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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.