A good year last year is no guarantee of health this. Yes, the smartest agencies are likely to see out the storm in better shape. And the fattest can afford to lose a little more meat before crisis hits. But butchered budgets and slashed fees can strike any agency regardless of calibre. This will be a year of butchering and slashing.
Looking at the Nielsen billings figures provides no comfort. All but one of the top-ten ad agencies has suffered a slump in billings and six of the top-ten media agencies have slipped. Yes, some hefty new business picked up in 2008 has yet to be reflected in the billings figures, but even so, they make for dismal reading.
Yet the billings are far from an adequate reflection of corporate wellbeing: the best agencies are providing solutions and advice that do not involve a media spend and, anyway, remuneration is no longer tied to media budgets.
So this year more than ever, billings need to be set firmly into context. Of course, to rank agencies by their income and profit would get closer to an accurate measure of size and health, but agencies take cover under the Sarbanes-Oxley law and filed accounts are inevitably well out of date.
All of which means our own analysis of an agency's performance, taking in a robust consideration of management strength, new business, organic growth, innovation, creative work and strategic insight, is the best available public picture of a company's year.
Still, every year some agencies wail about how they've been scored. Inevitably, their problem is not so much with the score they've been given, but how it compares to other agencies in the report.
So take note: in the following pages, we have painstakingly analysed agencies' performance over the past 12 months and scored their progress accordingly. Each agency is rated only against how they might have hoped to perform, or been expected to perform, not against other agencies of vastly different sizes, specialisms and starting-points.
Claire Beale, editor, Campaign