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Agency of the Year McGarryBowen Proves Solid and Reliable Beat Fast and Furious

New-Business Machine Takes Home Top Honors -- Again

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In the -- let's face it -- often catty agency business, there's an unofficial divide between those that get the buzz and shelf after shelf of hardware, and those that do unsexy but solidly proficient work appreciated by their clients.

One agency that 's often relegated to the latter category, McGarryBowen, is these days getting the attention of some of the most-awarded agencies out there.

In fact, Droga5, Creativity 's Agency of the Year, gave the firm an uncharacteristically public nod with a fake press release announcing that it had outsourced the making of its holiday card to the Dentsu-owned agency.

"After a lengthy review, we simply couldn't ignore the strategic insights into holiday cheer that McGarryBowen brought to the table," the release said.

There's a lot about McGarryBowen that one can't ignore.

Tim Scott, John McGarry, Gordon Bowen, Jennifer Zimmerman , John McGarry III
Tim Scott, John McGarry, Gordon Bowen, Jennifer Zimmerman , John McGarry III Credit: Josie Jammet

The agency began winning big two years ago, racking up new assignments from the likes of Kraft Foods, Verizon and Dr Pepper Snapple Group month after month. It continued to dominate the new-business circuit last year, adding Burger King, Bud Light and United Continental.

McGarryBowen posted its best year in 2011, with a staggering 60% in revenue growth and staff up 45%, to 800.

We won't be the ones to break the streak: McGarryBowen wins Ad Age 's 2011 Agency of the Year honors.

'We want you to come home.'
The firm, which first earned the award in 2009, has a knack for finding its way back into the fold. The way Uli Becker, president of Reebok International, tells the story, his company's recent reunion with McGarryBowen began with six words: "We want you to come home." Founder John McGarry spoke to the athletic-apparel marketer as part of a quiet crusade to regain the account, which went to DDB Worldwide in 2009.

It worked. McGarryBowen is once again Reebok's agency of record, responsible for a health-focused campaign with a tie-in to the CrossFit craze. Reebok's return means the shop can boast that the two key clients -- the other being Verizon Communications -- lost over its 10-year history have boomeranged back.

Many in adland ponder how McGarryBowen has maintained such a stunning track record. It's well known that Mr. McGarry encourages an old-school, client-centered approach. But some in the gossipy community, which has long made a pastime of attacking the top dog, speculate that the agency snags high-profile accounts by undercutting the competition on price.

Mr. McGarry and Chief Creative Officer Gordon Bowen dismiss the suggestion that they negotiate cut-rate fees to get accounts.

"There isn't one client on our list who chose their agency based on price," said Mr. Bowen.

"No, never," Mr. McGarry echoed. "Every pitch we've ever won has been based on the work, on the people. I do think we're dramatically different."

Jack of all trades
Senior marketers say McGarryBowen is a jack-of -all trades at a time when clients want more integration and less specialization. And they say the firm's work, though maybe not the sort that surfaces in creative-award shows, is anything but mediocre because it reliably improves the bottom line.

That's why Paul Chibe, VP-U.S. marketing at Anheuser-Busch InBev, hired McGarryBowen to handle creative last year for the country's No. 1 beer, Bud Light.

"They had strength in planning, account service, creative development," said Mr. Chibe. "To have a long-term relationship, you need all three. ... If you're not [strong] in all three and your creative is not linked to a long-term strategy, it's not going to work."

The Bud Light account was a victory out of the agency's Midwest operation. When Tim Scott, president of the Chicago office, arrived in spring 2009, the outpost had just 16 employees. It now has more than 200 staffers, houses the Disney account, and is the lead office for Kraft and Sears.

"I don't think anyone could have anticipated this, given the marketplace," recalled Mr. Scott. "If you told someone two years ago that the Chicago office would win Bud Light, they would have thought you were high," he added.

Though it's still early days for the Bud Light relationship, the agency is busy producing the brand's ads for this year's Super Bowl.

The win demonstrates the variety of categories McGarryBowen can capably handle, while keeping clients such as Disney -- on its roster since 2005 -- happy.

"You can be funny and sentimental, but you have to stay within the Disney footprint, because the people who love Disney want to feel a connection to the emotion of the brand," said Marty Muller, Disney's senior VP-global marketing, global creative.

McGarryBowen's understanding of that dynamic is part of the reason the agency has a reputation for producing emotional, even schmaltzy, advertising that doesn't push boundaries and panders to the masses.

But in advertising, pushing boundaries doesn't always get results. That's exemplified by Burger King, which for years targeted young men with bizarre ads featuring the "creepy" King character, with a concurrent decline in same-store sales.

Reversed BK decline
McGarryBowen took over the account last summer and reverted to a product-oriented approach that spotlights the burgers and fries. The fast-food chain halted its longtime sales erosion in August -- the month McGarryBowen's first spot aired -- and posted sales gains in September for the first time in 30 months.

Similarly, the agency launched a campaign for Verizon 's 4G network in late 2010. By March 2011, the carrier had added 2 million subscribers, 10 times as many as all its competitors combined in the same period, McGarryBowen reported.

For Kraft 's Miracle Whip, the agency did the "We're Not for Everyone" campaign, with celebrities ranging from James Carville to Pauly D vocalizing their love or hate for the sandwich spread.

The success of that work led to the digital team, led by Mr. McGarry's son John, or "J3," adding digital duties for Miracle Whip. They came up with the idea of launching a contest, called "Not for Every Relationship," inviting couples to submit videos on how the spread brought them together or tore them apart. The prize was $25,000 toward a wedding--or a divorce.

The campaigns spurred a 548% spike in tweets about the brand and a 631% boost in Miracle Whip-related web posts among the target demographic of 18- to 34-year-olds.

At a Glance...
At a Glance...

McGarryBowen has a big task ahead: to help turn around two embattled clients.

Though Burger King has regained some footing, there's still a lot of work to do. It is about to drop to No. 3 among burger chains as Wendy's moves into the No. 2 position.

The other challenge is Sears, whose domestic sales were down 6% in the eight weeks leading up to Christmas Day. The company announced in December that it would close as many as 120 stores.

But if you believe what clients say about the power of McGarryBowen's investment in its business, even the most down on their luck brands could see a turnaround.

Said Viktoria Wallner, senior VP-brand communications at Reebok: "Their passion is what makes the relationship so great."