeking, where-upon they’d be matched up with the perfect scent (the site soon had a million hits).

Perhaps the most innovative thing the agency did for Axe was to create an entire TV show called Gamekillers—an hour-long program dreamed up by BBH/NY as a means of expanding the concept of an Axe commercial into a full-length TV show. Using a reality-style format, the show places young men into tense dating situations whereupon they’re forced to contend with an intrusive “gamekiller”—a person whose sole objective is to mess up the poor guy’s date or steal his girl. The show was designed to be very soft-sell in terms of limiting the number of product appearances or mentions, yet the whole point of it—how can a guy stay cool and dry in high-pressure romantic situations?—dovetails nicely with the overall Axe campaign.

I think BBH was already leading the charge in Europe, in terms of trying to use new technology and new media to engage audiences differently.” —Gwyn Jones

Gamekillers initially aired as a one-shot program last spring on MTV, but was so popular that the channel green-lit it as a regular TV series, slated to begin in late 2006 or early ’07. Meanwhile, BBH/NY also created a separate TV show, The Order of the Serpentine, which ran as a 30-minute special on the Spike television channel; it, too, was a spinoff of an Axe ad campaign that featured a make-believe cult. Roddy says more TV program creations are in the works. Which raises the question: Will audiences accept TV shows that are not merely sponsored by an advertiser, but wholly created by one? “If it’s hard-sell or feels like an ad in any way, people will reject it,” Roddy says. “You have to play by the rules of entertainment, not advertising, in order for this to work.”

In addition to the Axe work, the agency has been blurring the lines of entertainment and ads for other clients, too. A recent Web film created for Smirnoff, called “Tea Partay” (promoting an iced-tea malt beverage), looked more like a music video than an ad; in it, Polo-shirt-wearing preppies do a hilarious hardcore-gangsta rap (“Straight outta Cape Cod, we’re keepin’ it real”). The film became an overnight phenomenon on YouTube, probably in part because it was so “soft-sell” that it was hard to tell what product was being promoted in it.

Meanwhile, for the Johnny Walker liquor brand, BBH/NY created a popular online film that was the next chapter of the classic baseball poem, “Casey at the Bat” (in BBH’s version, Casey hits it out of the park instead of striking out). But lest it seem the agency is entirely focused on short films or TV shows, it should be noted that the Walker campaign also makes ground-breaking use of outdoor billboards and wild postings, as did a recent campaign for All detergent—in which the agency completely covered city buses with laundry. And while the agency may be focused on nontraditional expressions of advertising, it is also still managing to turn out good old TV commercials, for Levi’s in particular, that are garnering industry praise for quality and style.

To Roddy, it’s all part of “broadening the definition of advertising,” to encompass both traditional and non-traditional forms. He and partner Jones came in promising to do this, and so far BBH/NY is delivering on that promise. And in the process, the agency is establishing its own independent, break-the-mold identity—in a city that may be tough on outposts, but that always seems to welcome the original. ca

Warren Berger (warrenberger.com) is a writer and speaker specializing in design, advertising and innovation. He is the author of several books, including the newly revised A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas (Bloomsbury, 2014). Berger lectures and conducts workshops on innovation and creativity in business, and he is a frequent contributor to the Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, the Harvard Business Review and CA.

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