The evolution of ad agency names
A view from Vicki Maguire

Campaign50: The evolution of ad agency names

The shifting naming conventions of agencies reflect the times they were founded in.

In Britain in the late 1960s, sharp-suited men ruled the world – or thought they did. City gents still wore bowler hats as they scurried home past the Waterloo sunset to dinner on the table, an aproned wife and scrubbed children.

Michael Caine was lauded for his masculinity in his role as womanising chauffeur Alfie, who had a cheeky charm and referred to women as "it". Sean Connery’s Bond trotted out the misogynist one-liners: "Run along, Pussy… man talk." And "man talk" still ruled. The old boys’ network was how the top deals were made, shaken on over a port in the men-only Pall Mall clubs.

The Mad Men era

Admen wanted to join this old boys’ network in the 1960s. Like finance, law, business and politics, advertising played by the club rules and it was all about having your name above the door. Agencies were hierarchical – if you were in any doubt about who was in charge, all you had to do was look up.

Arguably, the "founder surname" formula was a cry for help; a sign of the industry’s collective insecurity. Advertising was a relatively new sector and adopting a name that sounded like a boring old accountancy firm was a way of legitimising it. Regardless, it symbolised some high-level dick-swinging.

Why old (and sometimes dead) white men still rule

The "founder surname" formula was not consigned to the 1960s, of course – it remained popular through the 70s, 80s and even into the 90s. Having older (and sometimes dead) white men’s names stamped all over your achievements was something workers at agencies had to get used to. The name convention is still very much in evidence, with the likes of DDB, Abbott Mead Vickers, Bartle Bogle Hegarty and Wieden & Kennedy as dominant today as they ever were. The white male legacy will live on through agency names, even as the industry grows up and realises the importance of inclusivity. In the meantime, it’s worth giving a shout-out to those extremely rare female ad execs who also managed to get their name over the door – MT Rainey at Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe being one of the very first.

The 21st-century agency name: abstract, odd and occasionally Freudian

It wasn’t until the 1990s and 2000s that the industry started to get creative about agency names. The founders and senior partners were still mostly men, but now they wanted to sound less like a bunch of funeral directors and more like they were in an indie soft-rock band, such as 72andSunny, Naked, StrawberryFrog, Zenith, Creature, David & Goliath and, most recently, Uncommon. Some names, of course, tell us more about their founders than a string of surnames, addresses or National Insurance numbers ever could. It doesn’t get more Freudian than Mother, for example.

However, abstract agency names, such as Mother and Adam & Eve, also signified the birth of something new and disruptive, and coincided with other big brand names, including Google and Uber. These companies were supposed to be less about who owned them and more about what they intended to do.

It must be noted that Grey had a less fun reason for being chosen as an agency name. Grey actually came into being at the turn of the last century, but not because we were freakishly prescient. It was a name born out of horrible necessity. The founding partners, Lawrence Valenstein and Arthur Fatt, couldn’t put their names above the door because they were Jewish and knew they wouldn’t get any work if they advertised that fact. Instead, they called the company after the colour of the walls. By contrast, on this side of the pond, Saatchi & Saatchi, the founders of the world’s most famous ad agency, had no such issue. 

Agency names: the future

So, what shall we be calling ourselves in the next 50 years? Well, with everyone adopting odd names, it's getting harder to stand out. We could take inspiration from industrial fan company Big Ass Fans and call ourselves something based on the reality of what we do. We could also bring acronyms back into fashion, but this time to signify text speak rather than surnames. Like the agency names of the past, they would reflect the volatile times we live in. One day soon, DDB and AMV may have to make way for WTF and FML.

Vicki Maguire is the chief creative officer at Grey London