Agency A-List 2018

VML Is No. 3 on Ad Age's 2018 A-List

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(From l.) VML leaders Jon Cook, Debbi Vandeven, Jeff Geheb and Eric Campbell.
(From l.) VML leaders Jon Cook, Debbi Vandeven, Jeff Geheb and Eric Campbell. Credit: Robyn Twomey for Ad Age

If you watched the Super Bowl earlier this month, it was hard to miss the Wendy's spot that coldcocked McDonald's: It called out McD's flash-frozen beef with the copy, "The iceberg that sunk the Titanic was frozen too," and ended with, "Skip the hamburgers at the Golden Arches."

It's not for the faint of heart, but Wendy's lead agency, VML, isn't the retiring type. Don't be misled by its Kansas City, Missouri, roots or its affable Global CEO, Jon Cook: This is not an agency to underestimate. VML celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2017 with what it says was a fourth consecutive year of double-digit revenue growth (11 percent) to more than $360 million globally. While that's excuse enough for a toast, the WPP agency had more reasons to raise its glass last year.

New business and organic growth have been two strong pillars for VML, which has been climbing Ad Age's A-List, from No. 9 in 2016 to No. 5 and now to No. 3. Last year, VML became agency of record for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (aka "Beef. It's What's for Dinner"); Russell Stover chocolates; Sherwin-Williams consumer brands group; Campari's Skyy vodka; Bulldog gin; and more. Its relationships with Electrolux/Frigidaire and New Balance kicked off in 2017, even though the accounts were won in late 2016.

On the organic-growth side, VML expanded some relationships: Bayer Animal Health boosted it from digital partner to full AOR; PepsiCo added Brisk and more Tropicana work; and Microsoft more than doubled VML's digital experience budget.

At the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity in June, VML received not just 27 Lions but 26 short-list recognitions across 16 categories.

In the PR category, VML's "#NuggsForCarter" work for Wendy's scored three Lions. The effort was a response to 16-year-old Carter Wilkerson, who tweeted Wendy's in the spring asking how many retweets would get him free chicken nuggets for a year. Wendy's, via VML, responded: "18 million." When Wilkerson tweeted "Help me please, a man needs his nuggs," his plea received millions of retweets from people, including actor Aaron Paul ("It's good to have dreams") and T-Mobile CEO John Legere, plus brands such as Amazon, Apple, Microsoft and Google. Wendy's upped the ante and said if Wilkerson's tweet beat Ellen DeGeneres' famous Oscar selfie, it would donate $100,000 to the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption.

Wilkerson got his nuggets after the post was retweeted 3.5 million times—the most retweets ever—and the charity received its cash. As for Wendy's, the fast-food chain earned 2.5 billion earned media impressions, gained 213,000 new Twitter followers and saw its online mentions jump 376 percent from the previous year, the shop says.

"Wendy's and VML think about mass media TV and one-on-one social media in the same breath," says Cook.

In September, VML absorbed sibling WPP agency Rockfish, a digital innovation shop with e-commerce expertise that generated $70 million in revenue last year, according to the Ad Age Datacenter. This has helped VML beef up its e-commerce capabilities, says Cook.

In 2018, the agency will direct more attention toward artificial intelligence, virtual reality and augmented reality, such as a VR experience from Gatorade that shows kids attending summer camp the effects of dehydration. (Its work for the brand in 2017 included Gatorade Amplify, which generates personalized workout playlists.)

VML also focused inward last year to improve its own brand by going through an extensive internal assessment from the 3% Movement. VML was one of two A-list shops, including 72andSunny (No. 9), to become certified by the group as creating inclusive cultures in which both men and women can thrive. The shop even changed policies following the program, such as increasing the agency's maternity leave to the 3% standard of at least 12 weeks off.

"It was a big deal for us," says Debbi Vandeven, VML's global chief creative officer, "and it's just a starting point."

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