This was a well-contested, high-scoring category with a lot of entrants, and the judges found it difficult to reduce the shortlist to eight contenders. Several agencies performed well in the first round of judging and only narrowly missed making the cut.
The high standard of entries suggests there is good reason to be optimistic about the future of media agencies – this is despite the UK sector going through the greatest disruption in a generation as a string of homegrown performance shops have shot to prominence in the past 12 months. So it is fitting that Manning Gottlieb OMD has been crowned the best media agency for the second year in a row.
The Omnicom shop was founded 30 years ago during a wave of independent media agency launches and has kept its unique, British character, despite becoming part of a global network – witness its role in handling the UK government’s £150m media-buying account.
If 2018 was transformational for Manning Gottlieb OMD, when it won the government business, 2019 was a year of delivery. The judges were impressed by how the agency increased revenues from existing clients (billings up 8% among the top 20 clients), retained one of its biggest accounts, Virgin Media (pictured, above), and demonstrated "lots of evidence of creativity and effectiveness" in its work for clients such as John Lewis Partnership, Sony Pictures and Uber Eats.
Annual billings soared 35% to £700m and staff numbers rose to 482 last year, chiefly because the UK government moved to the agency formally only in November 2018. Helping the government to build a bespoke supply-side platform to ensure "end-to-end" transparency in its programmatic buying was a striking innovation in 2019.
Last year brought a couple of notable wins worth £21m, including Allianz and (without a pitch) Pladis, the owner of McVitie’s biscuits, in partnership with sister creative shop TBWA. It is an alliance that underlines Manning Gottlieb OMD’s reputation for creativity in media. Client satisfaction scores rose for the sixth year in a row and staff churn fell to 18%, according to the agency, which boasts a stable management team.
Tim Pearson, its chief executive, who was promoted to chief executive of parent company OMD Group UK in July 2019, and Paddy Adams, chief strategy officer, have both been shortlisted elsewhere in these awards for media agency head and media planner respectively.
Manning Gottlieb OMD’s bench strength, which includes Natalie Bell, managing director, and Paul Knight, head of government arm OmniGOV, was also in evidence when it won Agency of the Year at the Media Week Awards 2019.
Manning Gottlieb OMD did have a couple of minor blots on its record. There was no mention in its award entry of its loss of the (admittedly small) Starbucks account or its role in the government’s "Get ready for Brexit" campaign (for which the agency was under orders from Boris Johnson’s high command).
However, the judges felt Manning Gottlieb OMD’s continued prosperity was "not to be under-estimated" at a time when some of Omnicom’s global rivals have been struggling to justify the existence of UK-only shops.
It remains to be seen what happens to Manning Gottlieb OMD’s identity in the coming year and beyond, because Pearson has added responsibility for OMD UK, which was also shortlisted for this award; he is now chief executive of both agencies.
OMD UK has moved into Omnicom’s Bankside HQ in London, where Manning Gottlieb OMD is already based, but Omnicom insists no merger is planned.
The importance of investing in a distinctive culture with a USP remains paramount in this category, as demonstrated here. It was, then, "another great year" for Manning Gottlieb OMD, the judges felt.
There was plenty to like about Essence’s performance in 2019 as it won L’Oréal in the biggest UK media pitch of the year and picked up a chunk of Argos’ digital business. The WPP shop remains best known for being Google’s global media agency and the judges loved its "great focus on data and analytics" and "personal ads without personal data" – a pre-emptive move that anticipated the demise of third-party cookies. "The agency has clearly made great strides in growth with a very progressive outlook and positioning," the judges added, but they felt the entry would benefit from better case studies. Given Essence’s roots in London, where it was founded in 2005, it could also do more to demonstrate the role of the UK and its culture – as distinct from the wider EMEA operation. There is a 50/50 gender split and 21% of staff are from a BAME background.
The only independent agency on the shortlist demonstrated "great team culture" and "effectiveness for clients", the judges said. They also liked the way Goodstuff is "championing independents in general" by backing other start-ups such as Love Sugar Science and sixteenbynine, with its StartStuff initiative. Goodstuff, which celebrated its 15th birthday in 2019, has embraced challenger clients in recent years and last year added a net £17m in billings, including Cazoo, Checkatrade and Metro Bank. The judges were also taken with the launch of G-Force, a client-direct buying unit that allows in-house client teams and the new breed of creative and comms agencies to use Goodstuff for just buying. It is an interesting twist, given the media agency’s roots as a planning-only shop. Profit margin rose from 20% to 25% in a further sign of its growth ambitions.
The Omnicom shop put together a self-effacing entry in which it admitted its focus on returning the agency to growth in 2018 had come at a price. In 2019, it took a more "thoughtful", "sustainable" and "empathetic" approach, turning down the chance to pitch for L’Oréal. OMD UK reaped the rewards as it reported a 7.5% increase in revenue, 100% client retention, a healthy increase in its awards haul and a halving of staff churn in the second half of the year. The agency, with clients that include Barclays and McDonald’s, added £34m in new billings, and staff confidence in the leadership team rose to 82% by the end of the year compared with 65% at the start of 2019. The management showed "impressive self-awareness and bravery" to shake things up "even when the business metrics were good", the judges said, although they advised against appearing too "apologetic".
Manchester was the standout story in PHD UK’s entry as its operation in the North West doubled the number of clients and staff headcount as well as increasing billings by 150% – chiefly from one confidential client win. It was proof that looking beyond the status quo has been a good way to drive growth for PHD, the only Omnicom media agency with a UK office outside London, which reported a 5.8% rise in total billings. The judges also praised two new planning initiatives – a mental availability tool and an investment planner – for helping the agency to "stand out". Credit must go to Mike Florence, its chief strategy officer, who has retained his crown as best media planner in these awards. PHD also made progress on diversity – with 24% of new recruits coming from a BAME background last year.
"It really feels like an agency with momentum," the judges said, as the Interpublic shop reported an 18% jump in revenue and £55m in new billings last year, thanks in part to international client wins such as Just Eat and Mattel. UM London’s entry included some compelling endorsements from marketers to support its claim to have improved client referral scores, plus case studies for clients Rockstar Games and Country Life magazine. Insight (up 30% year on year), content (UM Studios grew 10%) and data and analytics were among the main drivers of growth. Culture matters at UM, which reported 18% staff churn, and media-buying parent IPG Mediabrands, and the group has made efforts to increase flexible working and extend paid leave for new parents. The judges approved of this "investment in talent".
The WPP agency performed well in 2019 adding 22 clients, including Axa, Eurostar and Heathrow, and winning more than £100m in new business with its focus on "customer journey" planning. Wavemaker has also built a reputation for collaboration both externally, winning best media agency partner for the second year in a row at the Media Week Awards, and internally, running a talent programme, Care, Create, Grow. "There is a lot that large corporate clients could learn from them on how to engage your people," the judges said, although staff churn was fairly high. The agency hinted at how it is seeking to transform itself, not just its clients, as it hired external consultants to improve efficiency and profitability. However, the loss of Vodafone and move by L’Oréal to sister agency Essence took the shine off its new-business wins.
Few agencies had a better 2019 than Zenith UK, which won £92.8m in billings to end the year close to the top of the Campaign new-business table. Three, Macmillan Cancer Support and Eurowings, plus the big, international Disney account, were among the wins. Like-for-like revenues from existing clients rose 6% and Zenith increased its awards haul at key events, such as the Campaign Media Awards. "Zenith’s strong culture and investment in people were reflected in engagement and client satisfaction scores," the judges said. Natalie Cummins, chief executive since July 2018, has led from the front and is Campaign’s Media Agency Head of the Year. Zenith is proud of its "bold moves" strategy to help brands seize the initiative but the judges said they wanted to see more concrete examples in action.