A&E/DDB squares up to AMV/BBDO as Omnicom’s two heavyweights battle for UK agency top spot

One of the interesting aspects of the Virgin Atlantic pitch was the agency shortlist, drawn up with the help of Creative Brief, a newbie to these circuses (this one took five months).

imagesThere was RKCR/Y&R, the incumbent, who might have wondered why Virgin was pitching the account after 20 years of outstanding work. They might also have wondered if it was worth repitching in such circumstances – but agencies nearly always do.

Then there was The Brooklyn Brothers. It’s par for the course to put a smaller, ‘creative’ agency on the list these days. Dixons, which went from M&C Saatchi to AMV/BBDO, had 18 Feet & Rising on its list, via pitch consultants Flock Associates.

Sometimes the agency occupying this slot wins through. Wieden+Kennedy was a surprise choice for Tesco although it had a formidable track record of handling some bigger clients, most notably Honda. It had also laboured on people-intensive Nokia as the one-time phone giant went into freefall.

But, with Virgin Atlantic, the heavyweight contest was surely AMV and Adam&Eve/DDB – the eventual winner as we’ve described.

AMV has been Britain’s biggest agency for about as long as RKCR/Y&R handled Virgin Atlantic. It has an enviable record of consistency and the key to this is its ability to retain big accounts. This requires a combination of solid creative work and effective account handling, both of which won’t occur without stable management – which AMV has also demonstrated.

The flip side for AMV is that it can’t pitch for very much as it’s represented in most big categories. So it will be disappointed not to plug its airline gap, although Virgin Atlantic is not a massive spender. But, as we noted above, it’s already won the rather larger Dixons this year.

Over the years AMV has been challenged for top spot in the UK agency stakes by a number of agencies – McCann is usually in second or third spot somehow and BBH has been getting steadily bigger. VCCP may make a run this year as it now has the Asda account. But no-one has really threatened AMV’s top spot even though the agency hasn’t demonstrated that much billings growth, in percentage terms anyway.

Adam&Eve/DDB, like AMV owned by Omnicom, just might. Since James Murphy, David Golding and Ben Priest (below with colleagues) decided to sell their agency to DDB (A&E was a breakaway from RKCR/Y&R) the merged entity has gone from strength to strength. To long-time DDB London watchers this is a miracle on a par with the loaves and fishes.

The John Lewis account continues to sprinkle its stardust over everything the agency does, it has big-spendding bank Halifax and seems to be winning more business from Mars. It also works for Diageo and Unilever.

From DDB days it has VW, the one account the agency really performed on. AMV, by contrast, has Mercedes – which is very nice but nowhere near as big a spender.

The problem for A&E, if it really does want to challenge for number one and its management team hardly lack ambition, is, rather bizarrely, retail. John Lewis owns Waitrose, a successful though smallish player in UK supermarkets. Waitrose boss Mark Price, who has ambitions to head big brother John Lewis one day, would not want his account in the John Lewis agency. But neither would John Lewis be relaxed about A&E handling a Waitrose rival, although it seems happy enough for A&E to handle niche retailer (and Cannes Grand Prix winner) Harvey Nichols. It wouldn’t be too chuffed to see RKCR’s Marks & Spencer heading A&E’s way either.

So A&E doesn’t get the 100m+ of supermarket billings that AMV enjoys from Sainsbury’s. Neither does it have a big telecoms account. DDB used to handle Virgin Media, which proved to be a disaster as the agency reorganised to handle it all, even moving digital agency Tribal into the main agency at one stage.

Virgin upped sticks to BBH and, as a result, DDB owner Omnicom went knocking on A&E’s door with a very large cheque. So DDB losing Virgin did the A&E management a very big favour – but the merged agency needs a big telecoms account to narrow the gap with AMV, which handles BT.

The most compelling combination for a high-flying UK agency is strong management, stand-out creative work and the right combination of big-spending local businesses (like telecoms and retail) plus international network goodies. All of which AMV/BBDO has.

A&E has most of it too; BBH hasn’t, so far, received much from Publicis Groupe although now its wholly-owned by uncle Maurice and co. that might change.

But, for the first time in at least a decade, there are real challengers to AMV’s pre-eminence and sibling A&E/DDB looks the most likely.

Which should give A&E’s Murphy and AMV’s affable boss Ian Pearman something to chat about in the lift as they both both prepare to move into Omnicom’s spanking new HQ in London’s Southwark.

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