Close-Up: What happened to digital's first-wave agencies?

campaignlive.co.uk, Friday, 26 June 2009 12:00AM

For a while, they were the agencies everyone had to emulate. Matt Williams charts the progress of digital's high-profile shops.

GT

Founded: 1994

The story so far: Richard Davies' agency started as an adventurous outfit, but a WPP buyout saw all of the key figures leave (including Davies) and the loss of a number of high-profile accounts.

High point: Winning the £15 million Microsoft digital account in February 2007.

Low point: Losing Audi last year.

Where next? GT celebrates its 15th birthday this year on its last legs. The agency has struggled to find any sort of form since being bought by WPP, and the recent loss of the Audi account could be the final straw. It's surely only a matter of time before the agency is folded completely into either Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R or Wunderman.

AGENCY.COM

Founded: 1995

The story so far: Launched in New York by Chan Suh and Kyle Shannon, the agency was only a year old when it sold a significant stake to Omnicom. The deal helped the agency break into the London market, where it enjoyed a number of years as one of the most successful digital shops around. However, poor managerial decisions and a lack of non-US expansion in recent years has cost the agency dear.

High point: Creating the award- winning NSPCC "someone to turn to" campaign.

Low point: Continually failing to hold on to key senior figures. Just last week, Enda McCarthy, the London president, left for Publicis Modem.

Where next? On the cusp of being rolled into TBWA\Media Arts London, it's hard to see how Agency.com will benefit from a relationship that has always appeared forced. Very few TBWA clients have been open to working with Agency.com so far, and if the agency loses BT, which is up for pitch, British Airways will be its only key client.

PROFERO

Founded: 1998

The story so far: Beginning life as a full-service agency, Profero's media business thrived early on, but the loss of key accounts, such as Channel 4, has proved costly. Creatively, the agency has shown it's capable of producing some truly great digital campaigns, but it fails to produce award-winning work on a regular basis.

High point: Winning a gold Cannes Cyber Lion for its Mini "white rabbit" campaign.

Low point: Losing the £20 million Channel 4 media business.

Where next? Profero is a "Jack-of-all-trades". The danger is that it's also a "master of none". Is it a creative agency? A media agency? A global network? The agency still lacks a clear USP and needs to get one, fast.

GLUE LONDON

Founded: 1999

The story so far: The glue London chief executive, Mark Cridge, always intended for glue to be an ad agency that specialises in digital, and despite widespread cynicism, it's well on the way to achieving this. The agency has had a problem in maintaining strong client relationships, but this is more than made up for in its excellent creative product.

High point: Winning the £28 million creative account for 3.

Low point: Resigning Pot Noodle due to creative differences.

Where next? 2009 is a big year for glue. Winning 3 from Euro RSCG last year proved it is ready to fight with advertising's big hitters, but questions still remain as to whether its planning department is good enough to ensure it isn't a one-off.

Another big win to follow last year's success would really make people sit up and take notice.

DARE

Founded: 2000

The story so far: Thanks to strong leadership from the beginning, Mark Collier's Dare has enjoyed an extremely successful first decade, picking up the Campaign Digital Agency of the Year award four times. A solid financial base (the agency became part of the Cossette group in 2007), good client relationships and an excellent planning department has made it an attractive proposition.

High point: Being voted Campaign's Digital Agency of the Year in 2007 for the fourth time.

Low point: Losing talented creative director James Cooper, twice. First to Another Anomaly, and then to Saatchi & Saatchi New York.

Where next? Cooper's departure has slowed Dare's US expansion plans, which is a concern. But what really needs to be established is whether the agency sees its future in competing with ad agencies or as more of a technological shop. The capabilities are certainly there for it to go either way, but it doesn't seem like a choice has been made.

MODEM MEDIA/DIGITAS

Founded: 1995

The story so far: One of the best digital agencies of the dotcom boom, Modem was the school for many of today's industry heavyweights. However, since Digitas bought it in 2004 and Publicis bought Digitas in 2006, the agency has struggled to find a sense of identity and direction. The loss of HP to sister agency Publicis Modem in 2006, some senior management changes and last week's loss of the GM account mean the UK agency's golden age is little more than a memory.

High point: Winning GM for the first time, its flagship account.

Low point: The Digitas acquisition and subsequent reorganisation led to the departure of the London president Norm Johnston in 2007. Replacing him with Chris Clarke, the creative director, backfired.

Where next? The real question here is: "what's left?" Digitas has parted company with GM, and its president, Howard Geisler, has also left. The agency has long struggled with its creative product, and now looks like little more than a network outpost.

AGENCY REPUBLIC

Founded: 2001

The story so far: An historically poor creative product has improved since the appointments of Gavin Gordon-Rogers and Gemma Butler, and a heavy reliance on O2 was tempered when Agency Republic won a global integrated brief for EA Games. It is also about to launch a TV campaign for its existing client Gordon's Gin, but can the agency compete with the big ad boys on planning?

High point: Its "battle for the UK's favourite university" campaign for O2, which attracted 60,000 members in its first ten days.

Low point: Having to close Media Republic, its media arm, after losing the £20 million media account.

Where next? Speculation surrounds the agency's long-term future, in particular, whether a closer alignment with Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO is on the cards. If this happens, can the agency maintain its autonomy?

WHEEL/LBi

Founded: 2001

The story so far: A story of mergers, Wheel's first big move was to buy Abel & Baker in 2002. The agency was known as a creative hotshop, working on high-profile clients such as Marks & Spencer. It sold to LB Icon in 2005, which was merged with Oyster/Framfab a year later to form LBi UK. Known for its large web builds, the agency is excellent at the "bread and butter" digital work, but it's now rare to find any of the great creative that Wheel was once producing on a regular basis.

High point: The 2005 merger gave the agency a large client list and even larger revenue stream.

Low point: But the mergers took a lot of time to bed in, at the expense of the agency's creative output.

Where next? LBi has a strong creative heritage, but currently little creative product. The web development work is undertaken on a large and relatively global scale, which is no doubt good for revenue, but with LBi marketing itself as a creative powerhouse, the men at the top have to ask where they want it to be in five years' time.

AKQA

Founded: 1994

The story so far: For years, AKQA's UK office was the technically strong, but creatively weak, little brother to the network's US beast. But, in the past couple of years, the UK offering has taken on a life of its own, making the agency one of the most respected players in the digital game. Creativity has improved dramatically, and an impressive client list now boasts brands including Coca-Cola, Nike and Unilever.

High point: AKQA would see 2008 as the year in which its London office came into its own. Nike PHOTOiD and Fiat eco:Drive campaigns picked up numerous awards, and new business was won in the form of Heineken and Ferrari.

Low point: Losing Aviva in 2006, plus constant accusations that it operates like a sweatshop.

Where next? With a definite idea of what it wants to be, and an aversion to deviating from its areas of expertise, AKQA has put itself in an admirable position. This stance has meant outside investment has always been deliberate, and has ensured that the agency will be a key player over the next few years.

This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk

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