2021’s stand-out performers: MAA agencies, advertiser and ad holding company of the year

2021 was a surprisingly good year for the ad holding companies, boards and shareholders anyway, as advertising bounced back from the still-with-us pandemic, money pouring into digital mostly although TV did well.

In the US Interpublic continued its steady progress under outgoing CEO Michael Roth, McCann motoring on as ever, Mediabrands picking up some decent accounts (most recently Dyson) and FCB winning the coveted Network of the Year title at the Cannes Lions.

FCB was a right old mess a few years ago (then known as DraftFCB, the consequence of some disastrous mergers) but it’s well and truly recovered under CEO Carter Murray and CCO Susan Credle. Others are now trying to poach creatives from FCB and it’s a long time since that’s happened.

Among much good and awarded work (a veritable bagful of Lions) FCB Chicago’s ‘Boards of Change’ encouraging black people to register to vote, caught the Black Lives Matter moment best of all.

So FCB is our 2021 US Agency of the Year.

International Agency of the Year comes down to three: FCB Chicago (as above), David Miami and Publicis Italia.

Ogilvy’s David Miami scored mightily for Burger King with its ‘Moldy Whopper’ (not to all tastes) and also survived a breakaway that might have sunk other good new ideas – which the agency undoubtedly is.

Publicis Italia produced consistent good work, seemingly going its won way amid the various ‘Power of One’ re-jiggings at the French-owned holding company. Heineken especially was a creative stand-out.

But FCB Chicago made arguably the biggest impact on the international stage with its vast Cannes haul and so is our International Agency of the Year too.

Media agency is always the trickiest category: you never know which dark arts convince the consultants charged with the seemingly endless succession of big media reviews. The winner is always data-driven, “agile,” but never, publicly, cheapest.

So this year we’ve gone for consistency. Manning Gottlieb OMD is one of the great survivors, still owning up to its media independent heritage despite years of Omnicom ownership, and a formidable force in the UK.It recently retained the UK government media account, all £200m of it annually.

Another consistent performer is WPP’s Essence, originally a digital specialist and actually founded in the UK where it won the Google business back in 2006. Essence’s Christian Juhl is now boss of WPP’s GroupM media agency line-up even though component parts Mediacom, Mindshare and Wavemaker are probably bigger than Essence.

Earlier this year Essence added the non-digital part of Google to it existing business, without a pitch. Keeping Google, with all its in-house capabilities, on the books for 14 years is no mean achievement. Essence also won Deutsche Bank globally and, somewhat bizarrely, the UK’s Royal Horticultural Society. It’s key to WPP’s L’Oreal media business.

Essence is our 2021 Media Agency of the Year.

There are a select number of advertisers who always seem to produce decent work. IKEA, Unilever for brands like Dove (which excelled in the pandemic), Burger King (if that’s your thing), Apple and, recently, Amazon which may now be the world’s biggest advertiser with a spend of around $11bn.

Another is Heineken. Much alcohol advertising these days is somewhere on a scale that starts with dreadful, talking about anything but the product. Some of it could be a Harry and Meghan interview. Not easy to bring the product into it, of course, given the restrictions but…

Heineken and agency Publicis italia struck exactly the right note in the pandemic and even managed to make their non-alcohol beers seem (fairly) enticing.

Heineken is our 2021 Advertiser of the Year.

So back to ad holding companies. Interpublic is a obviously a strong contender (as above); Publicis too recovered well, Dentsu is a work in progress with Wendy Clark trying to sort out international while Omnicom is still struggling to regain its former position, founded originally on its three big creative networks.

Last year’s MAA winner Sir Martin Sorrell’s S4 Capital seems to have slowed a bit: there are only so many targets out there given its preference for cash and shares “mergers.” It also has to show it can deliver the goods for the likes of BMW.

Sorrell’s old fiefdom, WPP, is still standing, against some expectations (no names required.) It, too, recovered strongly from the pandemic in terms of organic growth and CEO Mark Read has managed to boil down some of its multifarious ingredients into a more manageable recipe.

There’s still a way to go (WPP shares may never recover the dizzy heights they achieved under Sorrell) but WPP is motoring again under Read and behaving more like a market leader.

WPP is our 2021 Ad Holding Company of the Year.

Tomorrow: UK Creative Agency of the Year.

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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.

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