Agency A-List 2008

Agency A-List 2008: The Ones to Watch

Here Are 10 Agencies Worth Keeping an Eye on

Published on .

Just off the A-List is this group of shops whose growth and creative performance were still something to behold.

1. Initiative

Three major wins in three major categories, totaling $1.2 billion in billings, probably best sums up 2008 for Interpublic Group's Initiative. The media agency kicked off 2008 by nabbing both the $735 million Hyundai/Kia business and the $150 million Cadbury Schweppes account in January.

In between that and the end of the year there were other new-business wins, including buying duties for MillerCoors spending on the NFL ($80 million) and Burlington Coat Factory ($70 million). But Initiative closed out 2008 the same way it started it, with another major win. This time, it was a behemoth: the remains of the $400 million MillerCoors media account.

By the end of the year, an agency that not too long ago was struggling in the U.S. had made it into the elite tier of media agencies under the leadership of Richard Beaven, who was promoted from U.S. chief to chairman and worldwide CEO. Tim Spengler replaced him as U.S. president.

Though it's a relatively new relationship, Initiative is already proving its value to Hyundai. When the marketer tasked the agency with increasing consideration from potential buyers it launched an integrated-marketing effort designed to build awareness and generate sales. Within six months it increased the number of leads 200% and cost-per-conversion by 339%.

The only significant loss for the agency in 2008 was the $50 million Levi's/ Dockers (planning and buying) accounts. And 2009 opened with Home Depot reviewing its media account.

-- Michael Bush

2. Edelman

When Starbucks announced it would be closing 7,100 stores for a three-hour barista-training session, the couple of million dollars it lost in coffee and muffin sales paled in comparison to the hundreds of millions of dollars it garnered in free media coverage.

It should come as no surprise that the most-written-about publicity stunt of last year was pulled off with the help of Edelman, long a leader among consumer-public-relations firms.

Led by Ad Age's 2007 Agency Executive of the Year, Richard Edelman, the agency is expecting worldwide growth of more than 12% and didn't lose any of its top 40 clients this past year, a feat it has managed to pull off three years in a row. In 2008, when a number of the world's biggest marketers were slashing budgets, the agency saw revenue from its top 40 clients grow 16% to account for half of its worldwide revenue. Revenue from some of its biggest clients increased significantly. Edelman also won new business across all of its major practices, including consumer, with Carter's and Sam's Club.

Aside from its work for Starbucks, Edelman handled global communications programs for 2008 Olympic sponsors General Electric and Johnson & Johnson, as well as a national campaign for Burger King's new and relatively healthful Kids Meal, which included the largest product sampling in the fast feeder's history.

The effort helped prompt 5.7 million orders of Fresh Apple Fries in six weeks, tripling projections.

-- Michael Bush

3. AKQA

In its 13th year of existence, AKQA demonstrated that it's unsurpassed when it comes to creating online branded content, whether in the form of software, video or web-based applications for a diverse group of marketers including Microsoft, Gap and Fiat.

Its work is best seen and played with, rather than described. Nevertheless, highlights included immersive and entertaining alternate-reality games for the Xbox game "Halo 2" and, more surprisingly, McDonald's. AKQA Film, a new venture, yielded content for a slew of marketers, such as Nike and Pot Noodle.

But perhaps the most impressive program of last year was one that connected Fiat drivers' engines with their PCs. Fiat EcoDrive takes driving data such as acceleration, speed and gear changes and sends them to analytic software on a user's PC, which then gives a grade on fuel efficiency. Tutorials help drivers improve their scores. More than just branded utility, this is branded social utility, turning marketing communications into something that can help consumers lead more-sustainable lifestyles.

While AKQA, led by CEO Tom Bedecarre and Chairman Ajaz Ahmed, didn't have any major new-business coups in 2008, it continued to demonstrate why it's among a handful of agencies that can pull off groundbreaking digital programs for major brands.

And at year's end it received a truly uncommon laurel when its holiday video was featured on the blog kept by one Kanye West.

-- Matthew Creamer

4. LatinWorks

In a game-changing year for LatinWorks, the agency increased revenue 44% by absorbing Cultura, a smaller U.S. Hispanic agency that was also partly owned by Omnicom. LatinWorks has a strong, strategic, creative culture of its own, and it's never easy to integrate another agency's staff and clients. But LatinWorks hung on to all the new accounts, including Lowe's, Mars, Kimberly-Clark and Shell, broadening the agency's client base.

LatinWorks had a stellar year that made it a close contender for Multicultural Agency of the Year. The Austin, Texas-based agency takes pride in competing at the level of a general-market agency, and reinforced that by becoming the first multicultural agency to get a commercial into the Super Bowl two years in a row, when Anheuser-Busch again selected one of LatinWorks' popular Bud Light spots for the 2008 game.

LatinWorks also took the unusual step in 2008 of creating a media department. With its new capability, LatinWorks developed two proprietary tools to help Domino's Pizza figure out if it was spending the right amount of money on Hispanic media and identify its local Hispanic growth opportunities with franchisees. Domino's discovered the company was underspending on Spanish-language media given the amount of business it was getting from Latino customers -- Domino's Hispanic stores outperform its non-Hispanic outlets -- and increased the Hispanic media spending 5%, according to LatinWorks.

-- Laurel Wentz

5. Droga5

Droga5, the New York-based creative boutique, launched two years ago and quickly earned a reputation for dreaming up and executing ideas that turn the notion of traditional advertising upside down. But the shop drew its skeptics, too. Many wondered whether it would only succeed in attracting smaller, challenger brands and were doubtful that big-budget clients would join up.

Last year, the agency, led by former Publicis Worldwide creative chief David Droga, proved its mettle and grabbed the attention of global marketers. Puma, for example, named Droga5 to serve as lead agency for its more than $100 million global marketing account, with its chief marketing officer, Antonio Bertone, endorsing the agency as a partner who is "small but mighty."

At the same time, Droga5 continued to win smaller but high-profile brands such as Method, known for its environmentally-friendly line of cleaning products.

Droga5 in 2008 took the Tap Project, its unique cause-marketing initiative that brands tap water to raise money for UNICEF, to new heights. What began as a local project with New York City restaurants became a national effort. During this event, restaurant patrons are asked to make donations for drinking water that is ordinarily provided free, with proceeds going to UNICEF to help provide children with clean drinking water. The program is slated to go global this year.

One big question mark is the future of Honeyshed, the shopping website that has failed to take off.

-- Rupal Parekh

6. Venables Bell

In a gloomy year that's seen the U.S. automobile industry and financial sector tank, leading to a massive slashing of marketing budgets, Audi of America and Barclays Bank have been purveyors of good fortune for independent shop Venables Bell & Partners.

The San Francisco-based independent is the agency of record for both companies -- two brands that have seemingly avoided much of the catastrophic troubles that have plagued their competitors. Venables was founded in June 2001, in the midst of the tech-bubble pop, so it knows how to survive downturns.

To elevate Audi's status among luxury car brands, Venables created TV spots for the Summer Olympics and the 2008 Academy Awards and Super Bowl -- the car company's first buy in the game in nearly 20 years -- and will place another in Super Bowl 2009. In August, Audi CMO Scott Keogh noted that third-party researchers were revealing record awareness, opinion and consideration of Audi in 2008.

And in the seventh year of its relationship with Barclays, Venables was able to deliver solid messaging based on deep business knowledge during a shaky time.

The agency also picked up Coca-Cola Co.'s Nestea this year, bringing it into the growing ready-to-drink-tea category, and continued to work with ConAgra's Slim Jim beef jerky and Orville Redenbacher brands.

It started off 2009 by winning stealing Intel's brand duties for McCann, a win that put the agency at the helm of the tech marketer's strategy.

-- Marissa Miley

7. Conill

Conill, one of the top U.S. Hispanic creative agencies, grew its business with each of its three biggest clients in 2008 -- Toyota, Procter & Gamble and T-Mobile -- by expanding nontraditional capabilities.

For Toyota, Conill did the first Hispanic test for the Prius with the Pixelometro, a web-based application that converts the distance the cursor travels on users' screens into miles to show how much less consumers would spend to fuel a Prius. Conill was the most-awarded agency at Ad Age's 10th-annual Hispanic Creative Advertising Awards, picking up Best of Show for Toyota's "Is That the Lineman?" In that clever effort, videos running along the bottom of the TV screen during soccer-game broadcasts appeared to show live-action footage of participants such as the lineman being dazzled and distracted by stadium billboards for the Toyota Corolla.

The agency discovered many mothers who bought General Mills' Cheerios also used Procter & Gamble's Pampers rival Huggies disposable diapers. That led to an unexpected connection between the two brands in the form of a story explaining how both products work together. The Cheerios endorsement appeared on TV, on packaging with sleep tips and coupons, online and in grassroots efforts.

That partnership to get Huggies users to switch brands boosted both Pampers' and Cheerios' sales so much that the dedicated Hispanic effort grew into a flagship initiative used in the general market.

-- Laurel Wentz

8. Cramer-Krasselt

In a period when most of the biggest independents are struggling to keep the clients they have, Cramer-Krasselt -- the third-largest indie in the U.S. -- is enjoying a new-business spree. In the past year, the Chicago-based network added Edward Jones, the Kentucky Derby, Johnsonville Sausage, Burlington Coat Factory and digital duties on Levitra, which added up to mid-single-digit revenue growth at the agency at a time when most clients cut back.

That sounds modest, but it comes on the heels of two years of 20% growth, fueled by wins including Porsche, Bissell and Zantac in 2007. C-K's secret? Clients point to the quality of the agency's diverse capabilities. C-K built up creative, media, digital and direct marketing internally in lieu of having a holding-company sibling to lean on.

Clients also mention the agency's ability to offer strategies for brands that meld those capabilities. Edward Jones, for instance, cited the benefits of having media, creative, direct and digital functions at a single shop, while the Kentucky Derby said it was drawn to C-K's PR expertise and its Corona beer reel. Levitra was seeking a digital specialist that understood the pharma category, and C-K's work for Rozerem and Zantac sufficed.

Looking ahead to 2009, however, the agency faces a challenge on one of its highest-profile accounts. Corona beer -- a brand it has handled since the mid-'90s -- has seen sales slip two straight years following 16 consecutive years of growth. C-K will have to decide how much, if it all, it needs to tweak the brand's vacation-in-a-bottle strategy.

-- Jeremy Mullman

9. Ketchum

As marketers are looking for programs that could provide more bang for fewer marketing bucks, Omnicom Group PR firm Ketchum, through its Disruptive Media Group, was doing just that. The group's work for Dr Pepper included buying a spot for $10,000 that was being auctioned off by a Virginia Beach bride-to-be, and promising to hand out a free soda to everyone in America if Axl Rose completed a long-anticipated Guns N' Roses album by the end of 2008. Together, the stunts managed to generate millions of dollars worth of free media coverage from outlets ranging from "The Today Show" to the U.K.-based music website NME.com.

With the new group, Ketchum has set itself up to stand out in a time of diminishing marketing budgets and an environment where consumers are often more important to the definition of the brand than the brand's own marketing communications.

Looking to strengthen its tech division, the agency made one of the industry's biggest acquisitions of the year when it bought tech specialist agency Access Communications, whose 2007 revenues were more than $14 million. Ketchum also had an impressive year on the new-business front, snatching up a number of major accounts including AMD, Activision Guitar Hero, Bayer, Hertz and Newell Rubbermaid . It also retained all of its top 40 clients in 2008.

Ketchum helped position Häagen-Dazs as an environmentally conscious company with its "Häagen-Dazs Loves Honey Bees" campaign.

-- Michael Bush

10. Wunderman

In 2008 direct agency Wunderman turned 50 and continued to further redefine the role a direct-marketing agency can play for marketers. With measurability and accountability top of mind for everyone, it's no big shock that many direct agencies flourished in 2008, but Wunderman was doing more than just pushing out direct mail, e-mail and CRM initiatives it was developing and executing digital programs, creating TV spots and playing lead on integrated efforts. Led by the duo of Chairman-CEO Daniel Morel and Vice Chairman-Chief Operating Officer David Sable, the agency spent the year racking up new-business wins, growing organically with new work from some of its top clients, and growing its global footprint and service offerings through a series of acquisitions.

Wunderman and its subsidiaries brought in new business this year from a variety of marketers, including Novartis, Hilton-Doubletree, Southwest Airlines, Vodafone and AT&T. The agency got a vote of confidence, in the form of more business, from a number of its principal clients, including Microsoft, Ford, Citibank, GlaxoSmithKline, Accenture and Hewlett-Packard, despite losing the computer company's catalog business.

Wunderman made four acquisitions last year, including a Chicago-based digital shop, Designkitchen, to help with promotions work. With the goal of becoming the first global marketing- services network to surpass the billion-dollar mark within the next three years, expect Wunderman to be very active in 2009.

-- Michael Bush
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