• Transform magazine
  • August 23, 2019

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Plain sailing at Lippincott

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In the month following global brand agency Lippincott‘s acquisition of employee engagement firm Bonfire Communications, Andrew Thomas caught up with its global CEO, Rick Wise.

In most years, the sunny summer evenings would normally find Rick Wise, CEO of global branding agency Lippincott, sipping cocktails on the porch of his vacation home in Maine, having spent the day on the North Atlantic waters in one of his two boats. This summer was different. For the first time in its 71 year history Lippincott had made an acquisition, with the purchase of employee communications agency Bonfire Communications.

Fortunately for Wise, although the deal took place over the summer holidays, the support of its parent company, management consultancy firm Oliver Wyman (part of the multi-billion dollar turnover, professional services conglomerate Marsh & McLennon) eased the process. As Wise notes “One of the benefits [of the Oliver Wyman ownership] is they had the trained logistic support for things like the due diligence, the HR and IT transition and integration. The deal went through surprisingly smoothly”.

He puts forward a very logical case for buying Bonfire. Certainly over the past five years Lippincott had seen a strong shift in the way that organisations engage their employees, with talent acquisition, retention and engagement through brand strategy becoming a more strategic issue for companies. Lippincott found that increasingly they were being asked to advise in areas beyond those normally asked of branding firms. “We realised we didn’t have the full palette of tools and techniques to engage with employees and really come at those issues from the sympathetic employee level in the way that Bonfire do. It’s a different skill set to get the organisation to embrace the brand internally as compared to creating strategy or design around an identity system. So bringing those capabilities together was really the goal of the acquisition” says Wise, adding “we also felt it was a really good cultural fit and there were a lot of shared aspirations for what we were trying to do.”

Lippincott is the oldest serving brand agency. Founded in 1943 by  J. Gordon Lippincott and Walter Margulies, it was the agency behind Coca Cola’s swirl and the iconic Campbell’s soup can. This year it won a gold award in the European Transform Awards for its work with Stanley, as well as collecting a number of silver and bronze trophies for other clients. With an agency that has so much heritage, Wise sees stewardship of the Lippincott brand as part of his remit. “We consider ourselves in the top tier of branding firms, and it’s important to maintain the quality and excellence that keeps us there. At the same time we also need to make sure we’re keeping the business dynamic and that the role we can play with clients continues to expand.”

Wise defines Lippincott’s vision as being about building tomorrow’s best brands. He quickly adds that the most important word is ‘building’. “It’s a workmanlike word for a reason” he says, adding “We’re not just about flashy concepts and creation but we’re about understanding what a client is trying to achieve and the holistic vision of actually helping them get to this notion of best. And to do it over a number of years. It’s not about applying the brand as a veneer to the business but actually using the brand as a rallying cry to align an organization and to drive strategy and change.”

As a global brand agency Lippincott sees competition coming from a variety of avenues including other brand agencies and design firms but also including ad agencies. Wise thinks that increasingly clients can understand the differences that brand agencies bring. “We do find that the ad agencies are in there but often, because of the way their economics work, they see what we do as a bit of a sweetener or something they do around the margins of a large advertising relationship. But what we try to do is focus on the much more holistic view of brands and I would say over time, we’ve expanded our view to encompass much more than traditional graphic design and visual expression to be all about experience development, organisational engagement and a broader brand strategy portfolio.”

Obviously it isn’t just clients for whom Lippincott competes. Talent attraction is always a major issue for the top level of brand agencies. Wise tends not to look too strongly at ad agency personnel. “It is typically more a mix of folks from the world of branding firms.”

Wise’s background was from management consultancy, and this, possibly coupled with the Oliver Wyman ownership means that its recruitment field is wider than most brand and design agencies.  “We do actually pull from the world of management and strategy consulting as well. The intersection of brand and business strategy is so important to success and given our parent is a strategy consulting firm, and not a branding firm or an ad holding company, our DNA is a little more strategic” says Wise.

Wise certainly feels proud of his achievements at Lippincott. He led the account on the rebranding of Wal-Mart. “Here was a tremendously large company, very visible with many perspectives across the spectrum and to have been such a close collaborator across such wide ranging change was really phenomenal.”

It isn’t, however, client work that has given him the most satisfaction.  “I think, to me, one of the things that I’m really proud of is how we’ve grown Lippincott over the last five years. We have done it by really trying to integrate all our capabilities together. We’ve got a very stable and long-lived management and senior team here that works together really well. I’m very proud of that and I think that that’s an exciting base for the future.”

The management at Lippincott certainly seems to be aligned in its approach and goals. The agency runs a single global P&L, which Wise thinks important. “We don’t have competition between offices, where people might not play nicely as they are too busy protecting their own P&L.”

This collegiate approach seems to spread to the structure of the teams. According to Wise, “We don’t have people sitting in departments, we’re all scattered together.” Wise feels that many brand agencies talk about integration, but few really deliver “We really do completely integrate from top to bottom. We don’t have any differentials in terms of how we promote or compensate across the creative and the strategic side of our business.”

The next year will see much of Wise’s time taken up with the integration of Bonfire and Lippincott. Bonfire is based on the west coast but there have already been assimilation meetings in New York and Wise is slowly introducing the Bonfire team to the other offices around the world. The Bonfire name has gravitas but it is likely that long term there will only be the Lippincott brand. The acquisition was more for the IP, the people and the diagnostic tools and methodology that Bonfire use, together with access to its client base.

There’s work to do there, but Wise is already focusing on longer term objectives, happily talking about five and ten year plans. There are references to brand experience and innovation, more work in digital and many references to how strong design capability is central to the Lippincott DNA. Plans may include a new office in the Middle East, and greater investment in the successful Hong Kong and UK at present. There is talk of another European office. It may have already been there, but there is a sense that the Bonfire acquisition ignited a stronger ambition for global growth. And if that happens Wise may have to get used to doing a little less sailing next year.