It’s time to pick our UK Agency of the Year, based on creative and business performance.
Last year we chose adam&eveDDB, as it had a pretty peerless year, before then the winners were BBH and Wieden+Kennedy.
So how was 2015 (so far – everything’s coming earlier this year including, it seems, Christmas) for these luminaries?
BBH bounced back from losing big chunks of Diageo and Unilever’s Axe (although it remains on the roster) by winning Tesco without a pitch (from W+K) and then Heinz. The work, though, still has a way to go before it regains the peaks of yore. BBH’s first big campaign for Tesco, in particular, failed to impress.
W+K probably waved goodbye to Tesco with some relief as it had tried and failed to make us love the grocer.But there were clear signs that the agency was firing again with some outstanding work and, after a series of narrow fails, a winning pitch for TK Maxx. But neither made our Agency of the Year shortlist which was (in alphabetical order) adam&eveDDB, Brothers and Sisters, Grey, Lucky Generals, R/GA and WCRS.
Let’s take them in reverse order. WCRS, after years of seeming to be just a cog in the Engine marcoms machine, re-established itself as one of London’s leading lights, taking second place behind AMV BBDO in creative agency billings thus far, thanks largely to Sky (for which it performed strongly) and B&Q which it won at the tail end of last year. If it wins Morrisons, for which it has to be one of the favourites, its case would be that much stronger. It also produced an outstanding Christmas campaign (well, sort of Christmas) for Warburtons (below).
All of which is exactly what you expect from a big agency at the top of its game. In many years that would be enough to win.
R/GA, the big digital agency within Interpublic, was the Cannes Agency of the Year and is, arguably, the global leader right now among the digerati. Its London operation, though, is still relatively small but it showed in the course of the year – in the US as well as here – that it’s more than capable of turning its hand to outstanding traditional advertising too. As in this, the best Rugby World Cup campaign (we won’t show you the Chris Robshaw one).
“We will rise to the challenge,” says Mr McCaw and, indeed, he did. But so, in its own way, is R/GA (the challenge being to show that ‘digital’ agencies can work across the canvas, as it is for trad agencies to show they can do digital).
Lucky Generals is a tough one. It’s the most successful home grown start-up since A&E. It’s won some good business: Paddy Power (which may become even bigger following its £5bn merger with Betfair) and Twitter, although we haven’t seen anything from them yet. It has the feel of a big agency, even in its formative years, and that’s crucial for long term success. The partners have been here before – most notably in setting up MCBD which disappeared following the disastrous merger with Dare – and that helps too. Let’s hope they stay independent this time.
And the work has been, as you’d expect, irreverent and on target.
Had they won Waitrose (which went to A&E, as most do) their case this year would have been stronger. This would have entered them in the Christmas ads ‘Super Bowl’ which would have demanded different qualities to the ones they’ve been able to show so far. So, maybe, a year or so too early for Agency of the Year.
Grey has been there or thereabouts for a couple of years now, becoming the jewel in WPP’s UK crown just as it has in the US under Jim Heekin and Tor Myhren. You could see the agency was changing when, just over two years ago, it managed the not inconsiderable feat of producing a decent ad for Vodafone.
And this sets the tone for much of the agency’s recent work. This year it won big at Cannes with ‘LifePaint’ for Volvo, showing its versatility.
So, rather like WCRS, Grey has demonstrated that it’s a proper big agency. Grey, though, has benefited from WPP’s client connections – Vodafone, which moved from RKCR/Y&R, seems to be a WPP house account as is another big one, News UK. And everything in the Grey garden isn’t lovely: earlier this year highly-regarded London CEO Chris Hirst decamped to Havas and News UK (the Murdoch newspaper empire in the UK) is reported to have taken its creative work back in-house following the re-appointment of Rebekah Brooks as CEO.
Brothers and Sisters shares the Sky account with WCRS and produced one of our two top-scoring Ads of the Year with ‘Time Machine’ featuring Thierry Henry (the top scorer was AMV BBDO’s ‘Mog’s Christmas Calamity for Sainsbury’s).
B&S also produced the Keith Lemon series of online funnies for Carphone Warehouse. When you mention this to people they tend to stand aside slightly, as though you’ve revealed you’re not quite the kind of person they foolishly thought you were. And it is rumbustious and populist but that’s what it’s aiming to be.
If you’re going to do a long-running ‘content’ campaign (which many clients seem to want) you can’t just make a series of long form ads to run on YouTube. B&S founder Andy Fowler (an old Sky hand) knows this; Carphone seems to like it (spending more on this than trad ads) and B&S has, arguably, stolen a march on its rivals in the content stakes.
But, for the winner, it’s a case of as you were: adam&eveDDB.
My colleague Paul Simons has already described the agency’s performance thus: “probably the UK’s gold standard of what an advertising agency is best at: good ideas, relevant to the brand and audience, executed with care and style.” I can’t disagree with that and I don’t think many people could.
When you’re ahead you’re there to be shot at, of course, and there have been plenty of pot shots at A&E, most notably at its ‘Man on the Moon’ Christmas campaign for John Lewis.
We gave it a 9 but that number could easily have been inverted: had they gone too far with the emotion this time? But it works, it resonates strongly with the public, it’s great for John Lewis and, doubtless, Age UK. Actually, it’s brilliant.
And A&E can also essay this content lark, instanced here by David Beckham and Kevin Hart for H&M.
It rarely drops the ball and, quite often, gets over the try line. But there’s more to the agency than that. Adland has been grumbling, collectively, for years now that agencies have lost their seat at the client top table, that a combination of inexperienced and dim-witted clients allied to clunking procurement people have made ads less effective and the business a misery.
But, very rarely, an agency emerges that does move advertising to centre stage; reminding clients that it can transform businesses. Back in the day Saatchi & Saatchi was probably the first agency to become nearly as famous with the public as it was in the biz. That’s probably not possible, or maybe even desirable, any more. Since those days, in the UK anyway, there’s probably only been Bartle Bogle Hegarty encroaching on such eminence. AMV BBDO, the long time market leader (in terms of billings anyway) should probably be more famous than it is.
Consultant Michael Farmer in his seminal book Madison Avenue Manslaughter describes the way that big companies’ pursuit of ‘shareholder value’ (to the detriment of brand building) and refusal to align fees to workloads (the impact of procurement) have served to screw agencies. When many of them have to remit 30 per cent of their earnings to holding companies you can see the problem.
The only way to reverse this trend (apart from nuking the holding companies) is for big companies to say “I want some of that” and, in consequence, we’ll value our agencies and pay what it costs. In the US the mighty AB InBev, trying desperately to revive its biggest brand Bud Light, announced to the world that it expecting this transformation to come from newly-appointed agency Wieden+Kennedy (our US Agency of the Year). Plenty of UK clients (and some in the US) are saying of A&E (particularly in reference to its John Lewis work): “I want some of that too.”
The agency does, indeed, possess the ‘magic phone’ (as Brothers and Sisters’ Matt Charlton described the prize possession of BBH in its heyday). That attraction/fame, call it what you will, is important, not just for them but the whole industry.
Which makes adam&eveDDB a doubly worthy winner of our Agency of the Year award.