TOP 300 AGENCIES: Top digital agency profiles

campaignlive.co.uk, Friday, 27 February 2004 12:00AM

A consistently impressive year for the digital agencies, with only Lateral's disappointing failure to build on its early pan-European Levi's win marring good work. Dare was the outstanding agency

AKQA

Declared income 2003 n/s

Total staff 155

Accounts gained 9

Accounts lost 1

Creative work 20%

Website design and build work 75%

Media planning and buying work 5%

Biggest-spending clients n/a

Company ownership: Minority-owned by Accenture

AKQA's decision to go global - via an alliance with Accenture - is starting to bear fruit and confound the doubters.

Many in the business, with the exception of Profero, are not convinced that internationalising a digital agency is worth the bother. The best answer AKQA could give was to deepen its global relationships with Nike and Microsoft and win some hefty new business. In the UK, it scooped Estee Lauder, Yell, Samsung, De Beers and the London Stock Exchange and picked up pan-European briefs for BMW and Dockers, but losing Carlsberg was a significant blow.

However, some speculate on the health of AKQA's business because of its reluctance to report or register financial figures. In November last year, it was revealed that in 2001 the agency took its first loss in eight years, not just because of mergers and international expansion, but because of a rocky underlying performance.

That said, no-one has any doubts over what AKQA has proved from its inception - it is one of the best site-build specialists in the business. In 2003, it won a Clio and Cannes silver Lion for its Nike work.

AKQA will have its hands full to keep building in 2004. Growing internationally and broadening the digital marketing services it offers clients at the same time will take some doing.

SCORE THIS YEAR: 7

SCORE LAST YEAR: 8

DARE DIGITAL

Declared income 2003 £1.48m

Total staff 32

Accounts gained 8

Accounts lost 0

Creative work 40%

Website design and build work 60%

Media planning and buying work 0%

Biggest-spending clients: Barclays, O2, Travelocity

Company ownership: Minority-owned by BBH

In just three years, Dare has gone from a start-up struggling amid the post-dotcom crash to a big player claiming Campaign's New-Media Agency of the Year.

2003 was the year Dare reaped the fruits of a shrewd management decision, led by its managing director, Mark Collier, at the close of 2002 to strategically align with Bartle Bogle Hegarty. BBH took a 25 per cent stake and Dare gained access to its clients, experience and credibility.

This relationship gave Dare the inside track in scooping the launch of Lever Faberge's Lynx Pulse brand in the UK and Axe across Europe. The subsequent campaign was one of the best in 2003.

BBH also helped introduce Dare to Sony Ericsson. The result was the inclusion in - and winning of - a global pitch against five international agencies.

Dare's launch campaign for the T610 picture phone was strategically and creatively faultless.

Dare's appointment as the sole digital agency for the entire Barclays Group was its new-business highlight.

Looking to the future, Dare hired John Owen, the director of Starcom's Intelligence Unit and the chairman of the IPA's Digital Marketing Group, to be its first planning director and position new media further upstream with clients.

Now an established player, will Dare widen its digital services offering or stick to what it knows best?

SCORE THIS YEAR: 9

SCORE LAST YEAR: n/a

GLUE LONDON

Declared income 2003 £2.01m

Total staff 39

Accounts gained 17

Accounts lost 0

Creative work 90%

Website design and build work 10%

Media planning and buying work 0%

Biggest-spending clients: T-Mobile, Virgin Trains, COI

Communications

Company ownership: Private company

Glue London's managing director, Mark Cridge, planned to make 2003 a year of consolidation following an outstanding but hectic new-business drive in 2002. But old habits die hard. In 2003, the agency was again involved in a staggering 22 pitches, winning 17 of them - a conversion rate of more than 75 per cent.

Glue has mastered that rare knack of making big clients listen. Its win list is an enviable who's who of leading companies including GlaxoSmithKline's Ribena brand, the launch campaign for McDonald's New Taste menu, Pot Noodle and projects for Mazda UK and MFI.

The agency's Achilles' heel is the large amount of project work it settles for. This approach was also a hallmark of its modus operandi last year and for 2004 the agency must work at becoming the agency of record for more heavyweight clients.

In saying that, glue has worked hard to increase work from its stalwart Virgin client - it is now responsible for all digital advertising for Virgin Trains, Virgin Money, Virgin Atlantic and Virgin.com.

As predicted, glue made efforts to expand beyond its core competency of online advertising into website design and e-mail marketing. It also announced it would become involved in strategic work for clients, paticularly planning.

As clients return to online advertising in earnest, expect a strong 2004 for glue.

SCORE THIS YEAR: 8

SCORE LAST YEAR: 9

I-LEVEL

Declared income 2003 n/a

Total staff 50

Accounts gained 17

Accounts lost 0

Creative work 0%

Website design and build work 0%

Media planning and buying work 85%

Biggest-spending clients: BT, COI Communications, William Hill

Company ownership: Private company

2003 gave i-Level's chief executive, Charlie Dobres, more reason than usual to be smug. Six million of them to be precise.

The agency's triumph in the fiercely contested winner-takes-all-battle for the jewel of this year's online media pitches - COI Communications' £6 million digital planning and buying account - validated the i-Level mantra. His theory from day one was plain right. As champion of the rationale for independent media specialists, the COI win, coupled with the BT account the agency already holds, proves i-Level's case.

Despite much Champagne-glass clinking at winning probably the largest domestic online pitch ever held in the UK, i-Level didn't rest on its laurels. Other wins included Zurich Insurance, VSO and Direct Line, while the agency admirably lost nothing.

In August, i-Level's group managing director and deputy chairman of the IPA's Digital Marketing Group, Nick Gutfreund, a former worldwide account director at Publicis, left the agency to pursue other interests. He was replaced by the deputy managing director, Faith Carthy, a former IPC and Zenith Media director.

While rumours swirl of a potential acquisition, 2004 will be the year to see if i-Level's management decides to keep its independence, a badge it has worn proudly for so long, or to sell out.

SCORE THIS YEAR: 8

SCORE LAST YEAR: 6

ITRAFFIC

Declared income 2003 n/s

Total staff 35

Accounts gained 7

Accounts lost 0

Creative work 60%

Website design and build work 5%

Media planning and buying work 35%

Biggest-spending clients: British Airways, Freeserve, Hilton

International

Company ownership: Omnicom subsidiary

During 2003, itraffic began the first chapter of life as part of Omnicom. While having a powerful parent can bring benefits in terms of resource and client introductions, it can also bring the burden of high expectations.

But the initial signs look good. Itraffic converted 88 per cent of its pitches in 2003 including Hilton International, Heineken and a place on the COI Communications roster. There was one disappointing loss, Egg online banking, but crucially it continued to strengthen ties with its most important UK client, BA.

While many of its rivals tightened their belts, itraffic boosted staff levels from from 25 in 2002 to 35 last year. The most significant addition was Paul Banham, a former head of digital creative at WCRS, who joined as its creative director in June.

Ambitious plans for 2004 include innovating its offering by boosting its expertise in ambient/outdoor, TV and interactive television, but more important is its relationship with its immediate parent, Agency.com.

While they have different offices, clients and business models (Agency.com is mostly a website-building shop), they are looking to forge closer ties, client conflict permitting, this year. Combined with the opportunities the Omnicom deal will throw up, more doors will surely open for itraffic in 2004.

SCORE THIS YEAR: 7

SCORE LAST YEAR: n/a

LATERAL

Declared income 2003 £1.69m

Total staff 25

Accounts gained 9

Accounts lost 0

Creative work 50%

Website design and build work 50%

Media planning and buying work 0%

Biggest-spending clients: Levi's Europe, Levi's US, BAT

Company ownership: Private company

2003 couldn't have got off to a better start for Lateral - in January it landed Levi's pan-European digital creative account. The win was particularly sweet as the incumbent, the WPP-owned Good Technology, had wrested the account from Lateral in 2000, ending its five-year hold on the business.

The appointment consolidated Lateral's hold on the Levi's business - the agency already holds the US account - with the European account covering 38 countries across Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

Then it all went quiet. Lateral went on to win a few pieces of business, tiny projects for the most part such as Children's Society and Surrey County Council, though there are some high-profile names including additional work for Nintendo.

The agency saw its headcount drop last year, staff numbers slipping from 30 in 2002 to 25.

In theory, one of Lateral's strengths is the ability to ride out lean times because it has feet in both digital camps - half of its income comes from website design and build, half from advertising. Recently, though, this has seemed more like a lack of focus.

Lateral really has to find a bit of bounce to bring back the glory days when it was winning sizeable clients off the back of a glittering creative reputation.

SCORE THIS YEAR: 4

SCORE LAST YEAR: 7

PROFERO

Declared income 2003 £3.20m

Total staff 46

Accounts gained 14

Accounts lost 1

Creative work 40%

Website design and build work 10%

Media planning and buying work 40%

Biggest-spending clients: Astrazeneca, Which? Online, Lufthansa

Company ownership: Private company

In a sector in which the only constant has been instability, one sure yardstick of reliability has been the performance of Profero. 2003 was no exception. An 86 per cent pitch success rate saw the arrival of 14 pieces of new business in the UK and 34 across Europe and Asia. Key wins included Dell, Black & Decker, Tesco, Bank of Ireland, COI Communications and Lufthansa.

The year saw Profero really blossom creatively, particularly with its child protection on the internet campaign for COI, and pursue its aggressive global expansion plans. It broke into Asia with an office in Singapore through a strategic alliance with Batey, part of WPP's Red Cell network, and stuck a toe in the water in Shanghai.

With offices in Paris, Munich, Milan, Madrid, Sydney and London, Profero now needs to focus on cracking the US.

Not bad going for a company that only launched in 1998 on the back of a couple of the maxed-out credit cards of its founders, Wayne and Daryl Arnold.

Next must be to get on the radar of traditional ad agencies. To that end, it has formed an advisory board of senior figures including Christine Walker and Amanda Walsh. The influence of the board on Profero's new-media culture and the success of this profile-raising initiative will be interesting to watch in 2004.

SCORE THIS YEAR: 8

SCORE LAST YEAR: 7

WHEEL

Declared income 2003 £6.00m

Total staff 90

Accounts gained 9

Accounts lost 1

Creative work 45%

Website design and build work 45%

Media planning and buying work 10%

Biggest-spending clients: Marks & Spencer, BT, Disney

Company ownership: Private company

Interesting times for Wheel Group, which rounded off 2003 with a management buyout, led by its chief executive, Philip Hunt, from its South African parent company, Primedia.

Much will be expected of the agency in 2004, given its ambitious outlook, seen no more clearly than in its acquisition in 2002 of the digital creative hotshop Abel & Baker. Before, Wheel had been known mainly for web build and design; now it clearly seeks a place centre stage in the online advertising business.

It has come a long way in a short time, taking a place near the top of the full-service digital league tables, with an impressive portfolio of blue-chip clients including BT, Opodo, Brylcreem, Starbucks, Ask Jeeves, Ikea, Dixons and Marks & Spencer. And it is clearly still in a hurry - witness the acquisition back in September of the Scottish agency It's Not Rocket Science.

More acquisitions are promised in the course of this year. Expansion in 2003 was also accompanied by a significant influx of talent - notably, Marc Giusti, previously the creative director of Agency Republic, who joined as the group creative director. Another new recruit was John Thekanady, previously Initiative's head of digital, who joined as the media director.

Wheel is clearly an agency primed to make an impact this year.

SCORE THIS YEAR: 7

SCORE LAST YEAR: 7

SCORE KEY 9 - Outstanding 8 - Excellent 7 - Good 6 - Satisfactory 5 - Adequate 4 - Below average 3 - Poor 2 - A year to forget 1 - Survival in question.

This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk

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