A-List Agencies Are More Than Just New-Biz Machines

They're Also on the Cutting Edge: Defying Classification, Willing to Experiment and Retaining Top Talent

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The talk at the table is filled with in-jokes and chair-rocking laughs. Outsize slices of pizza being jammed into mouths are the only brief punctuation in a conversation that's impressively fast-flowing considering the multilingual nature of the crowd.

It's Cannes '07, and this is an executive meeting, Tribal DBB-style, with two dozen executive creative directors from Australia, India, Portugal and Denmark (among many other places) doing a good impression of friends who hang out together every day.

While many agencies claim to have seamless global operations and inter-office cooperation, anyone who spends as much time as we do at Ad Age chatting to agency employees knows it doesn't usually work that way in reality. Often the fiefdoms, hierarchies, culture clashes and jealousies are not only barely-disguised, they're actually bloody obvious.

That the staffers finish each others' sentences and have a strong bond certainly wasn't the reason we picked Tribal as our Global Agency of the Year. Its work is good, its growth rapid, its digital savvy in demand. But these intangibles count for something too, and it was interesting that when we interviewed Tribal's clients that they talked, unprompted, about many of the same traits I thought I saw in that restaurant on the French Riviera.

Even in this age of procurement and commoditization, many marketers still buy in to and stay with agencies based on such intangibles. That's what the "chemistry check" is there for in the pitch process, and I've often heard a lack of chemistry cited as a reason for a split. One top-20 marketer recently told me he stuck with a particular agency through a tough period because its people were so honest.

The agencies that made it to this year's Agency A-List based mainly on relatively measurable criteria such as revenue growth, new-business wins, effective and creative work also exhibited a lot of similar traits of a more nebulous nature.

While most of them have strong, charismatic leaders, they almost all have deep benches of talented people -- and they don't hide those people away. While some top dogs hog the limelight, the CEOs at almost all the agencies who made the cut constantly are thrusting their people on stage, recognizing that these days it takes a village of talent. Starcom can take a bow here: Somehow it keeps a battery of C-suite caliber people housed and happy within its ranks.

Most of the A-List shops also defy or are starting to defy classification by marketing discipline. And they eschew neat little mottos or taglines too. Being more flexible about what you are and, particularly, what your end product might be, is imperative. The market changes so quickly that picking a pigeonhole is a risky, niche strategy at best. And marketers increasingly understand that if an agency is doing its job properly, it won't know what its end product will be until it understands the challenge being posed.

The majority of the A-Listers also have demonstrated a willingness to experiment or change. Goodby, the U.S. agency of the year, is a prime example. But Starcom, Wieden, Edelman, AKQA and Anomaly have all shown adaptability too. Edelman, in particular, stands out for me here, with its willingness to create new units and practices. Others in the business have criticized this as fad following, but as the last "fad" Edelman followed was social media, it looks like a pretty smart strategy about now.

At least half of the agencies we chose have developed or are working on developing products of some kind -- video games, in-flight e-mail tools, travel luggage -- on behalf of a client.

There may be only a handful of working examples of agencies operating this way right now, but product creation as marketing solution is going to be more and more important in a consumer-controlled media world. It's no coincidence that several of those on the A-List are also on this cutting edge.
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