How will we best remember the UK ad industry as it said goodbye to
the old millennium, certain in the knowledge that the bewildering pace
of change that consumed it in1999 will be just as relentless in
Perhaps we’ll recall it as the year agencies were beseiged by dotcom
millionaires, barely old enough to be potty trained, but flush with cash
generated by IPOs and determined to expose Chablis-swilling ad types as
It was certainly a period when agencies had to learn to temper the
necessity of embracing one of the most exciting media developments of
all time with the need to separate the winners from the fly-by-nights.
At least one agency chief had cause to thank his instinctive judgment in
showing one onliner the door - he later learned that his would-be client
was being chased across Europe by Interpol.
Perhaps 1999 will go down in the collective memory as the year in which
US colonisation of the global advertising business moved into overdrive
and the UK’s modest place within it became even more apparent.
For example, this year’s tables show the freshly merged Lowe Lintas &
Partners leap in to the number two slot, while the combined resources of
Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe and Young & Rubicam have created the UK’s
eighth ranking shop.
All of which goes to show how the world’s most powerful economy and a
high valuation by Wall Street is fuelling aggressive acquisition
activity by US groups.
The Chicago-headquartered True North merged its FCB and Bozell networks
in what appears to be a certain precursor to further acquisition
activity. As does the marriage of Leo Burnett and D’Arcy, whose BDM
holding company seems odds-on to use its public offering to bankroll the
purchase of another network.
Nor would anybody rule out another foray by Interpublic Group - pipped
at the post for D’Arcy - which has been perpetually under pressure to
deliver shareholder value, limited in what it can achieve through
organic growth and now a network short after the merger of Ammirati
Puris Lintas with Lowes.
Of course, the 1999 feeding frenzy was no more than a belated mirroring
of what is happening with multinational US-based clients, notably
Procter & Gamble and Mars, which seem ever more determined to use their
muscle to get the most effective creative work possible.
The upshot of all this has been to spark a remorseless hunt for greater
creative firepower by the major players which have been willing to pay
prices that have sometimes beggared belief.
For the evidence, look no further than Y&R’s acquisition of Rainey
Kelly. The surprise was not so much the merger - which has a compelling
logic - but that Y&R was prepared to fork out a reported pounds 25
million for an agency only six years old.
How the management at ten-year-old Duckworth Finn Grubb Waters must have
reacted to the news is not difficult to guess. The agency seems to have
been playing hard to get for too long, leaving M&C Saatchi - now an
established middle-ranker with the added appeal of being Campaign’s
agency of the year and Leagas Delaney, with its blossoming international
network - looking like the prettiest girls in town.
Y&R’s decision to dig deep into its pockets to bolster its UK operation
was probably the year’s outstanding example, not only of how the
Americanisation of the communications business is proceeding apace, but
how what happens in New York, Chicago and Detroit is having an ever-more
profound impact in London.
The result has been to put pressure on the UK outposts of US networks to
help lock in multinational clients whose unquestioned loyalty is no
longer a given. Nowhere is this more apparent than at Canary Wharf,
where Paul Simons, Ogilvy & Mather’s newly installed group chairman -
who has dubbed the agency’s recovery plan ’safe sex’, must convince
multinational clients that O&M is keeping more than just its pecker
The conundrum for the major agency players is obvious - how to offer big
clients size without the inflexibility and bureaucracy which often
accompanies it. Equally important is keeping high-spending domestic
advertisers sweet - RHM chairman, Paul Wilkinson, for example, who last
year complained that clients like himself were being trampled on in
agencies’ headlong rush for global business.
Grey, built on a bedrock of global advertisers like P&G, Mars and
SmithKline Beecham, is one network which is studying an experiment,
begun last year in its London operation, as a possible way of striking
the right balance between scale and a responsive service for
Certainly, the creative work emerging from the US-based multinational
groups bears out the assertion of Martin Sorrell, WPP’s group chief
executive, that the stimulation they now provide has overcome creatives’
previous reluctance to work for them. It may be no accident that last
year’s output from WPP’s J. Walter Thompson in London was the most
noteworthy in a long time.
For some of the one-time ’new wave’ shops, 1999 was a period when motors
had to be kept ticking over while some tricky rites of passage took
As founders have withdrawn, the agency culture must be passed on to new
generations, mindful of their heritage but wary of being weighed down by
And nowhere more so than at Saatchi & Saatchi, still coming to terms
with the departure of its eponymous founders five years ago but showing
signs of stabilising after a rollercoaster year.
Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO has also had to defend its turf, notably with
Sainsbury’s and BT, as Peter Mead followed David Abbott in relinquishing
day-to-day involvement in the top-ranking agency, and Peter Souter has
yet to convince some detractors that he is a worthy inheritor of
Abbott’s creative legacy.
The transition has probably been most seamless at BMP DDB, where Chris
Powell climbed into the chairman’s seat and allowed the agency
stalwarts, Chris Cowpe and Ross Barr, to take the wheel as joint
Sorrell’s indication that the US agency leviathans are growing better at
cherishing their senior people may explain the paucity of start-ups last
year. With so many major groups now better at fulfilling the ambitions
of their best staffers, fewer ’account barons’ and more consolidated
accounts, new agencies continue to be scarce.
Moreover, those that emerge tend to be run by experienced hands intent
on making names for themselves, rather than entrepreneurial young
Which may explain why the accumulated knowledge within Miles Calcraft
Briginshaw Duffy has enabled AMV’s first breakaway to get off the blocks
Pedigree alone is not enough to guarantee success. Just look at Wieden &
Kennedy which continues to find London a bridge too far and is realising
that it will have to revise its USP as the epitomy of West Coast cool if
the UK market is ever to yield to it.
All this takes place while the debate continues about how an agency’s
success - or lack of it - is best measured. As the commission system
declines, so billings become increasingly irrelevant and income figures
So why don’t more agencies supply income details? Less than half of the
top 30 have done so, suggesting that many of the main players are
unwilling to open up the books while the industry’s definition of income
Should it include media? And what about payment for work sourced out of
London for international markets? The Institute of Practitioners in
Advertising is attempting to establish the ground rules. But until it
does so - hopefully before next year’s tables are collated - the picture
The waters are also muddied by some agencies’ attempts to give
themselves a leg up the table by lumping together the billings of all
their UK operations.
MMS has tried to compensate for this sleight-of-hand by recalculating
its 1998 ranking, based on what it would have been had they done this a
Is it too much to hope that this year’s tables will be the last to be
affected by smoke and mirrors tactics and agencies which puff themselves
up to look more formidable than perhaps they really are? Probably. This
is advertising, after all.