Can anyone topple the billings behemoths?

With a seemingly unassailable lead, Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO and MediaCom's pole positions in the Nielsen rankings won't come as much of a surprise. But scroll further down and you'll discover some unexpected success stories and casualties.

School Reports 2019: Can anyone topple the billings behemoths?

See School Reports 2019

For creative agencies, Nielsen billings are probably the bluntest of measurement tools – especially as shops increasingly turn to project-based work, consultancy and tasks that aren’t necessarily measured by Nielsen. But it remains one of the few like-forlike comparisons available – and as a broad brushstroke indicator of agencies’ health, it is indicative of their current state (albeit with some caveats).

Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO retains its crown as the biggest UK agency in terms of billings. After a miserable performance in 2017, when its billings fell by £90m (attributable to the loss of Sainsbury’s), it rallied in 2018. The impact of the loss of Camelot last year (and the contribution of Asda to mitigate this) has yet to be felt though there is still considerable blue sky between it and McCann-Erickson, which retains its place at number two with billings growth of 11%.

Adam & Eve/DDB remains at number three, while VCCP has leapfrogged Bartle Bogle Hegarty to take fourth spot – the former having increased billings by nearly 22% and the latter experiencing a drop of almost 18%. Interestingly, all of these top five shops were shortlisted for Campaign’s Agency of the Year.

But what of the winner, Mother? Well, this is where the deficiencies of measuring agencies solely on the media billings of their clients become apparent. While it retains 14th place, Mother’s billings dropped by nearly 20% in 2018 – and with the loss of Moneysupermarket.com still to kick in, it is likely to fall further. Nielsen, unfortunately, does not (yet) measure creative and strategic excellence, which were major factors in Mother securing Agency of the Year.

Back to the top 10. Saatchi & Saatchi makes a welcome return with a 21% hike in Nielsen media spend, attributed to the Expedia and Betway wins and the fact that although it lost Asda at the start of 2018, the client continued to run Saatchis-created work throughout the year. (Incidentally, there was less good news for its sister Publicis agency Fallon London – its billings stand at less than £16m, having dropped nearly 70% year on year. Among the company it now keeps are DTV and Brave.)

WCRS is just hanging on in the top 10 – although with less than £4m between it and TBWA UK, it may have to work hard in 2019 to ensure that it does not get usurped. TBWA will have its own challenges replacing Lidl’s £70m billings this year so it could even be next-place Publicis London that challenges the newly rebranded Engine to the prized top-10 spot.

Other notable results include the continued decline in billings by J Walter Thompson, which dropped 19% to £81m – the agency now sits in 20th position though its merger with Wunderman means this is its final appearance in this table. Anomaly grew by 19% to earn itself a place in the top 30, while billings at St Luke’s fell by more than a third as the agency shifted from 26th to 32nd. Alpha Century nearly trebled in size thanks to winning Coral, while Cheil London more than halved its billings and now stands in 44th position – some 20 places lower than it was last year.

There was greater volatility among the independent agencies in the bottom half of the table. Above & Beyond saw its billings fall by nearly £8m – a drop of almost 29%, while Creature slipped from 60th to 71st position. But given that the sums involved are so small, the percentage figures overstate the real impact. Nonetheless, it was pleasing to note that two particularly hot agencies – Droga5 London, which won Campaign’s Independent Agency of the Year prize, and Pablo – are now members of the top-100 club at 91 and 92 respectively.

Size matters

It is a completely different story for media agencies, for which size really does matter. MediaCom, much like AMV in the creative agencies table, remains top dog with an apparently unassailable lead. While its growth in billings was modest (in fairness, there are a limited number of categories left for it to cover without conflict), the decline by second-placed Wavemaker helped extend MediaCom’s lead. Wavemaker, which was only formed in 2018 through the merger of MEC and Maxus, saw its billings fall by more than £226m (nearly 21%). MediaCom, having been the first UK media shop to top the £1bn mark, is now the only agency to have billings above this level.

While the top eight media agencies stayed in the same positions, fourth-placed Carat saw a 14% dip in billings to £649m although it remains a healthy £140m-plus ahead of nearest rival Mindshare. What is remarkable is the way that independently owned the7stars has now burst into the top 10, leapfrogging both Vizeum and Blue 449. With a 29% year-on-year hike in billings, it is obviously doing something right. Fellow indie Goodstuff Communications (a contender for Campaign’s Media Agency of the Year) was relatively stable, growing billings by just 3% and falling one spot to number 18. Media Agency of the Year winner Manning Gottlieb OMD is not recorded separately as its figures are grouped alongside OMD UK as OMD.

Initiative Media, a perennial underperformer, put in a creditable show with a 19% billings hike, sitting in 14th place – just one spot behind sister Interpublic agency UM. Other shops in the top 20 to enjoy double-digit billings increases are All Response Media (16%) and M/SIX (36%). There was less good news for Hearts & Science, which dropped three places and £22m to 19th place, Arena Media, which lost £11m, and Spark Foundry, which fell 34% (a drop of £24m) and languishes in 25th position – just £3.5m ahead of relative upstart VCCP Media, which grew 32%.

And on the subject of start-ups, Bountiful Cow entered the top 50 after a 57% year-on-year increase. However, with its billings standing at just £13.5m, the agency is unlikely to trouble table leader MediaCom for some time.

Score key

9 Outstanding
8 Excellent
7 Good
6 Satisfactory
5 Adequate
4 Below average
3 Poor
2 A year to forget
1 Survival in question
* indicates where agencies claim they are restricted by corporate governance rules such as the Sarbanes-Oxley legislation

See School Reports 2019