The candidates for the first - and, quite possibly, the last - Campaign Digital Agency of the Decade have seen boom, then bust, then boom once again. Over the years, they have had more than their fair share of challenges to face, not least creatively - remember those clumsily drawn banners that used to represent the creative pinnacle of digital advertising?
Now, the collision of technology, marketing thinking, more substantial budgets and the flight of the consumer online have turned digital into a centrifugal force. But if digital itself has had a fundamental impact on advertising, have the best of the UK's digital agencies achieved the same?
More than any other agency, Dare, Campaign's Digital Agency of the Decade, can claim to have changed the way that advertisers think about digital marketing and the relationships they have with digital specialists.
It's no coincidence that the agency's top brass learned its trade at Bartle Bogle Hegarty - Mark Collier, the agency's founder, is a former BBH joint managing director and John Bartle is a non-executive director. For a long time, Dare seemed the grown-up in a market populated by kids playing at running businesses.
Four times named Campaign's Digital Agency of the Year, Dare has been characterised almost since launch by the strength of its client relationships. Its current list boasts associations of laudably long standing (Barclays since 2001, Sony Ericsson since 2003, Vodafone since 2005) and also contains recently acquired big names such as ITV, Sony and BMW. In a market characterised for a large part of the decade by project-based briefs, the agency has always had retained accounts. And now, it often takes lead agency status on client briefs.
One explanation for that success goes back to its structure: Dare has always invested in creative, planning and account management.
And as you would expect from an agency in the BBH mould, Dare's succession management again marks it out ahead of its peers. Collier surrounded himself with able henchmen in the planning partner, John Owen, and the creative partner, Flo Heiss: the agency is now run day-to-day by Owen and the recently promoted managing partner, Lee Wright.
All this has translated into consistent growth across the decade, even at times when question marks hung over the financial performance of many of its competitors. Dare now has gross income of around £16.5 million on profit of around £2 million, and staff numbers exceed 180. Its financial strength helped it achieve one of the best digital agency deals in the UK so far (in numbers terms at least) when it sold to Cossette in 2007 for £10 million up front and a total of around £30 million.
All this grown-up-ness has meant the agency has never been part of the Hoxton cool set. And in a small and frequently cliquey market, it has never got the accolades it deserves for its creative product. Its best campaigns are up there with some of the UK's top creative work. The Sony Vaio campaign in 2007, for which the agency convinced John Malkovich to star in an online film project; Lynx "blow" in 2006 and the Axe "feather" microsite a year earlier that won a plethora of awards. More recent work has shown the agency's ability to merge new technology with marketing ideas. The BMW Z4 "expression of joy" augmented reality app was one of the best uses of the technology for advertising purposes, while Vodafone's "taxi Grand Prix" used the medium to track real-life cabbies. The Barclays "waterslide" iPhone game, meanwhile, has become the most-downloaded advergame ever on iTunes.
At the end of the decade, AKQA London sprang out of the shadows to launch some of the best application-based and interactive digital campaigns ever to come out of UK creative agencies.
Fiat "eco:Drive" swept the board at the awards shows, including winning one of the Cyber Lion Grands Prix at Cannes this year. That campaign capped a decade during which the agency produced flashes of creative brilliance that sometimes exceeded those of any of its peers. It boosted Nike's "Run London" initiative through a viral campaign that helped the first event in 2002 sell out in four days, and other work for Nike, including the recent "photo iD" campaign, has been genuinely eye-catching.
All of its campaigns bear the hallmark of the agency's outstanding technical ability - but its marketing capability has often seemed less well-honed. As a result, it can produce work that, though technically impressive, seems to operate in isolation from the rest of the brand's activity.
But AKQA of 2009 is an impressive business - 350 people in London and more than 800 in total spread across eight offices. The agency can claim to be one of the only digital networks to have creative strength in multiple markets (particularly the US), and its enviable client list (Nike, Xbox, Coca-Cola) takes advantage of its global capabilities. And all this while retaining its independence.
Along with AKQA, glue London is one of the few UK digital agency brands well known outside the UK market, thanks to the quality of its creative and the profile of its founder, Mark Cridge.
The agency's work has pushed the boundaries - it has come up with various innovative and award-winning ideas, including "'ave a word" for Mini and Pot Noodle's "hysterical girlfriend".Cridge founded the agency in what now seems an impressively prescient way - as an advertising agency with digital expertise. And while there were plenty of sceptics who felt his aims were unrealistic, Cridge's faith in his business model was justified when the agency won the advertising accounts for 3 and Google.
A lack of investment in account management and planning has recently been addressed - but it came later to that game than it arguably should have done. In the past, it relied too heavily on project-based relationships and even now, though its client list is impressive, there are few on it that have been with the agency for more than a year or so.
That said, glue has plugged those gaps to good effect. Its sale to Aegis has resulted in an alignment to a network that looks committed to investment in the brand and within which the agency should have the creative space to thrive.
2000: Mark Collier quits Bartle Bogle Hegarty to launch Dare, a "digital design and production company". Flo Heiss joins.
2001: Wins Barclays account.
2003: John Owen hired as planning director. Lands Sony Ericsson and place on COI roster. Lynx "pulse" digital campaign launches featuring Bond girl-esque dancing silhouettes. BBH takes 25 per cent stake. Named Campaign Digital Agency of the Year.
2004: Wins £5 million Wanadoo account. James Cooper joins as creative director from Agency Republic. Breaks Sony Ericsson K700 "peel" and Thomson Local work. Named Campaign Digital Agency of the Year.
2005: Wins hotly contested £15 million AA account, plus Barclaycard and a place on the BBC roster. Axe "feather" breaks to creative acclaim, alongside campaigns for Wanadoo and Sony Ericsson. Launches Dare School, an education programme for creatives. Named Campaign Digital Agency of the Year.
2006: Adds Vodafone UK to its roster of retained clients. Lee Wright joins as managing director. Creates Lynx "blow".
2007: Sells to Cossette for £10 million upfront and around £30 million in total. Wins Sony Europe and ITV digital accounts. Persuades John Malkovich to star in an online film project for Sony Vaio. Named Campaign Digital Agency of the Year.
2008: Scoops BMW and Beck's accounts. Work includes Vodafone "live guy" and Sony Ericsson "Johnny X".
2009: Brian Cooper joins as creative director and Wright and Owen made joint managing partners to run the agency. Wins briefs for New Look, EA and the Football Association.