Groundwork being done by tomorrow’s top seeds

It’s interesting what marketing directors notice – and what they miss – during the three per cent of their working lives allegedly devoted to assessing and selecting marketing services agencies.

Take this year’s Agency Reputations Survey, the 16th in an annual series tracking the views of over 100 top-spending marketing chiefs. McCann Erickson headed the pack, and with a reasonably clear majority vote. It’s only the second time that McCann has received that heady honour, the last being 2001 when the pungent personalities of then regional chairman Ben Langdon and Bacardi’s Tom Cat might equally have contributed to the winning combination.

This time the key to success is less easily detected. In truth, McCann’s business performance has been chequered over the past year. Against wins like Intel, the Co-op, Signet and RHM Foods must be placed losses such as Birds Eye, Capital One and Bacardi itself. Nor have the increasingly serious financial problems afflicting McCann’s parent company, IPG, intruded on clients’ judgement. What has undoubtedly tilted the balance is McCann’s newish top management team, headed by the ebullient, evergreen Rupert Howell.

One of Howell’s most important decisions was to poach creative luminary Robert Campbell from Y&R. McCann’s sheer size and professionalism have nearly always enabled it to hover within the top five. What has eluded it (for most of the past 30 years in fact) is creative appreciation, a fairly major handicap given that creativity vies with value for money as advertisers’ top criterion. Campbell has definitely put McCann on the map here by helping to claw the agency up to fourth place on the creativity table.

Of course, there is an alternative way of looking at McCann’s achievement, or Saatchi & Saatchi’s resurgence at number two for that matter. And it is this. Agency hegemony, rather like being Wimbledon champion, is usually a serial matter. Survey results over the years have produced only a few consistent, outright winners: first Saatchi, then JWT, a fleeting appearance by BMP (now DDB London) and finally AMV.BBDO. Although tenure of the top position is often unbroken, once lost it is difficult to recover. AMV has now slipped to fourth position overall, and it could be that McCann is simply a default choice while the kaleidoscope shifts.

What lends credence to this theory is the increasing strength of media specialists in the top table. There are now a record nine appearing in the top 30, clearly illustrating advertisers’ increasing preoccupation with the distribution, as opposed to content, of the message. It will always be difficult for a media brand to win out in a survey that lays great weight on creativity. All the more reason, therefore, to monitor the progress of MediaCom – number three in this year’s overall chart – which may be laying the foundations of a ‘disguised’ leadership, in the wake of AMV’s former dominance.

Finally, a note on holding company brands. Two of these, WPP and Publicis Groupe, make significant independent showings in the criteria ‘financial stability/strong management’ and ‘coverage outside the UK’ – often alongside their subsidiary agencies. A sign of the times, perhaps, in a world where the really big accounts are being won not by individual agencies, but by group effort.

Stuart Smith, Editor

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