Which ad agency was the best in the world in 2011?

It’s a pretty impossible question to answer, as we know more about agencies in the UK and US than we do in many other markets. But it’s still worth having a go.

In the UK Bartle Bogle Hegarty had an outstanding year, rediscovering its creative mojo with brilliant ads for Audi, Barnardo’s, Lynx and Yeo Valley and a rich stream of new business including Dulux, the Guardian, Sol, Virgin Media, Waitrose and Wonderbra. Other contenders would include Adam & Eve, mainly for its John Lewis Christmas ad but also for a solid new business record, most recently Lastminute.com, and VCCP which escaped the curse of the Comparethemarket.com Meerkats to produce good work for new client Molson Coors and a big campaign for another new client, Easyjet.

But BBH is the only realistic UK winner. But is it the best in the world?

In the US Mcgarrybowen swept all before it in the new business stakes, winning Bud Light, Burger King, Sears and United Continental among others and showing that old-fashioned Madison Avenue virtues (with a digital twist) are still compelling for many clients. This is important because adland should be rather like rugby union, a world class game that makes room for chunky plodders in the front row of the scrum just as it does for flashy speed merchants in the backs. In other words, not everyone can be a BBH, or a Droga5.

And Droga5 ran Mcgarrybowen closest among our US contenders, winning three Grand Prix at Cannes (although some might argue that they weren’t all really ads), muscling its way onto the Kraft roster with some outstanding and cheeky work, like Athenos, and picking up Amstel from Heineken just last week.

Dave Droga also appointed Mcgarrybowen to handle his holiday card account, which is a nice jokey way of saying ‘well done’ to a competitor.

Wieden+Kennedy Portland, of which more later, also maintained its high standards, which means very high standards, in the US with arguably the ad of the year in Eminem’s opus for Chrysler and good work for Heineken, Levi’s, Old Spice and potentially big Procter & Gamble win Ivory.

Outside our two ‘old advertising’ regions it gets a bit harder, not least because such judgements depend on who sends you stuff as it’s not possible to watch a lot of, say, Chinese TV. But Leo Burnett Sydney and JWT Shanghai produced some outstanding work while, in Europe, BETC Paris excelled for Canal+ and announced its plans to build a third ad network for owner Havas while W+K Amsterdam excelled for Coca-Cola, Heineken and Nike, won Russia’s Beeline telecoms and started its own apps factory, The Dam Armada.

South America as a region has burst onto the world creative scene in recent years with outstanding agencies now winning global briefs as well as enjoying the freedom to do brilliant and, sometimes, apparently crazy things on local business. In a strong field Del Campo Nazca Saatchi & Saatchi was voted top agency by its peers and produced its now customary pyrotechnics for Andes and Norte beers and industrial firm BGH for whom it produced a musical microwave.

But it also demonstrated that it could handle the big stuff equally well with an excellent global campaign for Sony Playstation. So it makes our long shortlist.

So which one of these was the Agency of the Year in 2011? BBH, for its combination of great creative work and new business success. It could hardly have done any more.

And the best agency network? Not BBH’s micro-network as it still has to turn round the fortunes of its New York office. Saatchi & Saatchi would be a contender as it tries harder than its marcom-owned rivals to promote creativity in its broadest sense through things like the News Director’s Showcase at Cannes and also its ‘Impossible Brief’ initiative which resulted in an initiative for Palestinians and Israelis to give blood to each other rather than shed it. But Saatchi didn’t have a stellar year on the new business front.

Ogilvy & Mather won Campaign Asia’s best network award and also closed 2011 strongly by winning the Philips account from DDB which certainly makes it WPP’s strongest performer while Omnicom’s BBDO sailed serenely on, performing with enviably consistency around the world. But it always does, to the extent that something of a gap has emerged between it and Omnicom’s two other big networks, DDB and TBWA.

Network of the Year goes to Wieden+Kennedy which has shown pretty conclusively that an independently-owned creative outfit really can compete for big global accounts like Coca-Cola, Heineken and Procter & Gamble without compromising its creative standards. In this process W+K Amsterdam has emerged as a key hub.

Next up, we’ll take a look at some of the best ads of 2011.

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About Stephen Foster

Stephen is a former editor of Marketing Week and London Evening Standard advertising columnist. He wrote City Republic for Brand Republic and is a partner in communications consultancy The Editorial Partnership.