2015 in review: Separation, convergence and diversity - but no earthquakes

Claire Beale reviews 2015 - when ads were blocked, offices uprooted, clients acted unpredictably and VW saw 50 years of brand-building go up in smoke.

Volkswagen's emissions scandal kept headline writers busy this year.
Volkswagen's emissions scandal kept headline writers busy this year.

We like to kick off our Annual with a romp through the year past, reaching some lofty conclusion about a defining moment, a knitting thread or a pertinent moral. As it turns out, 2015 has been a little lacking in seismic shifts and weighty events, but don’t assume that means it was a quiet year – far from it.

From the tortuous Heinz pitch to the rise and rise of ad-blocking, the Volkswagen emissions scandal, enforced office moves and clients’ investigation into media transparency, there was plenty to keep our headline writers busy this year.

Let’s begin with agency land and some good news. When Dave Lewis of Tesco decided not to put a bunch of hungry ad agencies through a protracted pitch and instead followed his instincts and appointed Bartle Bogle Hegarty, he might have deprived us of the circus of pitching rounds but he proved himself a decisive and smart leader. Winning the business meant BBH parted company with its Waitrose client, which some observers thought a little unseemly, but the opportunity to repair Tesco was an obvious plum. Tesco went on to bring tears of joy to MediaCom when it moved its media account from Initiative after 20 years in the spring. Now, if only the new ad campaign could find its feet…

Then there was Heinz, which sent shockwaves round the industry when it reviewed its advertising account in the summer, decoupling production from creative agency control, installing 97-day payment terms and holding an e-auction for its creative account. The pitch was described by the IPA as "shocking" and "short-sighted", and some agencies refused to play the game. BBH was the winner this time, too, and argued that at least Heinz had been clear and upfront about its terms of engagement. 

Unlike Nationwide, perhaps. It ended up in a spat with its former creative agency 18 Feet & Rising, which claimed that the client had taken a creative idea and not credited them. The agency was praised for sticking to its principles.

Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R seemed to be on the wrong side of too many pitches this year, despite its track record of good work on behalf of the clients involved. Vodafone, Land Rover and Lloyds Bank all walked, though holding on to the prestigious BBC account back in February was a huge relief. Perhaps not surprisingly, RKCR/Y&R’s dismal year sparked rumours that the company was to be merged with another WPP agency and, true to form, CHI & Partners was said to be the likely choice. By the end of the year, of course, the rumour had not (yet) come to pass and adland gossip had moved on.

On a more tangible note, Chime, the owner of VCCP, was sold to Providence and WPP in a deal worth £374 million, paving the way for further expansion of the VCCP brand. Expect some overseas developments in 2016, but the acquisition of Adconnection to form a full-service agency offering is a clear sign of where VCCP’s ambitions lie.

2015 saw much debate about the potential of a return of media to the creative fold, and Saatchi & Saatchi’s chief executive, Magnus Djaba, threw a gauntlet down in Campaign about what he identified as the failure of (separated) media planning to help creative work reach its full potential by putting the channel ahead of the idea. Mullen Lowe joined the conversation by hiring its first chief media officer and exploring a full-blooded media offering. 

Meanwhile, Omnicom arguably went too far down the "under-one-roof" road when it decided to corral most of its UK assets into an anonymous corporate office block on London’s South Bank, with flagship brands such as Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, TBWA\London, Redwood and Proximity all forced to share the same bland building. The transition went far from smoothly and one result was that AMV’s creative department now sits on its own floor of the building, divorced from the rest of the agency. Integration disintegration.

The agency merry-go-round saw Russ Lidstone ousted as the chief executive of Havas Worldwide London and Chris Hirst leave Grey to take over as Havas’ European group chief executive. Grey also lost Bill Scott, who joined Droga5 after a clear-out of the management there, and was later joined by the brilliant David Kolbusz from Wieden & Kennedy New York, while Dave Monk went off to lead the creative department of Publicis.

2015 also saw adland say goodbye to two legends. The iconic director Frank Budgen, whose phenomenal body of work included Sony PlayStation’s "mountain" and "tag" for Nike, passed away in November. In the same month, the industry also lost Pat Fallon, the visionary American adman who put his name to one of the most exciting, defining start-ups in recent UK advertising history, Fallon London. Our business will not be the same without them.

2015 was, of course, general election year and we learned two key things: not to trust research (people lie) and that M&C Saatchi can still pull out a decent ad campaign (despite spending most of the year without proper creative leadership). Its poster of Ed Miliband tucked inside Alex Salmond’s pocket was one of the cut-through moments of the campaign.

Talking of M&C Saatchi, the agency celebrated its 20th anniversary by declaring it had found the "holy grail" of marketing, creating a formula to predict cause and effect in advertising. "Marketing has not yet found its Newton… until now," Maurice Saatchi boldly announced. The fact that his UK creative agency ended the year without a clear creative leader or chief strategy officer, and minus its well-loved group chief executive, Lisa Thomas (who quit to join Virgin Enterprises), doesn’t seem to have dented the corporate chutzpah. 

Among the media owners, the most (or least) surprising event was the return of Rebekah Brooks to News UK, where she wasted no time in removing the paywall that had seen The Sun’s online audiences slide. Also in the newspaper world, Trinity Mirror made a big bet on local news with the acquisition of the Local World group

In TV, Nick Bampton exited as the sales chief of Channel 5 in the spring and it was perhaps inevitable that, a few months later, the channel’s new owner, Viacom, pulled the plug on the entire sales unit with the loss of more than 90 jobs. The pressure to privatise Channel 4 mounted as the year progressed, while the consultation on the review of the BBC’s Royal Charter kicked off in the summer. 

In the outdoor sector, the most dramatic event was Transport for London’s decision to move its £500 million street furniture contract to JCDecaux after ten years with Clear Channel. In online, Amazon hired Jeremy Clarkson, Instagram turned five, opened its platform to all advertisers and hit 400 million monthly users, while Apple News and Snapchat’s Discover offered publishers new platforms for content

But media owners and agencies alike only thrive when their clients do too, and there were some dismal stories emanating from client land this year. None was more dismal than the farrago over at VW– for so long one of advertising’s hero accounts. When it emerged that the car giant had been fixing its emissions tests, more than 50 years of magnificent brand-building looked set to crumble. 2016 will test whether, actually, VW’s wonderful brand equity might just see it through.

Closer to home, TalkTalk’s share price plummeted when it suffered its third – and most serious – cyber attack in 12 months, with 21,000 customer bank details being hacked.

Also this year, the European Union launched an antitrust probe into Google’s Android operating system, accusing the company of cheating competitors by manipulating search shopping results, while Bristol-Myers Squibb was ordered to pay penalties to US authorities for bribing doctors in China.

Undaunted by such stories of client deceit and incompetence, the Association of National Advertisers in the US launched an inquiry into agency probity, asking whether under-the-counter rebates are influencing how media agencies apportion client budgets. 

As usual, 2015’s vocabulary was peppered with buzzwords and fashionable themes that kept commentators and PowerPoint presenters alike in clichés. "Content" and "programmatic" continued to dominate the conference platforms and industry soapboxes, while "ad-blocking" was the rising star of industry debate. But the word du jour is, we hope, here to stay – and it’s a theme that gathered such pace throughout the year that we have high hopes for it in 2016: "diversity". 

After years as the subject of quiet mumbling and grumbling, in 2015 industry voices were heard loud and clear demanding action to improve diversity in our business. From the number of female creatives to the ethnic make-up of agencies and the launch of an LGBT networking group by the Marketing Agencies Association’s Scott Knox, talk turned to action. The IPA’s incoming president, Tom Knox, took up the challenge and launched a major study of diversity in advertising, which will give us a good foundation for change next year. 

Unlike an awful lot of the stuff that made the headlines in 2015, diversity really matters.