I see that adam&eveDDB is celebrating ten years in business, hard on the heels of an earn-out from DDB owner Omnicom that has netted its partners and staff about £100m.
The agency began in the most difficult of circumstances: James Murphy, David Golding and Ben Priest decided to exit WPP’s Y&R (then Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R) to do their own thing, hardly the first to go it alone. WPP promptly sued them over alleged contacts with Y&R’s client Lloyds, later to play a big part in A&E’s success. The suit was settled but at great expense to the start-up.
But start they did and Lloyds Banking Group, owner of Lloyds, was to play a role by selecting the agency to handle Halifax as, of course, did John Lewis (below), still its most famous account. It’s received wisdom now in London that there aren’t enough big domestic accounts around to jet propel a start-up but banks and retailers are two that can.
Awards and lots of other accounts followed, so much so that in 2012 Omnicom arranged its famous buy-out, just as famously with no ceiling on the total to be paid. This was remarkably generous considering that, despite the agency’s success, WPP was hardly likely to be a rival buyer. WPP’s Sir Martin Sorrell and the A&E founders (later joined by media man Jon Forsyth) were hardly pals.
But Omnicom had a problem with DDB in London which didn’t seem to know where it should be headed. Despite its creative heritage – not just from the US but also its much earlier acquisition of celebrated creative shop BMP – the agency had got itself in a right old tangle, specifically with then client Virgin Media. Virgin Media wanted lots of digital so the agency absorbed its digital arm Tribal into the main agency, in effect putting it in charge. Virgin eventually departed to BBH.
But DDB had, and still has, Volkswagen.
One of things that Murphy and Golding are good at is simplifying issues that tie other agencies in knots. A&E is unashamedly an advertising agency (officially it calls itself a communications agency) although much of its business is digital “customer journey” stuff. This is now funnelled through Tribal. Years ago JWT, once the most famous ad agency in the world, tried to persuade the world that it consisted of “cultural anthropologists.” You can’t imagine Murphy and Golding having much truck with this.
So A&E succeeded mightily, so much so that we asked a while back if it was “the best ad agency in the world?” There are other contenders of course. If we use the two criteria of creativity and business success then Droga5 in the US, maybe Jung von Matt in Germany might come into it. BETC and Buzzman in Paris are formidable. WPP’s Ogilvy has some impressive outposts. In London A&E has twice been our Agency of the Year although recently it’s had to take second place to Mother in 2016 and Wieden+Kennedy last year. But over the piece it’s probably still the best.
But the next ten years will pose challenges too, even if they aren’t quite so terrifying as Sir Martin Sorrell and his lawyers. Murphy, Golding and Priest are still there, albeit in group roles. There’s a new management which seems to have fitted in pretty seamlessly. But the three founders are pretty rich now and how would they react if Omnicom put the financial squeeze on, not because of any shortcomings at A&E necessarily but because holding companies across the board are facing slowing growth and shareholder discontent.
Will its new US operation fly (set up to handle a big slice of Samsung) and will it look to expand in continental Europe? Many clients want the John Lewis agency, wherever they’re based. How would this fit in the DDB and wider Omnicom picture?
Murphy, who’s come up against them in pitches, says the big consultancies, the new threat to ad agencies’ hegemony, are good at saving clients money but only an ad agency like his can double or triple sales (on a good day, of course).
He’s right and the ad industry needs an adam&eve (which picks up as many effectiveness awards as creative) to show that the old way can be the new way too. But, in a somewhat febrile new world, the agency is faced with just as many challenges now as it was when it challenged the big guns ten years ago.