In a tough year, Craik Jones Watson Mitchell Voelkel hit all its targets while turning out classy and effective creative work, to make it 2003's Direct Agency of the Year.

The year 2003 has been one of the toughest years in recent memory for the direct marketing industry. New business has been scarce - many clients have only been willing to offer briefs on a project basis. Margins have been squeezed. And above-the-line networks have milked their below-the-line affiliates in a cynical attempt to boost their own balance sheets.

Against this backdrop, Craik Jones Watson Mitchell Voelkel has excelled, hitting all its targets while staying true to its principles. What's more, the agency has managed to maintain its high standards of creative work.

The agency started the year as the DMA Grand Prix winner. This was the third time it had won the top prize in 12 years, a feat no other agency has achieved. This year, Craik Jones was nominated a further nine times for seven different accounts. At the ceremony in December, it will hope to add to the 97 DMA awards it has already won - a figure that incorporates the two golds the agency has been awarded every year since its genesis.

Creative highlights for 2003 include classy acquisition work for First Direct, cute and effective mailing campaigns for Virgin Trains and, of course, some impressive creative for the agency's flagship Land Rover account.

Craik Jones also produced the goods for its other two "famous" accounts, Gordon's Gin and Orange. The highlight for Gordon's was a summer mailing that tapped into the knowledge that gin fans love spending time in the garden - drinking instead of digging. The agency sent this audience a series of green swizzle sticks shaped like garden tools.

The Orange work was less typical. Award show judges, no doubt expecting Craik Jones entries for Orange to be expensively produced museum pieces, would have been shocked by the agency's approach in 2003. One business-to-business mailing, the Orange Tariff Checker, contained nothing but a plain manila envelope. It invited recipients to send their mobile bills to an independent third party who would tell them whether or not they would be better off joining Orange. Simple and cunning, the campaign was the most successful business-to-business initiative Orange has run.

The agency's Lever Faberge Surf account proved equally fruitful. Understanding that today's washer is more interested in Heat magazine than housework, Craik Jones sent prospects Filth, a parody of celebrity gossip magazines that chronicled the stains of the famous and infamous. The door drop used humour to stand out and offered a discount coupon into the bargain.

Craik Jones continued to serve its clients with work of this calibre.

The result - in a difficult year, the agency managed to hold on to all of its accounts except one (the Ulster Bank, which took its business back to Ireland).

While other direct agencies prostituted themselves to land whatever crumbs of new business they could, Craik Jones quietly went about its business, only pursuing advertisers it felt would complement its already impressive client list.

In October, the agency was appointed by the National Trust to help it refine its acquisition and retention strategy. It also won a place on the Marks & Spencer and SCA rosters. But the new-business highlight came at the start of the year when the agency won the £20 million NatWest business vacated by TBWA\GGT without a pitch.

Craik Jones acted swiftly when its acclaimed creative directors, Simon Kershaw and Phillip Keevil, departed, to appoint Mark Buckingham, David Brown, Rebecca Rae and Leigh Roberts as joint heads of the department.

The agency's digital arm has gone from strength to strength and the appointments of the planner Matty Tong, the creatives Kerry Bell and Sarah Buller and the database analyst Andrew Newman bode well for the future.

The fellow contender Archibald Ingall Stretton can consider itself unlucky.

The agency that for too long has been seen as a case study of unfulfilled potential finally established itself as a force to be reckoned with. A good new-business year was capped by a successful pitch for the O2 account.

The agency also made some impressive appointments, particularly the creative team Chris Lapham and Debs James from Rapier and the car specialist account man Alistair Bryan from Craik Jones. As for the work - the creative director, Steve Stretton, is undoubtedly one of the industry's premier talents and this year's output varied between competent and excellent. If AIS can start to produce the goods on all of its accounts and pick up a few more creative awards in the process, it will consistently challenge for the agency of the year title.

Partners Andrews Aldridge had yet another good year. Steve Aldridge's creative department has produced an excellent body of work in each of the past five years and the agency's output in 2003 is as good as ever. A good new-business performance - five wins and no losses - underlined the agency's credentials.

And a mention must go to last year's winner, Harrison Troughton Wunderman.

Although the agency's new-business performance let it down, there's no doubt that HTW is a creative phenomenon. Sixteen DMA nominations is a record by some distance. The agency also performed strongly at both Cannes and the Campaign Direct Awards, ending the year with a tally of accolades to be proud of.

Recent winners: Harrison Troughton Wunderman (2002); Craik Jones (2001); WWAV Rapp Collins (2000); FCA! (1999); Evans Hunt Scott (1998).