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Independent Agency of the Year 2020: Uncommon Creative Studio

The shop is living up to its promise of shaking up the industry.

Independent Agency of the Year 2020: Uncommon Creative Studio

Uncommon Creative Studio launched in 2017 with much buzz and grand ambition: to "build brands that people in the real world are actually glad exist" while shaking up the industry with a new kind of business. Two years in, the agency is living up to its promise and name.

It has grown from just three people and no clients to 55 employees, more than £9m in turnover, 26 brands including homegrown ventures such as Halo Coffee, and a full awards cabinet. In 2019 it also moved into its own, bigger office, giving it the space to scale up its ambition.

Habito

Over the decades many start-ups have cropped up in adland and been swiftly forgotten, but Uncommon has ensured it maintains the creative and business acumen to keep top of both minds and pitchlists. It was a new-business machine in 2019, picking up 18 new projects and reaching more than £5m in revenue.

Since the beginning the shop has attracted other start-ups and budding businesses, and while that trend continued it also won big brands such as Dreams (in a pitch against Grey London and Bartle Bogle Hegarty), B&Q, Nike, Grant’s and Tullamore Dew.

Uncommon’s work also reached a new level of maturity. Its biggest achievement was undoubtedly its journey with ITV, delivering a much-needed boost to the staid broadcaster’s image. The year’s output spanned well-crafted films celebrating iconic characters such as Brenda Blethyn’s role in Vera, the "Television" ad highlighting ITV’s cultural significance throughout history, and a 3D-printed hairdryer of the divisive host Piers Morgan. 

The pinnacle, however, was "Britain get talking", a powerful statement about prioritising mental health that kicked off when the duo Ant and Dec interrupted the final of Britain’s Got Talent: The Champions. The campaign indeed got the nation talking, with 52 million online impressions and an appearance during Channel 4’s Gogglebox. After this year with Uncommon, ITV’s data showed it to be the only broadcaster to increase spontaneous consideration among TV viewers in the face of streaming players, while the BBC and Channel 4 have seen drops in this metric.

In another sector of struggling traditional media, Uncommon created The Guardian’s first brand campaign in seven years. "Hope is power", with bright yellow inspirational posters and a film about a butterfly’s unlikely breakthrough, rallied audiences behind the newspaper’s mission to build hope. The week the campaign launched was The Guardian’s biggest period of the year to date in financial contributions.

So Uncommon proved it can compete with the big advertising players, but it still hasn’t forgotten how to have fun. It disrupted typically dull and homogeneous sectors including mortgage brokers, with Habito’s animated spots set to loud metal soundtracks, and travel agents, with On the Beach’s outlandish disaster tales narrated by rock icon Iggy Pop.

The Guardian

It made a satirical fragrance that smells like babies for Ecover and championed the Lionesses during the Women’s World Cup for Nike. For BrewDog, whose founder once said he would rather "set fire to his money than spend it on advertising", Uncommon delivered blunt, attention-grabbing outdoor ads reading simply "Advert", "Advert on a bus" and "Sober as a motherfu".

No agency can succeed without nailing the pillars of business growth and strong creative work. Yet Uncommon is significant for two deeper reasons. First, in an era of consolidation and crumbling monoliths, Uncommon wears its independent label with pride, and will hopefully inspire more eager start-ups to enter the fray. More importantly, the shop and its leaders are champions of advertising itself. While critics air their cynicism and sound the death knell for the industry, Uncommon is brazen in its ambition to make it all better, to remind others why they entered this game and bring a new generation of talent along for the ride.

Runners-up

Amplify

Amplify was crowned Campaign’s Brand Experience Agency of the Decade recently and in 2019 it was easy to see why. It won 15 new clients and more than doubled its billings from £14.2m to £28.9m. Continuing its global growth, it expanded to Paris and Los Angeles. But of course the innovative work is where Amplify stands apart. Highlights included Airbnb’s "Night at the Louvre" campaign, which offered two travellers a night at Europe’s most-visited museum; the Red Bull Music Festival in London; the Nando’s Yard pop-up in Shoreditch; and Spotify’s "Who We Be" music festival. With Amplify’s magic touch, these experiences live on long past the moment.

Imagination

Imagination is an independent experience agency with some client relationships, such as Ford, that extend back more than 40 years. Its new-business wins for 2019 included retail brand experience brief from Costa, brand briefs from Chivas and GH Mumm, strategic brand experiences from Vodafone and experiential sponsorship activation from Visa. One judge said: "Great to see what an independent agency of 40 years looks like as it is so rare. Especially one doing amazing work for a broad roster across a variety of verticals. Work is fresh and philosophy of how culture, creative, process and maturing can all come together to make year-after-year sustainably great work."

Matter of Form

As Matter Of Form celebrates its 10-year anniversary, it saw its biggest year of growth. The shop "cracked America" with its first multimillion-dollar US-based client. It acquired a training business, Experience Haus, to attract the finest talent, but also to link brand strategy and internal change for its clients, which it believes is fundamental to the future agency model. Matter of Form has a diverse and inclusive team, with 19 nationalities and an equal gender split. It held a 98.3% staff retention rate, in part due to its unique cultural initiatives including complimentary week-long meditation retreats for all. In 2019, it produced some of the most exciting creative work in its history, and regularly competed against bigger agencies such as Huge, Deloitte Digital, Iris and AKQA. One judge said: "Interesting and compelling client proposition, combining customer experience into design and advertising. Difficult to find any fault with this submission, it sounds like a brilliant place to work with the business growth to back it up."

Mr President

Mr President prides itself on wanting to do good, with 10% of its annual resource devoted to initiatives that don’t make any money but do help the industry and wider world. It launched the Pay Gap Pound to highlight the UK’s shocking gender pay gap, and stepped out with Extinction Rebellion to campaign for a greener world. All this "doing good" stuff is very fashionable, of course,  with lots of companies jumping on the PR bandwagon, but Mr President was behaving this way from the word go. Its intention to do good is written all over its client list, whether working with NGOs such as Plan International or LGBT charity Stonewall. The shop enjoyed a solid year for new business, winning on average a new client for every month of the year, including Metro Bank. One judge said: "Its  honesty in the work, culture, challenges and ambitions is refreshing to see. Well grounded in what it takes to grow smartly and drive culture."

St Luke’s

With company values and culture high on the agenda across the industry, St Luke’s brought its take on agency life to bear. Its creative department is 50:50 male/female, as is its management board. St Luke’s was named in the top five places to work by Campaign for the second consecutive year. The agency embraced growing industry recognition that consistent brand codes combined with stunning creativity are the most effective way to grow brands in a multi-platform world. Its Tanqueray campaign, with the green blindfold, helped drive a 19% increase in sales globally and its pink box campaign for Very made the online retailer one of the strongest performers in the market. For Very, a retailer just 10 years old, the agency also made the most emotional Christmas ad of 2019, beating John Lewis, according to Unruly. New business followed from the likes of KP Snacks and Marcus by Goldman Sachs. One judge said: "Impressive business development wins while driving breakthrough work on existing clients such as Very Christmas campaign."

VCCP

In a cloud of mergers, management reshuffles and profit warnings, VCCP has stayed strong, boasting 6% year-on-year growth in 2019 – higher than the industry average of -1%, according to Nielsen agency rankings. Since starting in 2002 with four founders around a kitchen table, the business has grown to more than 1,400 people in nine offices around the world. 2019 showed what VCCP is capable of, adding 25 new clients including Invesco, Organix and McLaren. Creatively, it stood out by helping Cadbury tackle loneliness among the elderly, boosting O2’s sponsorship of England Rugby, and bringing new levels of cheekiness to Paddy Power with its "Save our shirt" stunt. And its work is effective: Domino’s hit £1bn in online sales this year, Paddy Power’s campaign garnered a 16% increase in new customer sign-ups, and O2 saw a record 12 consecutive quarters of growth, among other achievements.