Agency A-List 2019: Le plus ça change
Ad Age awarded its first Agency of the Year—our predecessor to Agency A-List—in 1974. Here’s what happened next: The winner, Cunningham & Walsh, would be acquired in 1982 by Mickelberry, a former meatpacking company that had pivoted from one cutthroat business to another. Cunningham & Walsh was subsequently bought by N.W. Ayer and shut down in 1987. Ayer itself ran out of air in 2002. Sound familiar?
When I took the job as editor of Ad Age, only two years ago this month, the advertising landscape looked noticeably different than it does today. But as we know, change is currency in this business. This issue, in which we celebrate the best agencies and creative of the previous year, feels like as good a time as any to pause and reflect. It’s spring. For every season, churn, churn, churn.
As I worked on my first issue of this magazine in April 2017, Sir Martin held the reins at WPP. Sorrell’s nemesis, Maurice Lévy, still ran Publicis. The #MeToo movement had yet to arrive. And for the first time, four consultancies cracked Ad Age’s 2017 ranking of the world’s 10 largest agency companies.
The pace of change has only accelerated. This month, we learned the biggest consultancy, Accenture Interactive, will buy Droga5, our Agency Innovator of the Year. Last month, Stagwell Group made a $100 million investment in MDC Partners, home to A-Lister Anomaly, as Mark Penn continues to build his agency group.
The very notion of what it is to be an agency, meanwhile, is being endlessly iterated.
Look no further than some of the oldest, most iconic names: They too are morphing, and even disappearing, as agencies and holding companies grapple with a new marketing landscape. Mark Read took the helm at WPP last year and is already shaking things up: J. Walter Thompson, which traces its roots to when Abe Lincoln was president, is gone, folded by WPP into a new entity called Wunderman Thompson. Young & Rubicam, which dates to the 1920s, is also gone, merged by WPP into a digital-centric play with the ungainly name of VMLY&R.
You don’t need me to break down the litany of trends and headwinds.
The primary reason for this annual issue, of course, is the work—and the real, tangible business results that come out of that work. Wieden & Kennedy walks away with top honors for the second year in a row, but not before taking a knee. The Portland, Oregon, shop has retained its fierce independence over the years and only gotten better with age, as exemplified by its work for Nike featuring Colin Kaepernick, Serena Williams and a roster of other game changers.
Speaking of game changers, our Creativity Awards highlights the biggest ideas of the year. We like to talk a lot, probably too much, about how advertising creates culture. (More often than not, it “borrows” from culture.) We like to talk about how advertising can make a difference. (But when brands take a stand, it often backfires.)
Still, this year’s work by Creativity Award winner McCann New York did both. The shop teamed up with the Parkland students behind March for Our Lives, Kesha and others to address the problem of gun violence with “The Most Vicious Cycle”—part of the “Price on Our Lives” effort—aimed at getting out the midterm vote. Similarly, Lacoste ditched its own logo in the interest of raising awareness about endangered species. Creative—just like the rest of us—shines brightest when it’s galvanizing, urgent, uncompromising and packed with humanity.
Meanwhile, expect more change in 2019. There are murmurings of a recession on the horizon, possibly even before next year’s A-List issue. But take heart in this: Wieden & Kennedy opened during a deep downturn in 1982. McCann and Erickson got together near the start of the Great Depression. In good times or bad, winning teams deliver winning ideas.