Close-Up: AMV's formula for 15 years at the top of the billings table

How has Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO held on to the number-one spot so long, John Tylee asks.

On the page opposite this one, DDB's Stephen Woodford argues that agency billings figures have lost their relevance in a global, digital, fee-driven advertising world. But for one agency, they remain a beacon of success, albeit one that no longer reflects the full picture of corporate health.

Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO first climbed to the top of the billings table 15 years ago, and has stayed there ever since. In that time, many other agency brands have risen and fallen and disappeared altogether. But at the latest count, in the figures published in Campaign last week, AMV was a comfortable £113 million ahead of its nearest rival, McCann Erickson.

There's no single explanation of how AMV has managed to stay ahead. Jeremy Miles, a former AMV board director and a founder of MCBD, traces much of its success back to the culture laid down by David Abbott, Peter Mead and Adrian Vickers, who believed that principles and profits were not necessarily mutually exclusive.

"They put a brilliant DNA in place and had the people who could pick up that culture and carry it forward," Miles says.

Farah Ramzan-Golant, AMV's executive chairman, puts the agency's billings success down to its creative ethos: "We have a core belief in what we do creatively, so can reinvent, in an unlimited way, how we do things. Many people who once worked at AMV would not recognise us in action today."

An impressive record on client retention also played a major part. David Wethey, Agency Assess-ments International's chairman, says: "AMV has no winning formula for pitches. But it understands the importance of client retention and organic growth."

In 1994, BT assigned the agency its £50 million personal customer business (then the largest single ad account ever awarded in the UK) and the telecom giant remains on the roster, with the agency having survived a number of repitches. And AMV's success against seemingly impossible odds 11 years later at stopping the £47 million Sainsbury's business from walking away after 25 years has become part of adland folklore.

Martin Glenn, a long-standing AMV client as the one-time PepsiCo UK president and now the Birds Eye chief executive, cites AMV's management succession as a key reason why its client retention rate is so high. "They give the impression that nobody is more important than the client," he says.

Certainly, AMV's performance bears testimony to the advantages of managerial stability. The group chairman, Cilla Snowball, and Ramzan Golant were both on the staff when the agency first topped the league, while its chief executive, Ian Pearman, was a grad trainee.

Indeed, it seems that the only thing stopping AMV from being too good to be true is that the consistency with which it tops the annual billings table is far in advance of the number of times that it has been named Campaign's Agency of the Year.

True, AMV was the first to win the accolade in successive years (1995 and 1996). But there's an imbalance between its success in billings terms and its track record in a broader context, particularly as an agenda-setting, challenging agency. Some argue that the agency's creative product was not the same after Abbott, the man who set its style and tone, left. Indeed, it is argued that the agency has never replicated the stunning work from its 90s "golden era" that yielded such gems as the Guinness "surfer" film and Abbott's iconic Economist campaign.

"Look at the agency's most recent showreels and you'll find lots of good and well-crafted work," a former AMV senior manager says. "But you won't find anything to compare with that period in the 90s when everything seemed to fall into place creatively. AMV has turned from being the best agency in the country to the most successful. That's not a criticism. It's a hell of an achievement."

Snowball believes criticisms of creative standards go with the territory. "We're the biggest so we're bound to have more stones thrown at us because expectations of us are higher," she suggests.

Ramzan Golant is equally philosophical: "We're 35 years old so it's inevitable our creative product will go through peaks and troughs. You can't be good at everything all the time."

Now, having being number one for so long, is there a danger of complacency setting in? Snowball says not. "Heading the billings table is important because it validates a lot of what we do," she declares. "But clients aren't bothered about it. They just want to know where their work is."


- The billings of the tenth-largest agency today (O&M: £175 million) would not place it in the top ten in any of the years since AMV BBDO assumed the top spot in 1996.

- Only one other agency has featured in the top ten in each of the 15 years since 1996 (JWT, currently in ninth position).

- Of the top ten agencies in 1996, only two - AMV and M&C Saatchi -have billings today that are higher than they were 15 years ago.

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