Should the bean-counters at Aegis Group still need reassuring that the £14 million they paid for an agency that was on the brink of collapse four years ago was justified, maybe this will quash lingering doubts: glue London is rated by the industry as the best online creative shop in town.
In a Campaign poll of online agencies, media owners and clients, glue came out well ahead of its peers, with almost one-fifth of a total of 168 votes.
As if this, and the £4 million he pocketed from his agency's sale, was not enough to make his summer, Mark Cridge, glue's managing director, was also voted the industry's most influential pioneer. The 31-year-old Scot's only niggle could be that Seb Royce, glue's creative director, is above him in the league of top creatives.
"Glue has had a very single-minded proposition from the start and it has not tried to complicate it," the Dare managing director, Mark Collier, says. Ninety per cent of glue's business is purely online advertising.
Dare, minority-owned by Bartle Bogle Hegarty, is second only to glue in the creative agency league. Its lofty position is hardly surprising.
Last December, it was named Campaign's Digital Agency of the Year for the second consecutive year.
Healthy financial figures (net profits were up 337 per cent during 2004) and the canny poaching of Agency Republic's creative director, James Cooper, helped its cause, as did some memorable work for Sony Ericsson, Thomson and Lynx Touch.
This year, Dare has continued to produce the goods for Lynx, Wanadoo and an anti-smoking campaign for the Department of Health using walking fingers holding a lit cigarette in place of a penis. But despite its creative track record, Dare has a reputation as a solid, practical agency that produces hardworking, if unspectacular, ads.
"There is a real sense Dare produces work for its clients, not to impress its peers," David Eastman, the managing director of Agency.com, says.
The chasing pack is tightly bunched. AKQA, in third, is "the granddad of digital agencies", Agency Republic's planning director, Patrick Griffith, says. Since its launch in 1995, it has won admirers with work for the likes of Nike and Xbox. It has expanded, too, with offices in Washington DC, New York, San Francisco and Singapore.
Behind AKQA are two small, young shops known for their strength in design. Unit 9 turned heads with an online game for the Honda "grrr" campaign, while a microsite for Christian Aid (www.LifeSwitch.org) won a gold Cyber Lion at Cannes for Hi-Res last year.
"Two years ago, if I drew up a competitive map, it would have a handful of agencies on it," Collier says. "Glue, ourselves and a few others. Now, the full-service shops (which create websites as well as online advertising), such as AKQA, Modem and Agency.com, are producing great work. So are the agencies with media departments, such as Agency Republic and Profero. Then there are small hotshops such as Lean Mean Fighting Machine."
Overseas agencies have turned up on the radar, too. Barcelona's Double You has won global acclaim for its simple, elegant creative style (its Run Madrid Nike campaign is an example), while Stockholm's Farfar is "one of the reasons we went forward with the Aegis deal", Cridge says. Farfar and glue now share the same parent.
It will come as no surprise to digital diehards that only two traditional agencies feature in the league of top creative shops. Even less surprising is that both of them are American.
The higher placed is Crispin Porter & Bogusky, the $500 million- billing giant that, despite its size, is regarded as one of the world's leading creative lights. It is also one of the few agencies that can genuinely be called media-neutral. The Miami agency won the Cyber Lions Grand Prix at Cannes this year with a viral website (at www.comeclean.com) for Method's Holiday Cleaning Kit.
"I can genuinely say, from a digital perspective, at least, that Crispin Porter is the only traditional agency I truly admire," Cridge says. "Its is the only model we would use if we were setting up an above-the-line agency."
Tom Bazeley, a founder of LMFM, agrees. He sees traditional agencies as a bigger competitive threat than his pureplay peers. "They have the best creative minds. It's simply a matter of time before offline creatives are forced to try their hands at digital. Very few creatives from traditional agencies take the plunge into online." His colleagues Dave Bedwood and Sam Ball are exceptions.
"Sam and Dave" are online's most highly regarded creatives, according to our poll. They joined what is now Tribal DDB in 1999 and later left to launch LMFM.
"There's something about the spirit of those two," Eastman says. "I admire the passion they inject into their work. I wouldn't say LMFM has a genuinely A-list client roster yet. But they are still cutting through and getting noticed."
Two of LMFM's campaigns make our list of the top online campaigns, while Bazeley makes the planners top three; not bad for a six-man-band just seven months old.
Only two people from "traditional" agencies make the top creatives list.
One is Mark Chalmers, the creative director of Amsterdam's StrawberryFrog. The other is Steve Vranakis, a partner at VCCP, who has more interactive awards to his name than Ben Hur has Oscars. Jon Williams, the creative director of Wunderman Interactive and the man behind the first interactive ad to run on Channel 4, flies the flag for direct marketing.
Online advertising is rapidly improving on the creative front. But media, it seems, is its feeble sibling. This is in part because creative agencies don't have much contact with media planning teams, Nick Farnhill, Poke's managing director, says. "I haven't seen many media agencies that look to embrace creativity, design and innovation as much as they claim," he adds. "They are all much of a muchness and perpetuate a commodity-driven system."
Farnhill picks out the independent media shop i-level as an exception - the two agencies work together on Orange: "It opens up possibilities for us and we have genuine partnership-style talks about how to tackle a brief."
In the media agency table, i-level's lead is even bigger than glue's.
So how is business at the UK's largest internet buying point? Andrew Walmsley, i-level's co-founder, says: "We are now 80 people, billings are up 50 per cent this year and we have just opened new offices for Generator (i-level's digital consultancy)."
Profero, third in the media table, is one of only a few independent digital agencies with a media department.
It also boasts a strong new-business record, winning the media accounts of Butlin's, Bulldog Broadband and, most recently, Channel 4. Profero's managing director, Wayne Arnold, says: "As there are so few independent agencies, there hasn't been much innovation to drive the market forward. There's been too much replication of what's happening offline."
The move by the Media.Com duo Nick Suckley and Pete Robins to start their own agency last month - for the second time in their careers - is a development that could give the industry a much-needed boost. The pair launched Media21 around the time Profero and i-level were starting out in the late 90s. They sold to Grey in 2000. "It takes nerve to launch a start-up once. To do it twice takes serious balls," Arnold says.
Suckley and Robins both make the list of industry pioneers, topped by Cridge. "I'm pretty sure Mark will laugh his head off when he sees his name on this list," Jon Sharpe, the Play managing director, says. "He has built a great agency, and in that sense he's been influential. But shouldn't we think about who pioneered the media and technology behind the internet?" Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the web, and Vannevar Bush, the late US inventor (and, incredibly, a relation of George W), fit Sharpe's criteria.
Closer to home is James Booth, the chief executive of Tangozebra. In 1996, Booth invented technology that enabled music to be played online.
He later discovered that it could handle visuals, too. "It could play and interact, and allowed agencies to start thinking about branding on the web," he says.
A pioneer of the agency scene is the inimitable Bob Greenberg. The 57- year-old chairman, chief executive and chief creative officer of New York's R/GA rocked Cannes this year with his vision of the agency of the future. He founded R/GA in 1977 with his brother as a video production company. It then evolved into a visual design studio before taking shape as an interactive agency with production and creation rolled into one.
R/GA opened for business in London earlier this summer after winning the global brief for Nokia's NSeries. "Our plan is start small and grow to be something more sizeable than a boutique," Greenberg says. And few doubt that his vision will soon take hold in adland. "Make way for the revolution," Chalmers proclaims.
CREATIVES RANK CREATIVE AGENCY PEER POLL VOTES 1= Sam Ball Lean Mean Fighting Machine 18 1= Dave Bedwood Lean Mean Fighting Machine 18 3= Mark Chalmers StrawberryFrog 17 3= Flo Heiss Dare 17 3= Seb Royce glue London 17 3= Jon Williams Wunderman Interactive 17 7 Nicke Bergstrom Farfar 16 8= Mark Cridge glue London 15 8= Nicolas Roope Poke 15 10 Daniel Bonner AKQA 14 11= Rob Corradi Preloaded 13 11= Becky Power Digitas 13 11= Steve Vranakis VCCP 13 14 Simon Smith Weapon7 12 15 Piero Frescobaldi Unit 9 11 CREATIVE AGENCIES RANK CREATIVE AGENCY PEER POLL VOTES 1 glue London 30 2 Dare 20 3 AKQA 11 4 Hi-Res 10 5= Unit 9 9 5= Poke 9 7= Crispin Porter & Bogusky 8 7= Digit 8 7= Lean Mean Fighting Machine 8 10 Double You 7 11= Farfar 6 11= Goodby Silverstein & Partners 6 11= Lateral 6 14= Agency.com 5 14= Agency Republic 5 CAMPAIGNS RANK BRAND CAMPAIGN AGENCY PEER POLL VOTES 1 Mini Build your own robot Crispin Porter & Bogusky, Miami 20 2 Honda Honda "grrr" game Unit 9 18 3 NSPCC Someone to turn to Agency.com 16 4 HP Classical, Hummingbird, Duck, Lizard Goodby Silverstein & Partners, San Francisco 15 5 United It's time to fly Airlines United Lean Mean Fighting Machine 14 6 Audi Audi A3 Sportback film 20:20 London 13 7= Orange Orange Wednesdays Flytxt 12 7= Pot Noodle Hysterical girlfriend glue London 12 9 Trojan Condoms The Trojan Games The Viral Factory 10 10 AOL AOL 9.0 Lean Mean Fighting Machine 9 11 Milwaukee's Best Light Lust for bust game Barbarian Group 8 12 BT Where did the time go? Agency.com 6 13 Monopoly Monopoly Live Tribal DDB 5 14 42 Below The story of 42 Below vodka Saatchi & Saatchi 4 15 Nike Nike ID R/GA, New York 3 ONLINE PIONEERS RANK NAME/Position WHY ARE THEY A PIONEER? PEER POLL VOTES 1 MARK CRIDGE Brought traditional Managing director, advertising glue London values to the internet 22 2 DANNY MEADOWS-KLUE Has promoted the medium with Non-executive director, unequalled vigour 19 Internet Advertising Bureau, UK 3= AJAZ AHMED Has quietly built a highly Chairman, AKQA creative international digital network 18 3= PETE ROBBINS Co-founded Media21, the first Launching online online shop to be acquired by an media agency offline agency 18 5 JAMES BOOTH His technology is transforming Managing director, the web into a branding medium 17 Tangozebra 6 BOB GREENBERG Masterminded the agency model Chairman, chief with creative and production executive and chief under one roof 16 creative officer, R/GA 7= CHARLIE DOBRES Has a refreshingly creative Chief executive, i-level approach to online media planning 15 7= JOHN OWEN Protects the interests of Planning partner, Dare; digital agencies and promotes chairman, Digital best practice 15 Marketing Group 9= NICK SUCKLEY Fought to get media up the Launching start-up digital agenda 14 with Pete Robins 9= MATIAS PALM-JENSEN Founded one of the world's Chief executive and hottest digital creative agencies 14 creative director, Farfar 11 TIM BERNERS-LEE Invented the worldwide web 13 Professor of computer science, Southampton University 12 ANDY HOBSBAWM Developed the first e-zine and Chairman, Europe, the first general election Agency.com website at the start-up Online Magic 12 13 JAMIE GALLOWAY Few clients have shown such Director of digital faith in online advertising 10 media, COI Communications 14 VANNEVAR BUSH Developed the "memex", a Scientist, engineer, theoretical analogue inventor and politician computer, in the 40s 9 (1890-1974) 15 WAYNE ARNOLD Founded Profero, which now Managing director, UK, has nine offices worldwide, Profero with brother Daryl 8 MEDIA AGENCIES RANK MEDIA AGENCY PEER POLL VOTES 1 i-level 35 2 Diffiniti (Carat) 22 3= Profero 12 3= ZenithOptimedia 12 5 OMD UK 10 6 mOne (MindShare) 8 7= All Response Media 7 7= Initiative 7 9= Agency Republic 6 9= Media Contacts 6 9= MG OMD 6 12 Outrider 5 13= Media.Com 4 13= Starcom 4 15 Agency.com 3 MEDIA PLANNER-BUYERS RANK NAME AGENCY PEER POLL VOTES 1 Ed Ling i-level 15 2 Pete Robins New agency yet to be named 9 3 Anna Kennedy Diffiniti 6 4= Martin Kelly Unique Digital 5 4= Mark Varley All Response Media 5 6= Joanna Davis Diffiniti 4 6= Colin Gillespie All Response Media 4 6= Alex Jeffries Profero 4 6= Amy Lennox MG OMD 4 6= Andrew Walmsley i-level 4 11= Lindsay Frost Media.Com 3 11= Sean Japp Feather Brooksbank 3 11= Joanna Lyall mOne 3 14= Nik Dewar Initiative 2 14= Tim Luckhurst Media Contacts 2 PLANNERS RANK NAME AGENCY PEER POLL VOTES 1 John Owen Dare 17 2 Matt Dyke Tribal DDB 10 3 Tom Bazeley Lean Mean Fighting Machine 9 4 Jon Bains Lateral 8 5 James Clifton AKQA 7 6 Heidi Noujiem Agency.com 6 7 Patrick Griffith Agency Republic 5 8= Giles Colbourne CX Partners 4 8= Tim Miller freelance 4 8= Donato Laratonda Agency.com 4 8= Kate Harris AKQA 4 12= Brego Kell Exposure 3 12= Mobbie Nazir Harrison Troughton Wunderman 3 12= Paul Edwards Publicis Dialog 3 12= Bradley Moore Agency Republic 3