VMLY&R was new business machine as clients sought digital pivot
The 2018 marriage of VML with Y&R finally paid off handsomely in 2020, with the combined agency proving itself to be a new-business juggernaut even during a global pandemic.
VMLY&R won over $100 million in new business last year; according to rankings from consultancy R3, it was its top-rated agency in the world for eight months running, from February to September 2020. Certainly, within WPP, it’s the standout star; on WPP’s March earnings call, Chief Financial Officer John Rogers singled out the “particularly impressive performance from VMLY&R, which continues to be the best performer of our global integrated agencies.” Revenue increased from $519 million to $540 million from 2019 to 2020.
As well as nailing huge global accounts including Intel and Walgreens Boots Alliance, VMLY&R also grew its existing clients and continues to impress creatively with its work for the likes of Wendy’s.
So, what’s its secret? Global CEO Jon Cook says it’s a “perfect combination of consistency and tenure, but just as much energy as we’ve ever had,” pointing to the continuity in the agency’s leadership as well as its combined capability in brand experience and customer experience.
According to Global Chief Creative Officer Debbi Vandeven, VMLY&R can offer “skills across the continuum.”
“Our competition is from all over the place; it’s kind of everyone,” she adds. “If you have more skills, more RFPs coming in, that helps with new business because you can come back with something the client might not have been asking for. It really helps with the offering.”
Although the pandemic was challenging for all, sometimes the virtual pitching (it reverted to 100% remote after March) even helped. “We are bringing cities together in ways we wouldn’t before; being one P&L means it makes it easy to bring teams into a pitch from multiple cities,” says Vandeven, who adds that the agency is now hiring more remote employees.
She cites the agency’s recent successful pitch for Sam’s Club, which brought together teams across Miami and Atlanta, Kansas City, Missouri and New York, adding a multicultural skillset to the pitch team that would enable the retailer to target key Black and Hispanic audiences.
The agency has also boosted its diversity; from June through the end of last year, 41.4% of its hires were BIPOC. Following the death of George Floyd, the agency put in new DEI initiatives including honoring Juneteenth and producing a guidebook on how to be a BIPOC ally.
VMLY&R performed strongly when it came to organic new business. As 19 of its top 25 clients grew, the agency experienced more than $20 million in growth in its customer experience capability from clients such as Intel, Dell, Microsoft and Google.
Cook believes VMLY&R had the broad range of skills to help clients redirect their businesses during the crisis: “Every brand had to pivot, but not all could pivot with their current agency partner.” For example, VMLY&R helped the U.S. Navy take all its recruitment from in-person to virtual (and validated that by having its contract renewed in April.)
And, during a time when retail closed down and every brand needed to sell online, the absorption of WPP’s Geometry into the agency in November added another important string to its bow. “Just when people thought we were done merging, we brought in Geometry,” observes Cook. “We now have the ability to go all the way through to transaction—we can do it at scale and globally. I would argue that we are the best agency that combines creativity with commerce in the world.”
Creatively, the agency continues to impress with its gaming-centric work for Wendy’s. Following its infiltration of “Fortnite,” for which it won a Cannes Grand Prix in 2019 , Wendy’s took to live streaming gameplay on Twitch, creating in-game playable “Wendy” characters in a series of popular games to get across its “fresh, never frozen” message. That included destroying blocks of ice in "Minecraft," organizing a tournament of characters resembling Wendy in "Super Smash Bros." and getting rid of a freezer in "Animal Crossing," the game that defined the pandemic.
Vandeven says her favorite moments were when gamers started creating their own Wendy’s characters: “We wanted people to be authentic. If you know your audience well, that’s’ where the real innovation comes from.”
The rebranding of Intel, the tech giant’s first since 2006, was another huge creative project that has boosted the agency’s branding credentials. VMLY&R helped Intel create a completely new brand identity and brand platform (“Do Something Wonderful”) as it evolves from being known for processors to an “internet of things” focus. Not only that, the entire project was handled remotely due to COVID, with agency and client never meeting following the pitch.
“VMLY&R has helped Intel redefine and modernize our brand and roll it out around the world,” says John Coyne, VP and general manager of brand, creative and media at Intel. “Without our teams having ever met in person, they have not missed a beat rolling out awesome campaigns across consumer, b-to-b and technical audiences showing people what’s possible with Intel.”
“We’ve always had expertise on branding, but this is the highest profile thing we’ve done,” adds Vandeven. “For us it was on such a big scale, it’s opening other doors too.”
When it comes to its own brand, however, there’s no rename in its sights: it’ll stay VMLY&R for now. But it seems the unwieldly moniker hasn’t done it any harm.