Agency A-List

Ad Age's Agency A-List Issue: 10 Agencies to Watch in 2012

Who's Worth Watching Right Now

Published on .

A correction has been made in this story. See below for details.

From a tiny San Francisco boutique Muhtayzik-Hoffer to global digital agency Profero, these 10 shops are worth your attention in 2012.

Gerry Graf
Gerry Graf
When Kayak called up Gerry Graf's new firm, it had a big problem: Not enough people knew the difference between the travel website and a human-powered boat. So to pump up awareness, the agency went bold. It crafted a campaign that , through dark and humorous copywriting, basically suggests consumers are downright stupid if they aren't using Kayak when searching for travel options. The tone is no surprise, as Mr. Graf, who launched the agency a little over a year ago, is a master at being funny. (One look at the agency's blog and you'll get what we mean.) But BFG9000 also delivers results: By June 2011, Kayak's awareness levels had increased to 62% from 28%. The agency grew, too, now with 25 employees, who came from Wieden & Kennedy, Bartle Bogle Hegarty and Google Creative Lab. For Dish Network, an account it picked up after a review in which it beat established competitors such as CP&B, it helped the suffering brand see a shift of 24% more people believing Dish to be "likable" and "offering a variety of content." It's just a matter of time before more clients come calling.

John Noe
John Noe
This 50-person New York digital boutique nearly doubled revenue last year and picked up digital agency-of -record relationships with brands like JetBlue and Stoli vodka. Even with the small staff, the agency, led by CEO-cofounder John Noe, manages to span a range of digital work from media to e-commerce to social media. It was named the social-media agency for shopping channel QVC and will advise strategy for Chipotle's online sales. Rokkan helped create Mitchum's Hardest-Working Person in America campaign, which canvassed for consumer videos and let communities vote to give someone the honor. The effort contributed to the brand's largest sales increase in more than two years. With a New York ZIP code and a tendency toward designing digital properties and websites that endure, Rokkan will likely follow in the steps of other boutiques and A-Listers, like Firstborn and Huge .

Antoinette Zel
Antoinette Zel
La Comunidad
Owned by Argentine brothers Jose and Joaquin Molla, and former MTV executive Antoinette Zel -- whom they call their "adopted sister" -- independent La Comunidad mixes U.S. Hispanic, general-market and international business. Apple called to ask for some Latin American work, then made La Comunidad its "creative custodian" for U.S. Hispanic. It became the agency's No. 2 client and helped fuel 60% revenue growth in 2011. La Comunidad gave Spooky, a giant hamster with attitude that was a popular character in an MTV campaign, his own web series. The agency hopes to make "El Spooky Show" a merchandising opportunity. And no one celebrates a 10th anniversary better: La Comunidad's hilarious "Meet Me Halfway" video project sent two staffers, from the Miami and Buenos Aires offices, to meet halfway (in the Amazon jungle) to perform absurd challenges, from synchronized swimming with piranhas to reshooting La Comunidad's best-ever commercial, featuring a cast of Amazon Indians.

Paul Malmstrom
Paul Malmstrom
As an ode to the agency's name, a large wall in the reception area at its New York City headquarters showcases photos of every staffer's mom. They keep a collective watchful eye on the shop while it's hard at work. There are a lot of larger agencies that should keep an eye on Mother , which in the past year has secured a spot on the rosters of General Motors' biggest brand, Chevrolet, as well as JC Penney and most recently, Burger King. Other new assignments include experience-marketing duties for Microsoft X-Box Kinect and Red Bull. That's a sign that Mother , which has planned everything from Virgin Mobile-sponsored concerts to fancy dinners with beer pairings for Stella Artois, is developing its event marketing focus. The departure of U.S. co-founder Linus Karlsson to McCann was an adjustment, but under remaining leader Paul Malmstrom, the agency continues to do inventive work. Most notable for 2011 was a video game for Cadbury's Sour Patch Kids in which the little candies turn evil.

Leo Burnett Chief Creative Officer Susan Credle
Leo Burnett Chief Creative Officer Susan Credle
Leo Burnett
Publicis Groupe 's Leo Burnett may have had a slow start to 2011 on the new-business front, but it picked up steam eventually, nabbing accounts such as top yogurt brand Chobani, Fifth Third Bancorp, Esurance, Dewar's scotch and work for MillerCoors' Fosters, Molson and Sparks brands. The agency ended the year with a huge win: Along with sibling Digitas , it picked up the Sprint account and will succeed Goodby Silverstein & Partners in handling creative duties. In total, it tallied up nine new-business wins and eight clients with organic growth and hired a total of 300 new employees. On the digital side, it built Facebook's first-ever agency-designed ad unit. The agency has also been working on beefing up its original research, bringing on strategist Stephen Hahn-Griffiths in February. Despite being a staple in the Chicago market, Leo Burnett didn't have a presence on Madison Avenue until May, when it opened up a New York outpost. Our prediction is that the Big Apple outpost will help the Windy City giant attract fresh talent in 2012.

Profero CEO Wayne Arnold
Both independent and global, Profero is an increasingly rare breed of digital agency and is in the midst of a major growth spurt. It's also the opposite of most agencies with English-speaking leadership: It has a longer pedigree in Asia Pacific than in the U.S. While its U.S. office led in its reported 35% growth in global revenue last year, thanks to new business from Smirnoff and Western Union run out of New York, the agency is also winning work for Unilever and Apple in Asia and Australia. In 2011, it saw creative accolades for work in the U.K. for BMW's Mini and in China for Lufthansa. For Smirnoff, Profero coordinated the massive Nightlife Exchange Project reaching 180 countries in 16 languages. Fans could tell Smirnoff what makes their local nightlife unique for a chance to win tickets and other rewards. While the agency is still small, its global prowess and knowledge of markets outside of the U.S. will likely prove attractive for marketers looking for more global digital partners.

Last year, Interpublic's GolinHarris implemented a new structure that removed traditional titles, divided everyone into four departments—strategists, creators, catalysts and connectors—and created office space for employees to constantly monitor and participate in digital media and social conversation. Dubbed "Prevolve," the move attracted skeptics who called it a dog-and-pony show. Whether it's a differentiator that will meet the firm's long-term business goals has yet to be seen, but short-term gains point to its potential. What immediately followed the restructure was the expansion of business relationships—the firm added brands Slim Fast and Bertolli to its robust Unilever roster—and annual revenue growth of around 9%. Among additional wins, it lists Crown Imports, Aramark, Discover Financial Services and Cephalon. New business aside, the firm produced some notable work, such as the social-media blitz for the successful Magnum ice-cream brand launch in the U.S. It's this kind of work that will determine its ability to "prevolve."

Maxus worked with parent WPP to bring in two of the biggest accounts of the year, but the underdog will need to prove its worth with the new scale. SC Johnson and NBCU wins contributed to revenue growth of 23% in North America, and global revenue grew at an estimated 35%. The firm, which also won the consolidated Barclay's account, hired 150 people in North America and opened offices in Toronto, Los Angeles and Mexico City. It hired Neil Sternberg as its first chief financial officer, and Elizabeth McCune as director-communications planning, both in North America. It also established the region's first TV buying and digital-trading units. With this kind of progress, what was once a small conflict shop with less in 2010 annual revenue than even Group M Search, is poised to continue the momentum on its own.

Muhtayzik-Hoffer's John Matejczyk
Muhtayzik-Hoffer's John Matejczyk
This shop was virtually an unknown until Google called upon it to create a silly video promoting voice-search capabilities, in which the protagonist repeatedly says the word "pizza." The agency's name is the phonetic pronunciation of the names of its founders, John Matejczyk and Matt Hofherr, who worked at places such as TBWA , Bartle Bogle Hegarty and BBDO before hanging their own shingle in a hip San Francisco hood. Under their watch, the agency's knack for beautiful website and app design is apparent, as witnessed by the Slavery Footprint project. The award-winning project translated reams of economic data into an easy-to-use web experience that enlightens consumers about how many humans are bought and sold today—and how many of them work for you. The shop also counts iMeet conference software and TinyPrints as clients. While it is still tiny, it's begun getting invites into new-business pitches against much larger shops, including a recent bid for vacation-rental company HomeAway. Although it didn't prevail, we expect the shop will be a formidable contender in 2012.

Thanks to new advances in collecting and optimizing customer-behavior data, brands that had never spent on CRM are finding value in the discipline. And Maryland-based direct agency Merkle is benefiting from increased market share. Winning a number of seven-figure accounts in 2011 helped the shop increase headcount 15% and revenue almost 21%, to $300 million. Its wins include Bristol-Myers Squibb, Geico digital, Eddie Bauer, Sanofi Aventis, Hallmark and TD Bank. Merkle represents the type of firm that probably wouldn't have been called an agency five years ago. But because of the deep trove of data-driven insights it offers, it's increasingly being called on to provide agency-like services and consultation.

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CORRECTION: A previous version of this article gave full credit to Rokkan for creating the Mitchum "Hardest Working Person in America" campaign. In fact, other agencies, including Brett Ratner Productions and CAA Marketing were involved in the campaign.

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