A decade of change

It is ten years since Marketing Week first ran its annual Agency Reputations Survey, and since then J Walter Thompson has topped the league of best agencies eight times. It takes the top spot again in this year’s survey for the fourth consecutive year.

It has been a decade of profound change in the advertising world, mirroring underlying shifts in the general economy and client companies themselves. Yet the top ten today differs little from that in 1989, although the ordering within it has changed profoundly.

Saatchi & Saatchi was number one in 1989 but has tumbled since the departure of its eponymous founding brothers. Ogilvy & Mather, BMP DDB and McCann-Erickson are still hitting the top notes. Only Young & Rubicam and DMB&B have dropped out of the top ten altogether.

Yet again, this year JWT garners more respect from the UK’s advertising managers and marketing directors than any of its rivals. But the agency’s management will note with concern that their hold on the number one slot has slipped considerably in the past 12 months. They face a renewed struggle for supremacy from a revitalised rival, Abbott Mead Vickers.BBDO, whose own reputation has been boosted by high-spending clients such as BT, Volvo, Sainsbury’s and Prudential.

Marketing Week’s tenth annual agency reputations survey is a crucial measure of the success of top agencies as it asks the people who really matter – the clients – just how they rate the agencies they work with. The survey, commissioned from Consensus Research International, uses identical methodology every year. Researchers conducted telephone interviews of 150 marketing directors or their equivalents from a random sample of the 450 biggest UK advertisers between October 6 and 29 this year. Clients were asked to judge agencies on nine separate categories ranging from creativity to value for money.

This year, there has been a dramatic shift in the importance that clients attach to the relative significance of the different criteria. “Acting in the clients’ longer-term best interests” has increased by 21 per cent, attaining the same level of influence as the top two criteria, creativity and value for money.

The constancy of the methods used in compiling the data enables comparisons across the economic cycle from the boom of the Lawson years to the recession and recovery of the Nineties. Two categories have been added over the years to the original seven, “ability to act in clients’ long-term best interests based on understanding of their business and their markets and financial stability” and “strong agency management”.

Other agency chiefs may wonder how JWT holds on to its number one position. It is probably not on the strength of winning new business – much of its increase in billings this year has come from existing clients. Creatively, the agency is ranked only fifth and in the category of “gaining most esteem” comes fourth equal. JWT’s strengths lie in its perceived ability to act in clients’ long-term interests, its marketing and strategy analysis and its strong management – all categories where it comes top. It was voted first equal, along with AMV, for the quality of its account managers. But the easy ride it seems to have had for the past half decade has come to an end, and AMV is closing in on the WPP-owned agency.

AMV has regained second overall position after falling to number three last year, and has cut JWT’s lead to just three per cent. It improved its score in creativity – up 11.6 points, financial stability and strong agency management, up 19.5 points and attentiveness and adaptability to clients, up 12.4 points. AMV is ranked below the top three agencies in only two of the nine criteria, media planning and buying (through its New PHD subsidiary) and coverage of major markets outside the UK.

The Saatchi saga continues to run. The breakaway brothers Maurice and Charles have seen their agency M&C Saatchi enter the top ten for the first time, leaping nine places to number eight. It gained top ten status in five criteria and came ninth equal with Ogilvy & Mather in the important category of creativity. The brothers’ former agency, Saatchi & Saatchi has dropped to fourth from second last year after a mixed performance on the new business front. Losses include Campbell Soups and Camelot, but there have been wins too, such as Lloyds TSB, Rothmans and Guinness Africa.

Old Saatchi moved up to fourth from fifth place in creativity and joined the top three agencies in the quality of its account managers and coverage of markets outside the UK. But in six categories – including the crucial value for money and ability to act in clients’ longer-term best interests – it lost ground. The new management team – worldwide chief executive Kevin Roberts took more direct control of the London agency in July and creative director David Droga joined shortly afterwards – will surely be looking to remedy this.

McCann-Erickson has bounced back into the top three for the first time since 1990. But it achieves no better than third place in any of the criteria, though it achieves third place for value for money.

The agencies which have improved their positions most include TBWA GGT Simons Palmer, which has rocketed into the top ten from number 26 last year. Clearly the agency, created from four mergers in the past two years, has benefited from this process, as it now ranks sixth in creativity. Both of the acquired agencies – Simons Palmer and GGT – have been regarded more highly for creativity in the past than TBWA. The fall-out from the TBWA/GGT merger – the loss of a few small accounts – was more than offset by winning the 50m NatWest Bank business.

Ogilvy & Mather, JWT’s sister company within WPP, has maintained its position within the top five, although it has slipped from number four to five. But the agency has lost much of its competitive position, falling down the league tables in all criteria. On creativity it has fallen to ninth equal from sixth last year and showed one of the steepest declines on the quality of its account managers, from second place last year to sixth. In media planning, buying and placement, it has fallen from seventh place to 15th, although this may be the result of hiving off its media interests into MindShare.

O&M has suffered some important losses such as Guinness, which went to AMV earlier this year. It also lost the majority of its Ford business to Young & Rubicam, although it has also won the 40m British Interactive Broadcasting television home shopping account and Government work such as promotion of the Working Time Directive and the task of raising the profile of organ donor cards.

O&M’s reputation stands in contrast to JWT, and WPP chief executive Martin Sorrell will no doubt be reflecting on how to improve on O&M’s public perception.

The bottom end of the top ten is where most of the excitement is happening. The three lowest positions are all occupied by newcomers to the top ten, TBWA, M&C Saatchi and WCRS, which has risen nine places on last year. WCRS has brought in some notable wins, especially the 19m Camelot business, along with Rank bingo and Forte hotels.

Two of the so-called “creative hotshops” in the league, HHCL & Partners and St Luke’s, have brought in contrary performances. HHCL has fallen out of the top ten, dropping from last year’s ninth equal to 15th equal this year, while St Luke’s has risen eight places to 19th.

Perhaps one of the most telling categories of all is the ideal shortlist. AMV gets the most mentions here and occupies the number one spot compared with its joint tenth position ten years ago. It is followed closely by Bartle Bogle Hegarty, which topped the list a decade ago, though it drifted down to sixth position mid-decade. Saatchi has fallen from second to eighth equal, while BMP has risen from tenth equal to fourth equal.

The decade has also seen the arrival en masse of the media specialists, which have managed to increase their positions greatly. However, for the first time in three years, not one makes it into the top ten in 1998. Zenith narrowly missed out on a place, but climbed seven places to number 11 after a slight downturn last year. The agency opened a wide margin over media competitors, gaining on last year in the core area of media planning, buying and placement to achieve a 19-point lead over Carat. On five criteria, Carat lost ground and dipped out of the top ten. Still, it remained ahead of CIA Medianetwork, which has lost several key executives and fallen eight places. BMP DDB’s specialist media agency, BMP Optimum, has done well to establish itself as a free-standing brand, and took third place for media planning, buying and placement.

For some agencies, though, the surveys of the past ten years have revealed a fluctuating performance. Bates Dorland has slipped nine places this year to 20th position. The agency came 13th in the first survey ten years ago, and had risen to its highest position of eighth equal by 1993. This year it has relinquished a place among the top ten on seven criteria.

But for CDP, the yo-yo effect has been even more marked. It rocketed from 43rd to ninth-equal place between 1996 and 1997, but has now dropped out of the top ten on the seven criteria in which it entered last year, and plummeted back to 32nd place in the overall ranking table.

Two French-owned agencies, Publicis and EURO RSCG Wnek Gosper are notable for their constancy – EURO stays at 23rd position for the third year in a row, and Publicis at 22nd for the second year. Likewise, Leo Burnett is still hovering at the foot of the top ten, rising to 12th from joint 13th, Lowe Howard-Spink rises to joint 15th from 16th and DMB&B inches up to 18th from 20th last year.

Some would say in ten years’ time, there may not be an ad industry as we know it today, but rather creative services grouped around management consultancies.

If so, it will be interesting to compare the shape of the 2008 top ten with this year’s. That will be the measure of how far the current agency managers can make a lasting impression on the people that really matter, the clients.

Agency bosses should without exception put memos around their offices with a simple command: “Must Do Better.”

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