Direct agency of the year - Rapier

Winning the high-profile Virgin Media launch account was a massive coup for Rapier, and was the victory that elevated this agency above its rivals.

Rapier built on last year's success with another formidable new-business performance. Combined with some high-profile, ideas-driven creative, this helped it secure the accolade of Campaign's Direct Agency of the Year for the second year running.

Although the competition was fierce -Archibald Ingall Stretton, Kitcatt Nohr Alexander Shaw and Claydon Heeley all had near perfect years - few will begrudge Rapier this honour. However,  it wasn't until November that it was clear that Rapier should take the title. This was when it won the lion's share of the high-profile Virgin Media launch account following a pitch against Virgin's above-the-line agency Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R.

In succeeding, Rapier elevated the status of direct response communications, as well as forcing the thorny issue over whether or not non-ad agencies should take lead status on accounts back into the spotlight.

Its new-business billings topped £45 million in 2006 (more than double that of its nearest rival), taking its total billings to £216 million.

The creative partner John Townshend's mission to create first-class direct response advertising is a powerful tool in the agency's new-business armoury, as are the persuasive arguments of the chief executive, Jonathan Stead.

Rapier kicked off the year winning the substantial £7 million Digital UK account in a shoot-out against Proximity London. It went on to secure the online business for Smart to add to the DM account it already handled. It got down to the final two in the high-profile Abbey credit cards pitch, but was pipped to the post by Archibald Ingall Stretton. However, this blow was softened when Rapier trounced DraftFCB, Claydon Heeley and the incumbent, Tequila\London, to the £14.5 million PruHealth brief. It was then awarded the £4 million direct marketing task for the Co-operative Society without a pitch.

By the end of 2006, revenues had increased by 28 per cent and profits had risen by 22 per cent, proving that after 21 years, Rapier is still as robust a business as any of its fast-growing, younger rivals.

The continued success meant Rapier added 22 staff, bringing its total number of employees to 108. But the company also invested in its existing staff. It offered those with more than two years' tenure at the company share options. This perk was in addition to the day off every member of staff gets on their birthday and the half-day they are allowed to take for Christmas shopping.

Among the agency's most high-profile appointments was John Hatfield, who joined from EHS Brann, to head its digital offering at a time when there are too few talented digital experts to fill the senior jobs. In July, the creative director, David Prideaux, hired one of the hottest creative duos in the UK market: Sarah Richards and Ross Newton from Partners Andrews Aldridge. This strengthened what was an already impressive creative department, which boasts the likes of the DM art director heavyweight Steve Broadhurst.

This extra creative firepower meant that Rapier's work remained strong. The integrated Telewest brand campaign that the agency developed last year, featuring the brand icon Ellie West, continued throughout the year, and the agency scooped a Campaign Direct silver award for its "Telewest Error Letter".

For its long-standing client, the AA, Rapier developed a high-profile direct response television campaign, featuring "the AA team", to promote how much money its customers could save on car insurance.

The agency also extended its campaign for South-East Trains, which encourages the public to travel to British tourist attractions by train. The highlight of the campaign was the door-drops - cardboard masks of historical figures from top attractions that double up as leaflets. A mask in the shape of a skull related to the London Dungeon, and the head of an Archbishop was used to promote Canterbury Cathedral.

For ntl, which it won at the end of 2005, Rapier turned around a funny through-the-line campaign pointing out the benefits of cable. It ran with the line: "If you could, you should."

Deciding in which order the runners-up should be placed was much harder than picking the winner this year, since each of the other agencies on the shortlist enjoyed outstanding years, but for different reasons.

Archibald Ingall Stretton
This year, Archibald Ingall Stretton pulled off an impressive new-business turnaround, having spent three years in the wilderness. The agency had been off the new-business radar while it bedded down the gargantuan O2 account, won in 2003. But credit where credit is due, because it bounced back as a serious contender in the major direct marketing pitches. It won Barnardo's, Now Broadband's integrated account, Royal National Institute for the Blind, Corgi Gas Fitters and the hotly fought pitch for the £16 million Abbey credit cards business. These wins made a total of £21.5 million in billings. Creative highlights were for Skoda, Moët Hennessy, Barnardo's and O2, including the development of the high-profile "Blue Room", which gives customers VIP privileges online, in stores and at events.

Kitcatt Nohr Alexander Shaw
It was the youngest agency on the list at just four years old, but Kitcatt Nohr Alexander Shaw earned its place on the shortlist thanks to a powerful performance on all fronts.

After being challenged by Campaign last year to win more consumer brands, it scooped Waitrose, Norwich Union Healthcare and Citroën in 2006. And, as a result of the Norwich Union Healthcare win, it was also awarded the £20 million Norwich Union Direct DM account without a pitch. The agency also picked up the anti-smoking pitch for the Department of Health, proving that it is still a favourite in the not-for-profit sector. The win helped its new-business billings tally exceed £35 million by the end of the year.

This success helped the founders to buy the 40 per cent of its shares owned by Mentor Marketing Investment, which backed its launch. Paul Kitcatt, Marc Nohr, Vonnie Alexander and Jeremy Shaw are now in possession of 90 per cent of the agency.

Claydon Heeley
The only network agency on the shortlist, Claydon Heeley had a good year, winning the £20 million 3 account. Bupa Hospitals and QVC also came in. There was additional business from existing clients: ING Direct awarded Claydon Heeley its home insurance and mortgages business; it won the Dodge DM account from DaimlerChrysler and increased its income from Mercedes by 40 per cent. Egg handed the agency the integrated account for its mortgages and Dunlop diverted its advertising account for its Touch Technology business into Claydon Heeley from Bartle Bogle Hegarty.

It also strengthened its management team. It put the loss of its former chief executive and strategic brain, Nigel Jones, to DraftFCB behind it when Tim Millar moved over from its sister shop Agency Republic as the planning director. It boosted its digital credentials with Sam Bertram becoming the head of digital.

Claydon Heeley's claimed topline revenue was up 18 per cent year on year, contributing to a 45 per cent margin increase. Staff numbers also increased by 22 per cent.

Recent winners: Rapier (2005); Claydon Heeley Jones Mason (2004); Craik Jones Watson Mitchell Voelkel (2003); Harrison Troughton Wunderman (2002); Craik Jones Watson Mitchell Voelkel/Partners Andrews Aldridge (2001)

January Awarded £7 million Digital UK direct marketing account.
February Alison Meredith becomes third partner.
April Hires John Hatfield as the head of digital.
July Awarded the digital business for Smart.
August Wins £4 million Co-operative Group brand identity task.
October Wins £14.5 million PruHealth pitch.
November Appointed lead agency on the £50 million launch of Virgin Media.

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