So what’s so good about AMV/BBDO?

And why should we inquire?

Well, according to the new Campaign/Nielsen list of UK agency billings AMV/BBDO remains top dog (no surprise there) but, at £458m is more than one and a half times as big as number two McCann. and the gap is widening: AMV/BBDO increased its billings by 22 per cent in 2012 while McCann dropped 11 per cent to £276m.

Campaign seems to be doing a dance of the seven veils with its figures this year (so it can sell more premium-priced magazines presumably), only giving us the top five at this stage.

So at three we have BBH on £250m (up 11 per cent), RKCR/Y&R at four on £247m (down 11 per cent) and in fifth Adam&Eve/DDB on £219m (down 16.9 per cent).

This last is pretty revealing by the way: last May Omnicom surprised just about everybody by shelling out £60m for Adam&Eve (essentially John Lewis with some Fosters) and plonking it on top of DDB. By the looks of these figures DDB might have slid off the map entirely without the injection of A&E billings.

Anyway, to AMV. After a rocky start back in the late 1970s (creative director David Abbott (pictured) arrived only to be told by his new partners that he’d better bring in some business or it was curtains – fortunately he did, Volvo) the agency has consistently demonstrated its class; in the early days through copywriter Abbott’s work for Volvo, Sainsbury’s and The Economist (it still holds the last two).

Chairman Peter Mead also realised that times were changing and you couldn’t wing it any more. So he brought in, first, Peter Warren and then Michael Baulk from Ogilvy & Mather, then known as ‘The Ministry of Advertising.’ The agency has been firmly but sensitively (by adland standards) managed ever since.

After a reasonably lengthy spell as a public company it sold to Omnicom; a wise choice of partner. If you were an AMV, BBDO was the perfect network for you: creative sure, but not about to frighten the horses.
And so it has gone on ever since. There’s no Abbott now (he’s now a successful novelist) but his rather less celebrated successors have stuck to the recipe of classy creative work (the sort that appeals to big clients like Sainsbury’s, Mars and BT) without too many alarums. The agency is celebrated for its planning and, still, sensible management: latterly with Cilla Snowball (left) in the role previously occupied by the avuncular Mead.

So its success is hardly rocket science. But the gap between it and its peers is rather surprising. This kind of upper middle ground was once occupied in London by J. Walter Thompson (now JWT) but that agency is a pale shadow of what it used to be when Abbott, Mead and (Adrian) Vickers were making their way in the world.

Judging by this grouping (and accepting that media billings equivalents for creative agencies don’t necessarily reflect income – although in AMV’s case they probably do) the rest of them might as well chuck in the towel. In the billings stakes at least.

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About Stephen Foster

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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.