The Greatest Agencies of all time

Picking Britain's best-ever ad agencies isn't like choosing England's greatest all-time football team, where everyone has an opinion and no-one's selection is the same. Consensus is more achievable in adland, where it's easier to identify whose footprints remain set in concrete and whose have been swept away by the tides of fad and fashion.

These agencies may have changed vastly over the years - indeed, one could be said to be a shadow of its former self - and yet all have helped shape today's business. The influence of some isn't even confined to advertising but extends into film and art. Moreover, all have left traces of DNA that can still be found in current senior management.

While there may be some debate about who should belong in this exclusive club, few would dispute its core membership. Collett Dickenson Pearce, Boase Massimi Pollitt, Saatchi & Saatchi, Abbott Mead Vickers and Howell Henry Chaldecott Lury all have overwhelming claims, albeit for different reasons. So are there any common denominators that distinguish the great agencies from the good?

It is surely no coincidence that each agency in this Famous Five had a creative catalyst that set its style and helped establish its culture. CDP's blunt-speaking Yorkshireman, Colin Millward; BMP's consummate craftsman, John Webster; the volcanically temperamental but inspirational Charles Saatchi; AMV's elegant wordsmith, David Abbott, and HHCL's mould-breakers, Steve Henry and Axel Chaldecott, all imposed themselves on their agencies in a way few rivals ever matched.

Look more closely and you see that all were iconoclasts who challenged some of the customs of the advertising establishment and were determined to do things differently.

Beyond that, they brought a range of gifts to advertising's party. CDP injected a large dose of Britishness that an industry largely run from the US by remote control had never seen before. The agency's passion for creativity was not only inspirational but helped lay the foundations upon which Britain's creative reputation was built.

BMP, one of the pioneers of account planning, showed there was no conflict between the rigorous use of research and creative work that pushed the boundaries.

Saatchis combined a brilliant instinct for self-publicity with a disdain for convention. AMV's coupling of principled behaviour and professionalism was largely instrumental in allaying City suspicions that the industry was run by a bunch of chancers.

For its part, HHCL can be credited with ushering in the collaborative creative processes that are pretty commonplace now but were a radical departure when introduced in the late 80s. Between them, these agencies have helped make UK advertising what it is today.

SAATCHI & SAATCHI

The word chutzpah could have been invented for Charles and Maurice Saatchi.

Their willingness to try things others would not dare shook up the UK ad scene forever.

And if, as many believe, their ambition turned into hubris when their empire fell victim to mismanagement,Saatchi & Saatchi's place in ad history is assured.

To comprehend the extent to which the brothers changed the UK industry, it's necessary to understand how it looked before they arrived. The business was going to seed. The established agencies had ageing boards, were institutionalised and complacent, having grown fat on 15 per cent commission and international clients that were bedded in.

The Saatchis did not always break the rules intentionally. Sometimes they didn't know what the rules were in the first place. They were among the first to introduce a disciplined approach to new business at a time when it was considered infra dig for an agency to poach another's clients.

"You always had the confidence to try something - even if you didn't succeed - rather than take the safe option," Paul Bainsfair, TBWA's European president and a former Saatchis managing director, remembers.

Above all, the brothers taught a startled industry how to achieve fame by getting yourself talked about. Soon after opening, they were writing to some of London's biggest agencies, offering either to merge with or buy them. Later, they were quick to spot the PR potential in helping Margaret Thatcher to power with 1979's famous "Labour isn't working" poster. Four years on, they were to create a similar impact with the spectacular "Manhattan" commercial for British Airways.

Lord Bell, a former Saatchis managing director and now the chairman of Chime Communications, was once so much at the heart of the agency that he was known as "the third Saatchi brother". "It was the first agency to be run professionally as a business," he says.

BOASE MASSIMI POLLITT

No-one personified the BMP culture like Stanley Pollitt and John Webster, who showed that rigorous research and leading-edge creativity were not mutually exclusive. It was at BMP that account planning, which Pollitt evolved and refined, happily co-existed with Webster's creative potency.

When it came to creating outstanding advertising, BMP's philosophy was unequivocal: avoid complexity, go for simplicity and clarity. Distil everything.

Easy to say, not always easy to achieve. Nevertheless, BMP strove constantly to achieve it and demanded much of its staff in the process.

"You always felt the agency was aspiring to be the best," Nigel Sharrocks, the chief executive of Aegis Media UK and Ireland and BMP's media director in the late 80s, says. "There seemed to be a club of fantastically talented people and you had to work extremely hard to become a member. But you always knew you could be expelled if you failed to match up to the high standards."

It is probably no accident that BMP's star was at its highest when TV's pulling power was at its greatest. And Webster was one of the finest TV craftsmen of his generation. The performing dog in the John Smith's beer commercials, the Smash Martians, the Hofmeister bear and Sugar Puffs' Honey Monster were all his creations.

Dave Trott, a one-time Webster apprentice, hails his former master as a true creative genius. "Hardly a working day goes by when I don't ask myself 'How would Webster have done this?'" he says. "BMP's success was down to its fantastically strong planning department and Webster's high standards. While other agencies were one-dimensional, BMP brought you 'total advertising'. It wasn't your class or your accent that were important. Only the work mattered."

COLLETT DICKENSON PEARCE

No agency played a more pivotal role in establishing the style of British creativity than Collett Dickenson Pearce.

CDP was a product of the 60s. Britain had become a more dynamic and individualistic society, where privilege and deference no longer had a place. Advertising, although still considered rather vulgar, was beginning to embrace the new egalitarianism. And nowhere more than at CDP, which became a powerful magnet for bright young people whose lack of formal education was more than counterbalanced by their fertile creative minds.

David Puttnam, Alan Parker and Paul Weiland all cut their teeth here and were later to make their marks in film. At various times, the CDP creative department could boast a formidable array of talent - from Charles Saatchi to Ron Collins and Alan Waldie. It was here that an aspiring copywriter called Robin Wight honed his technique of interrogating a product until it confesses its strength.

CDP was much influenced by the charm of the work of the American Bill Bernbach, who virtually invented modern advertising. Under its creative director, Colin Millward, CDP managed to fuse Bernbach's style with British humour. The result was some of the most memorable campaigns in UK advertising history - from the brave Benson & Hedges work and Heineken's "refreshes the parts" to the wryly humorous "happiness" Hamlet cigar advertising and the Hovis "heritage" commercials.

CDP, inspired by the legendary Frank Lowe, claimed its success was based on simple rules: never lie to a client; don't present clients with work you don't believe in and don't offer clients alternative campaigns. "We were taught to sell the work," Peter Cowie, a one-time CDP account man, now JWT's business-development director, recalls.

The agency was fortunate enough to be born at a time before research strangled campaigns at birth. It knew instinctively what was right and every piece of creative work was signed off by the entire senior management team. It never solicited new business, believing the quality of its work would bring prospects through the door.

"CDP taught me the importance of putting creativity at the heart of everything," Mark Lund, the Delaney Lund Knox Warren & Partners chief executive and a former CDP group head, says.

ABBOTT MEAD VICKERS

The oddest thing about Abbott Mead Vickers' evolution into Britain's biggest and, arguably, most successful agency is that it never set out change the world.

Three men from different backgrounds, who got along well and respected each other, simply set out to produce quality advertising while having fun and making some money along the way.

Despite their modest ambitions, David Abbott, Peter Mead and Adrian Vickers raised the status of the business. Their modus operandi was simple; hire the best people you can find, treat them with dignity, respect them and watch them deliver.

Leslie Butterfield, AMV's planning director before going on to found Butterfield Day DeVito Hockney, says: "AMV showed that running a successful company means understanding the hopes and fears of the people working for you, communicating with them and galvanising them."

AMV showed the industry that if you combined principled behaviour with high-quality strategic thinking and creativity, success would follow naturally.

"AMV showed the importance of treating others as you would expect to be treated," Jeremy Miles, who spent 20 years at AMV and is now the chairman of Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy, says.

Of course, it wasn't quite that easy. In Abbott, AMV had one of Britain's greatest creative minds, whose work for Sainsbury's, Volvo and The Economist defined the agency's style and approach. This bred enormous self-confidence.

Also, as AMV grew, along came Michael Baulk to install the necessary managerial and financial disciplines. "AMV showed me that good agencies don't run themselves," Mark Brandis, an ex-AMV board director who is now the managing director of RPM3, points out. "You have to keep a close eye on income and profit."

HOWELL HENRY CHALDECOTT LURY

It is hard to imagine that HHCL was once the enfante terrible of British advertising. Hard, that is, until you learn that this was 15 years ago and, at the time, the agency's unconventional and oblique approach to creativity did not appear to make sense.

Pictures of empty laundry baskets to launch First Direct; a mentally handicapped supermarket worker in a TV ad for Fuji; a jeans commercial featuring a group of people sitting around laughing and the line: "Pepe, because one day you'll die." Little wonder, then, that neither consumers nor the industry knew what to make of it all, or that some critics regarded HHCL's radicalism as a case of emperor's new clothes.

Rupert Howell, Steve Henry, Axel Chaldecott and Adam Lury argued that advertisers and agencies were trying so hard to be liked that they were not acknowledging changing lifestyles.

The result was a creative product that, if irreverent, was refreshingly different and never easy to ignore. It re-energised brands such as the AA and Tango and launched Go and Egg. In fact, some have argued that it was HHCL that blazed the trail St Luke's and Mother were later to follow.

So what was the secret? The founders put it down to a collaborative way of working that allowed everybody in the agency - as well as clients - to contribute to the process.

"The system resulted in some of our best work because we all knew exactly what we were trying to do," Chaldecott, now the global creative chief on JWT's £350 million HSBC account, recalls. "The HHCL experience taught me you must challenge convention constantly, otherwise you won't produce anything distinctive."

Howell, now the EMEA regional director of McCann WorldGroup, says it was Henry's and Chaldecott's "spiritual leadership" that affirmed his belief in creativity's crucial role. "You must trust your creative people.

They won't get it right all the time but more often than not they do," he asserts.