Feature

The story of VML: from anti-agency roots to fusion with Y&R

Few things better illustrate the march of change in the ad industry than the story of how a collective founded in Missouri 26 years ago rose to claim first-among-equal billing in a merger-verging-on-takeover with the venerable Y&R.

VML: Ligibel, McCormick and Valentine
VML: Ligibel, McCormick and Valentine

First, a reminder of how and when VML entered the WPP universe. Back in 2000, then WPP chief executive Sir Martin Sorrell approached the VML founders with a buyout plan that would merge the marketing agency with J Walter Thompson.

Fourteen months later, in June 2001, a deal was announced in which VML would become part of the WPP machine as a stand-alone agency group after VML’s founders demanded the agency retain brand independence. So great was Sorrell's desire to get hold of it that he agreed.

VML, or Valentine McCormick Ligibel as it was originally called upon its founding in 1992, had claimed to offer truly integrated online and offline services, such as advertising, business consulting and creating software applications. It also boasted an impressive client list, including Colgate-Palmolive, Coca-Cola and American Express. But what WPP really saw value in was the outfit’s business model.

At the time, Sorrell was keen on expanding WPP’s presence in marketing services, which were thought to be more profitable than traditional advertising.

Now VML, with 3,000 employees in 33 locations around the world, is deemed worthy enough to take over one of WPP’s most famous creative agency brands: the 95-year-old Y&R (formerly Young & Rubicam).

An agency holiday card, taken at Kansas City's downtown airport, which would later be transformed into VML's headquarters

Anti-agency beginnings

VML was founded in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1992 by John Valentine, Scott McCormick and Craig Ligibel.

In their own words, they "set out to create a closely integrated agency that was more versatile and nimble, and embraced collaboration with clients".

What the company literature leaves out is the bloody boardroom coup that almost succeeded at Valentine and McCormick’s former agency, Valentine-Radford. The then chief executive, Chuck Curtis, was nearly ousted by the founder’s son Valentine and creative director McCormick, according to an AdWeek report from 1993. When the coup failed, Valentine and McCormick decided to go into business themselves.

Their first client was Northwest Airlines, and they were "moving quickly from project work to taking on the airline’s entire national account".

This set-up appeared to work well, given that Valentine and McCormick did not want to be an "agency" in the traditional sense of the term and instead thought of their new enterprise as an outsource organisation based on a small network of freelancers who could come in. 

However, when Northwest Airlines client Christopher Clouser started asking questions about being billed for "people that he couldn’t see", the formal entity Valentine McCormick Ligibel was born. 

Matt Anthony, left, with VML chief executive Jon Cook

The founders soon brought in a fourth partner, Matt Anthony, who is credited with playing a critical part in VML’s growth for years.

In the UK, VML was born out of acquisition.

In 1994, an online services specialist Good Technology was launched and began building a reputation for creating innovative microsites and big-platform web buiilds. In 2004, three years after the WPP buyout, VML was rolled into a "partnership" with GT, as Good Technology became known. VML and GT were officially merged in 2009 as GT/VML and folded into the Young & Rubicam network.

GT/VML was badged Y&R’s "global digital arm" and, a year, later, launched as VML London in the UK. 

VML celebrated its 25th anniversary last year and claimed a fourth consecutive quarter of double-digit growth to more than $360m and scooped 27 Lions at Cannes.

The newly appointed VMLY&R boss, Jon Cook, has been at VML from almost the beginning, having joined in 1996, three years after graduating from the University of Missouri. He was appointed global chief executive in 2011 and is credited with spearheading the company’s global expansion to 33 offices in 15 countries.

What does it do?

VML describes itself as a global marketing agency that transforms brand through a "connected consumer experience" and that is committed to "providing 360-degree solutions for clients".

If that sounds vague, it’s due to a legacy of not wanting to be labelled by the industry in terms of being a "creative agency" or "digital agency". 

As Valentine remarked in a company podcast last year: "We’re not chasing a label, we’re chasing solving problems and doing great work."

Its service prospectus is indeed wide: it purports to be in brand consultancy services, ranging from helping marketers to transform their customer engagement practices and plan brand-building strategies to consumer research and data analytics.

Creative output

VML also offers creative services in the form of integrated campaigns, social, PR and community management.

Its global chief creative officer, the 18-year VML veteran Debbi Vandeven, has led the agency’s participation in The 3% Movement thanks to its inclusive and diverse culture. VML also increased the agency's maternity leave to the 3% standard in the US of at least 12 weeks off.

While Vandeven may not have a high profile outside the US, she has been a regular feature on international awards juries, including at Cannes Lions, the Clio Awards and The One Show.

Here are some of VML's work: 

Wendy’s 'Talk social to me'

VML has been Wendy’s digital agency since 2012 and creative shop since 2016. Over the past few years, VML has helped turn the fast-food brand into its own online influencer that engages in trending topics and pop-culture conversations.

Samsung 'The missed space flight'

In the latest instalment of its "#DoWhatYouCant" campaign, Samsung responded to the eternal dream of mankind in space flight with a virtual-reality experience, "The missed spaceflight", and the story of General Tadeusz Kuziora. It included a documentary film about Kuziora.

United Nations '#NotATarget'

Every year, millions of civilians are affected by conflict. But the world doesn't see this as headline news, since it is overshadowed by military and political action. To bring these real stories to the forefront, VML launched "#NotATarget" for the UN. The campaign included a live teleprompter filter on Facebook, geo-located billboards around the world and a traditional film featuring stories of the real victims of war.

Legoland 'Quest to Legoland'

VML reinvented GPS for kids by starting the Legoland adventure the moment families leave home by transforming the drive into a Lego-themed ride. Along the way, they could unlock themed missions, answer trivia and learn about the world around them as landmarks pop up on screen before their eyes.

Absolut 'One source'

"One source" is how Absolut describes producing its vodka from ingredients sourced in one location. VML teamed up with South African hip-hop star Khuli Chana and created its own version of this idea: an African musical collaboration that spoke to the fact that Africans were all created in one place. VML created a documentary series, an EP and a music video for the title track, chronicling Chana's journey from South Africa to Ghana, from collaborator to collaborator, lighting the fire of African creativity wherever he went.

Editor's note: VML archive pictures were used with permission from the agency