The dilemma was brutally simple. Should BBH be given the accolade for the second successive year for remaining at the top of its game? Or should it go to Clemmow Hornby Inge, the Johnny-come-lately that has roared up the rankings to become an established player in just three years, building an integrated agency model that is now being emulated around London?
BBH's win by a whisker highlights the difficulty of having to compare apples and pears. In their different ways, both BBH and CHI have not only won the trust of clients for the manner in which they do business, but also respect for their innovative thinking.
In the end, BBH was chosen because, through the evenness of its performance, it has become the standard against which others measure themselves. So much so that, when asked to name their most admired agency, BBH has been the overwhelming choice of the industry's elite.
As Trevor Beattie, the chairman and creative director of TBWA\London, puts it: "We have a lot to learn from them in terms of integrity and class."
BBH has always shown an ability to manage its evolutionary process with skill, not least in the way it has handled a potentially tricky transition period. John Bartle has left, John Hegarty no longer has day-to-day involvement and the job of sustaining and evolving the agency's culture falls to a new generation of management, under its chief executive, Nigel Bogle.
At the same time, it manages to present itself as grown-up without lapsing into corporateness (doubtless a reflection of its semi-detached membership of Publicis Groupe) while maintaining a protective and cherishing approach to its staff.
Significantly, in a recent survey asking ad people to name the agency where they would most like to work, BBH vied with Wieden & Kennedy for the number one position. And it's probably no accident that members of the new management team are all long servers, including Jim Carroll, the chairman, who has a 13-year service record.
This consistency has helped deliver an astonishingly successful year for BBH. A total of £94 million worth of extra business has come through the door. None has exited.
Once again, the agency has proved that you don't have to be a leviathan to win multinational business. Unilever, in particular, affirmed its faith in BBH by assigning it Birds Eye (£25 million) and Flora (£25 million) together with the £30 million pan-European brief for Signal toothpaste. Vodafone and J20 augmented an already impressive client list.
Moreover, the sales of Audi, one of BBH's oldest clients, are up 14 per cent year on year, while Castlemaine XXXX accounts for one in every 13 pints sold in the off-trade. The agency's campaign for Baileys has helped lift annual volume sales by 11 per cent and the anti-fit campaign for Levi's has arrested the decline in 501 sales. Robinsons and Gordon's Gin complete an impressive 2004 output.
BBH's business performance mirrored its impressive pitch conversion rate.
Full-year 2004 financial targets were hit in June, along with a 16 per cent growth in income. Pre-tax profit was up almost 45 per cent. What's more, BBH's gross margin of 19.99 per cent is the highest of any large UK agency, according to the Willott Kingston Smith survey. It marks the third consecutive year of margin growth by the agency, a feat all the more remarkable because it was achieved during recession.
Underpinning the success has been a creative product, consistently driven forward by BBH's executive creative director, John O'Keeffe, whose vigour belies the agency's 22-year history. Not only has it yielded Cannes gold and Campaign silver awards for Lynx but the launch of a series of compilation CDs of footballers' favourite tracks, which sustains the agency's reputation for thinking beyond the usual creative tramlines.
Just as Abbott Mead Vickers showed in the 90s that operating with decency and integrity and running a successful business are not mutually exclusive, so BBH is showing it's just as true today. The agency is an outstanding ambassador for an industry too often under fire for fecklessness and irresponsibility.
How long before CHI shares such a status with BBH? The time may not be far away. Having had such a meteoric rise, established itself as a top-20 player, bagged a spectacular haul of new business and rattled the cage of many a rival along the way, the agency has almost completed its rite of passage.
Without doubt, CHI continues to make waves, attracting the kind of publicity few other start-ups manage, and moving in on the kind of accounts that used to be the exclusive preserve of the established players.
The arrival of the £34 million Direct Line business as well as the brief to launch a new Toyota small car across 15 countries bear out its success and enhance the view of CHI as an established agency despite its youth.
Just as important has been its emphasis on work that works, rather than work that wins awards.
CHI enters 2005 in an enviable position: billings have increased by more than 300 per cent; gross income has jumped by almost half to £10.4 million and a staff of 84 occupy plush new Fitzrovia offices; it entered the top 20 this year (measured by billings) - incredible achievements for a three-year-old agency.
At the same time, CHI hasn't been slow to diversify its offering. There have been joint communications planning and PR ventures with Naked and Freud respectively. What's more, 2004 saw the arrival of Simon Hall and Warren Moore, two of direct marketing's most respected figures, to launch Hall Moore CHI. Financial nous has been assured by the hiring of Peter Walker as its finance director.
All these initiatives are beginning to open up channels into new clients and opportunities should be further enhanced if design and contract publishing plans get up and running.
If it can now produce a more consistent creative output to match its undoubted commercial success, it's a safe bet that CHI, having narrowly missed being named Agency of the Year for three consecutive years, will be a formidable contender next time around.
Recent winners: BBH (2003); Mother (2002); Mother (2001); Lowe (2000); M&C Saatchi (1999).