The best 20 agencies of all time

Mother vs CDP. Saatchis vs BMP. Zenith vs Naked. Ranking the UK's diverse range of agencies, past and present, is clearly an impossible task - but we did it anyway. Campaign unveils the UK's 20 most influential shops. Let the debate begin...

20 Ray Morgan & Partners

Looking back on the foundation of Ray Morgan & Partners more than 30 years ago, it’s hard to escape the ironic conclusion that an agency that helped set the industry on its future path was born out of an astonishing lack of foresight.

RMP sounded the death knell for the full-service agency. Yet the evolution of the media independents in Britain might have been very different had its eponymous founder not been passed over for the top media job at the London agency formed by the 1985 global marriage of Benton & Bowles and D’Arcy-MacManus Masius.

Morgan was no rebel. He was rather conservative, with none of the media man’s trademark brashness. He just quietly got on with the job of making media respectable and bringing intellectual rigour to the discipline via his graduate-hiring programme.

As a result, Morgan’s Mercury Media Services, B&B’s rebranded media department operating as "an agency within an agency", had won huge respect. Now, he feared this was being badly damaged by the botched merger and subsequent client haemorrhage.

What Morgan did next was game changing. He quit, taking the Mercury management team with him, along with 90% of B&B’s media business, in the process doubling the size of the media independent sector.

In 1988 RMP was sold to the Saatchi & Saatchi group, where it became the spark plug for Zenith, formed from the media departments of the group’s major media operations and setting the trend for marcoms companies to establish their own media brands.

19 Manning Gottlieb OMD

Manning Gottlieb Media started life in 1990 as a breakaway business from Chris Ingram Associates, when its co-founders, Nick Manning and Colin Gottlieb, set up an independent media agency in partnership with late-80s hot shop Simons Palmer Denton Clemmow & Johnson.

Along with a third CIA defector, Robert Ffitch, Manning and Gottlieb promised to offer clients "imaginative media solutions allied to sharp negotiation", and "media that sells". Soon after, MGM recruited Hilary Jeffrey (née Taylor), and the four combined to form the backbone of MGM’s management for years to come.

MGM started life in Simons Palmer’s Soho offices. It placed its first ad for Greenpeace, before selling a 19% stake in the agency to TMD Carat in a £66,000 deal to bolster its credibility. New-business wins followed from Nike, Virgin Atlantic and Sony, the latter handing MGM the task of launching its PlayStation console in the mid-1990s.

After moving to its own Covent Garden offices, and despite declining to pursue a potential merger with PHD, MGM soon found itself part of the Omnicom stable after its part-owner Simons Palmer was acquired by TBWA. Omnicom bought out TMD Carat’s remaining stake in the business, and renamed it Manning Gottlieb OMD.

MG OMD doubled its headcount within a year, becoming a large cog in OMD’s global media network machine.

Manning left the agency in 2007, while Gottlieb continued to ascend Omnicom’s greasy pole.

18 CIA

Having already launched Kingsley, Manton and Palmer’s media buying spin-off, The Media Department, Chris Ingram was a key architect of the move to break the full-service agency model with the launch of Chris Ingram Associates (CIA) in 1976.

The agency had a tricky start. Writing for Campaign in 2010, Ingram detailed attempts by existing players to stymie agency start-ups like CIA by urging media-recognition bodies to turn down their applications, starving them of credit. "We were a threat to the agencies’ comfortable world and they were determined to stop us," he wrote.

Ingram

However, blue-chip client wins such as BMW and Gillette added credibility to CIA, and – thanks to an expanding UK commercial media landscape – marketers began to see the value of employing a specialist buying agency.

CIA’s growth throughout the 1980s paved the way for other large-scale media agencies, notably the launch of Zenith by Saatchi & Saatchi in 1988.

After going public in 1989, CIA turned to international markets. By 2001, when holding company Tempus was sold to WPP in a controversial £432m deal, CIA had become a global, multibillion-pound agency.

17 GGT

Launched in 1980 by Mike Greenlees, Mike Gold and Dave Trott, GGT quickly developed a reputation as one of London’s most creative agencies, underpinned by work for clients such as Toshiba and, famously, Holsten Pils.

By the mid-1980s, GGT’s billings had reached £35m – sufficient scale for the agency’s leadership to take the business public. In March 1986, it floated on the London Stock Exchange. With its coffers bolstered, and new managing director Jim Kelly in place, GGT set out on an acquisition spree, buying US agency Babbit & Reiman and UK shop Bowden, Dyble & Hayes.

GGT had to endure breakaways, however. Former deputy chairman Paul Simons was joined by fellow GGT staffers Carl Johnson and Simon Clemmow in launching Simons Palmer Denton Clemmow & Johnson.

More controversy followed in 1990, when Trott was ousted as creative chief and replaced by Tim Mellors. By 1994, Gold had also left. Yet it replenished its leadership team, helped by a keen eye for talent – a roll call of GGT alumni reads like a who’s who of adland greats, from Stevie Spring to Trevor Beattie.

The £105m acquisition of BDDP in 1996 elevated GGT, transforming it into a top 15 global agency. In 1998, it merged with TBWA Simons Palmer, rebranding in 2000 to TBWA\London.

16 Naked

As the new millennium dawned, it seemed the time was right for another shift in direction for the media agency scene. In July 2000, three of PHD’s management team – Jon Wilkins, John Harlow and Will Collin – announced they were launching an agency that promised to strip away the convoluted advertising process and deliver clear objective solutions. Its name – Naked Communications – was intended to emphasise this, and its arrival (although, in fairness, Michaelides & Bednash got there first) marked what was described as the "fourth wave" of media agency.

If the first wave had been about media independents, the second about media buying and the third about fusing media buying with media planning, the fourth was about recognising that the world had changed again and, in an information-saturated world, media was the message.

By 2001, Naked Communications was a strong contender for Campaign’s Media Agency of the Year, having picked up 23 new pieces of business that year as well as the overall gold award at the Campaign Media Awards.

Harlow, Wilkins and Collin

Its ascent continued with its media-neutral approach to planning – sure, it was easy to mock some of its stunt-based work (washrooms seemed to play a disproportionate part in its output) and its nebulous talk of "owning that space", but it tapped into a general dissatisfaction with the old ways in which media was planned and bought and clients loved it.

Boots, Virgin Atlantic and Coca-Cola were among the brands that bought in to its irreverence – and ad agencies also soon wanted a part of the action. Joint ventures were set up with CHI, Lowe and WCRS, while Naked went on a global expansion programme.

In 2008 the Australian group Photon acquired it, although by now its magic had started to wane. As it edged into the 2010s, its demise was slow and painful. However, few agencies can be credited with making the holding companies not only stand up and listen but also change their ways.

15 St Luke's

Formed as the result of a buyout from Chiat/Day London after its merger with TBWA in 1995, St Luke’s operated on a co-operative basis from the outset. All its original 37 employees were made co-owners, an early indication of its unusual and maverick approach.

Led by the Chiat/Day management team of David Abraham, John Grant, Andy Law, Dave Buonaguidi and Naresh Ramchandani, the agency was named after the patron saint of artists. With the abandonment of hierarchy, and employing initiatives such as hot-desking (before it was fashionable), it was St Luke’s "Chuck out your chintz" work for Ikea, which it had won in 1996, that both sparked a debate about British tastes and changed the nation’s furnishing preferences.

Further groundbreaking campaigns for Eurostar, featuring a philosophising Eric Cantona, and the "Act your shoe size, not your age" campaign for Clarks, also drew attention. In 1997, Campaign named St Luke’s Agency of the Year, consolidating its reputation, despite it being less than 14 months old.

Other ethical initiatives – in 1998 it became the first carbon-neutral agency, only the second UK company to do so, and went on to make the UK’s first carbon-neutral ad with its "More power to you" campaign for BT – arguably fuelled the hubris that led to its downfall (at least in its original iteration).

In 1999, St Luke’s was the subject of a Cutting Edge documentary on Channel 4 that did not show this "artists collective" in the most flattering light, while the following year, a feature in the Harvard Business Review described it as "the most frightening company on Earth". But over the next couple of years change was on the horizon when Abraham and Law left the business.

In 2010 the management team – Neil Henderson, Al Young, Julian Vizard and Dan Hulse – completed a management buyout. St Luke’s is no longer a collective, but it still operates along some of the ethical lines set out at the agency’s foundation.

14 Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe

It was in the garden of Jim Kelly’s house in 1993 that he, MT Rainey, Robert Campbell and Mark Roalfe gathered to plot the launch of one of the agencies that delighted in its "naughty" positioning and proved a training ground for some of advertising’s greatest talent.

Based on the – then radical – philosophy of "ideas before advertising and ideas beyond advertising", within a year of its foundation it picked up the Virgin Atlantic account, which helped define the agency. "Naughty client equalled naughty agency," Roalfe recalled some years later.

Proving that its mantra – as well as payment by ideas, not on commission – was something clients craved, other advertisers including BT, The Times, The Sunday Times and Miller followed. It was for the latter that the agency created "Miller time" – three minutes of live programming with ads to trail it that brought its philosophy to life.

At the end of the decade and buoyed by its success, Y&R came knocking – looking no doubt to bolster its UK offering. In 1999, six years to the day after its launch, the agency moved into Y&R’s Camden offices and the success continued, as it snared the Jaguar and Land Rover briefs.

During the early part of the noughties, the agency won the sort of business of which it could have only dreamed as an independent – Marks & Spencer, Lloyds, Vodafone and the BBC.

13 WCRS

For long periods, WCRS has behaved much like HW Longfellow’s little girl with the little curl. When the agency was good, it was very, very good. But when it was bad, it was horrid.

Commercials such as Carling Black Label’s "Dambusters" spot was ranked 12th in Campaign’s 1999 list of the 100 best British ads of the 20th century. And has there been a more creatively consistent campaign than "The ultimate driving machine" for BMW?

Yet in a candid memoir marking 20 years of WCRS in 1999, Robin Wight, its flamboyant founding partner, cited "Dambusters" as a microcosm of WCRS. Despite hitting the target with this much-loved ad, some of the agency’s work on Carling would go down as some of the worst it ever produced, he acknowledged.

WCRS could be more interested in point-scoring than nurturing clienthandling skills. It depended on producing brilliant work because, according to Wight, it had constantly to lure new prospects to replace clients the agency knew would desert it.

Wight admits that none of the founding partners – himself, Peter Scott and the creatives Andrew Rutherford and Ron Collins – were caring, sharing types. Their attitude was personified by Collins, who appraised the work of a young creative wannabe with his hand inside a Sooty glove puppet. "Well, I like it," he remarked. "But Sooty thinks it’s shit."

Maybe WCRS’s lack of focus helps explain its complex history. For a while it was part of Havas-owned Arnold Worldwide Partners until it bought back its independence in 2004; its international network was split off to form the media services group Carat.

The WCRS of today is no longer the shooting star it was in the 1980s, but it is at the heart of efforts by its Engine parent to create a middle-tier marketing services group.

12 The Media Business / MediaCom

Fed up with the reluctance of his then-employer Davidson Pierce Berry and Tuck to expand its media department, in 1975 Allan Rich launched The Media Business, one of the UK’s first independent media planning and buying agencies. It also became a keystone in the creation of the UK’s biggest media agency, MediaCom.

Armed with little more than a desk and a phone in an office near Fleet Street, with his wife as his PA, Rich began managing media for agencies such as Davis Wilkins and later Howell Henry Chaldecott Lury.

Famous for his flamboyant attire and choice of cars, Rich was instrumental in the creation of industry body the Association of Media Independents, and he supported the launch of Media Week by buying a full-page ad in the first issue in 1985 to mark The Media Business’ 10th anniversary.

The agency forged a reputation as an incubator of top-level media talent, with alumni including Stephen Allan and Sue Unerman. A short spell on the London Stock Exchange ended in 1998, when it was acquired by Grey Advertising to form TMB/MediaCom.

In these more sophisticated times, it’s easy to forget but, once, size was the only metric that really mattered when it came to media.

At the end of the 1990s MediaCom, then the buying department of Grey, was languishing in ninth place – and looking in danger of being uncompetitive at a time when all advertisers cared about (egged on by media auditors) was discount.

In 1999, an opportunity to scale up presented itself with the acquisition of 11th-placed The Media Business – the merged entity shot up to fourth place in the all-important Nielsen table, with billings of £348m, and Stephen Allan became its chief executive.

There was still some way to go until MediaCom became the pre-eminent force in media but in 2003, after the transformational Volkswagen account win in 2000 among others, it topped the billings table and has remained there ever since. It’s little wonder that by 2005 WPP acquired the business in its entirety.

Other records followed. In 2007 it became the first UK media agency to hit the £1bn billings mark and its dominance, in terms of clout, was assured. In 2011, its regional spread was widened via the purchase of Brilliant Media to include Leeds and Birmingham.

The honours board of MediaCom’s talent constitutes a rundown of some of the most important thinkers (and doers) in media. Aside from Allan and Allan Rich, other names that have contributed to, and will long be associated with, MediaCom’s success include Nick Lawson, Karen Blackett, Claudine Collins and Josh Krichefski.

11 Fallon

The stars aligned when Andy McLeod, Robert Senior, Michael Wall, Richard Flintham and Laurence Green came together in 1998 for the UK launch of the US-based Fallon McElligott. The resulting constellation burned brightly.

Pat Fallon’s decision to set up in London was a long time coming. He and copywriter Tom McElligott had launched in the US in 1981. Fallon later recalled that when Senior and Wall pitched their views on a London office to him "they killed us with their first slide" – an image of their families with the words: "This is what motivates us."

Wall, Flintham, McLeod, Senior and Green

This drove the agency on, as it became one of the most successful in the UK in the 2000s. In 2006 it was named Campaign’s Agency of the Year for the rich creative seam in its output and its new-business success.

Nowhere was this commitment to excellence more apparent than in its work for Sony; its "Balls" and "Paint" campaigns raised Sony’s Bravia TVs from also-rans to market-leaders, and the former became the most-viewed ad on YouTube at the time.

Amazingly, "Balls" failed to triumph at Cannes, but there were other highlights to compensate, such as work for Orange, Skoda and the BBC.

In 2006, McLeod bowed out of the agency to pursue a career as a director. Perhaps this marked the end of Fallon’s pre-eminence, as the other co-founders also moved on. Their moment in the spotlight was brief, but significant.

10 PHD

In 1990 and in response to the buying sheds that were beginning to be thrown up across London, David Pattison, Nick Horswell and Jonathan Durden launched PHD – designed to be the antithesis of pure clout, with strategy at the heart of its offering.

The trio believed that some clients wanted more than just bulk buying – it "thought before it bought" – and they were right. PHD launched with Guardian Newspapers as a founding client, a relationship that still stands.

"Smart" media was embedded at PHD’s core and three years after launch it created Drum, the UK’s first sponsorship agency, which was later run by Tess Alps and pioneered content and advertiser-funded programming.

In 1996, the agency merged with the media department at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, resulting in a doubling of staff, and two years later it was named both Campaign and Media Week’s Agency of the Year.

As the decade drew to a close, eyes turned towards exporting its model overseas. In 2002, it launched in the US and Canada in what was to become the first part of its global network, which now sits across more than 80 countries.

The 2005 creation of Omnicom Media Group, and the power of the holding company it provided, propelled it further still, meaning that what was once an interesting, but rather niche, planning peculiarity could be delivered on a global scale.

Further launches in Asia Pacific and the appointment of Mike Cooper as worldwide chief executive followed, as did global new business – including Volkswagen, Elizabeth Arden and GSK.

9 Lowe Howard-Spink

Sir Frank Lowe imposed himself on Lowe Howard-Spink much as David Abbott did at Abbott Mead Vickers, renowned for its integrity and principles, and Robin Wight at WCRS, an agency that was sometimes arrogant but also capable of breathtaking creativity, echoing its founder’s multifaceted personality.

Significant differences divide Lowe from his two peers, however. For one thing, Lowe has never been a creative – although he prides himself on being able to spot a damn good creative idea when he sees it – and has always run creatives on a long leash. "My attitude was: anything is excusable if you have talent," he once said. For another, Lowe is a contradiction, as charming and kind as he can be tyrannical and eccentric.

It was no surprise, therefore, that Lowe Howard-Spink, which he launched in 1981 with Geoff Howard-Spink, one of his fellow managers at Collett Dickenson Pearce, could sometimes be an unforgiving environment in which to work.

That said, Lowe Howard-Spink, at its peak, was capable of high-class work. Whitbread, which followed Lowe out of CDP, was rewarded with memorable campaigns for Heineken and Stella Artois. And there was famous work for new arrivals including Abbey Life, Lloyds Bank and Tesco, probably the agency’s most important win.

Moreover, nobody could ever accuse Lowe of tailoring his principles to fit prevailing fashions. If he wasn’t firing Fiat, despite the carmaker providing 40% of the agency’s income, he was lashing out at "cowardly" industry peers for turning out dull ads.

In August 1983 the agency’s partners sold a majority stake to Interpublic. Since then, the operation has been IPG’s perpetual problem child, as the number of failed marriages with various IPG subsidiaries has demonstrated. Like its founder, the Lowe agency, through its various incarnations, has found it hard to be a team player.

8 Zenith

T he October 1988 launch of Zenith Media Buying Services was the realisation of a dream for founder John Perriss, who could see the benefit of merged media buying.

It adopted a bulk-buying template established by Carat in France, which had developed a profi table business based on group deals, with clients tolerating potential conflicts if they got a good price on their media. Zenith beat it into the UK market, however.

The amalgamation of the media departments of Saatchi & Saatchi, BSB Dorland (Bates), KHBB and Saatchis’ recently acquired Ray Morgan & Partners gave Zenith a 15% share of UK media; the next biggest agency had 5%. It caused ructions in the market.

Its launch and (short-lived) "nobody buys cheaper" mantra were met with derision. Yet Zenith, with Derrick Southon as managing director, Ray Morgan as chief executive and chairman, Peter White as deputy chairman and Christine Walker as director of TV, had a roster of bluechip clients including Mars and Heinz. Further new business followed in the 1990s, with Allied Lyons, Bristol-Myers, Halifax and Camelot. The naysayers were proved very wrong.

In June 1990, Perriss started work on the creation of the Zenith network (he became chairman of Zenith Media Worldwide), which launched in Western Europe, followed, in 1992, by Central and Eastern Europe, and New York in 1996, where it was the US’s first separate media-services company.

Despite the ousting of the Saatchi brothers in 1994, and in 1997 the retirement of Southon and exit of Walker, Zenith Media continued to grow. By the end of the decade its reputation as merely a buying warehouse was put to bed. Perriss’ dream had, in fact, been a premonition.

7 Howell Henry Chaldecott Lury

Howell Henry Chaldecott Lury was the agency adland loved to hate. Whether you viewed its creative output as refreshing or a case of the emperor’s new clothes depended on what you thought of using laundry baskets to launch First Direct or the moral justification for featuring a supermarket worker with Down’s syndrome in a TV ad for Fuji.

Indeed, Campaign’s selection of HHCL as its Agency of the Decade for the 90s opened up some deep divisions within the magazine’s jury. For HHCL’s principals, all this was simply grist to the PR mill. Its founders were an eclectic quartet: Rupert Howell, a brash, Ferrari-loving, ex-public schoolboy, who made his name as a new-business go-getter at Young & Rubicam; Steve Henry and Axel Chaldecott, a respected creative team from WCRS; and Adam Lury, a former Boase Massimi Pollitt senior planner, said to take political correctness to the point of obsession.

Not surprisingly, HHCL’s creative risk-taking meant its ads were very much hit or miss. One corker was the absurdist "You know when you’ve been Tango’d" spots, dubbed by Campaign "the seminal campaign of the 90s".

Howell, Henry, Chaldecott and Lury

It wasn’t afraid to bite the hands that fed it either. One example was a 1987 ad querying audience measurement. It featured a couple getting intimate in front of a TV. The caption read: "Current advertising research suggests these people are watching your ad. Who’s really getting screwed?" The ensuing furore cost the agency Thames TV, one of its biggest clients. At the same time, it pioneered agency conventions that later became the norm. Everybody in the agency was urged to contribute ideas, and clients were included in the creative process.

In contrast to its rise, HHCL’s descent was long and painful. First, Howell – HHCL’s public face and its driving force – quit for a management role at Chime, which had acquired the agency for a reported £24m in 1997 in a deal bankrolled by WPP. Then there was the resultant split ownership after WPP bought 49% of the agency from Chime, which some argued left it in an impossible situation.

HHCL was never the same. In 2003, after some big account losses, it was renamed HHCL/Red Cell as WPP merged it into its Red Cell network. The HHCL name disappeared in 2006 when the agency became United London. It was folded into Grey the following year, having lost the £75m Sky business.

6 Saatchi & Saatchi

Chutzpah & Chutzpah. Could there have been a more fitting title for the book published last year in which former Saatchi & Saatchi staffers offered their first-hand accounts of what it was like working for the agency during its barnstorming years?

The Saatchi brothers had chutzpah in spades. They didn’t have a coherent advertising philosophy – Charles thought ads were either "terrific" or "shit" – and the astonishing expansion of their organisation was down to the voracious acquisition spree that would return to haunt them.

They began in September 1970 and the agency’s star burned bright in those early, buccaneering days. Young hotshots such as Jeremy Sinclair, John Hegarty and Tim Bell all joined in 1970, followed by Bill Muirhead in 1972 and Martin Sorrell in 1975.

Campaign's splash on the launch of Saatchi & Saatchi

It was a time not only of a revolution in the arts and a breaking down of class barriers but of growing consumer spending power. The Saatchi mantra that "nothing is impossible" encapsulated a new, breezy selfconfidence. So it was entirely apposite that it should have played a key role in helping Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives to power.

The agency produced some remarkably good work – from "Labour isn’t working" for the Tories (1978) and Silk Cut’s "Slashed purple" (1983) to the epic "Manhattan" spot for British Airways (1983) and The Independent’s launch campaign "It is. Are you?" (1986).

At the time, Charles just wanted the biggest and best agency network in the world and all the fame and fortune that came with it. He craved success, and his fearsome chair-chucking rages were a manifestation of this.

What marked out the brothers as different was their nerve in pushing things as far as they could. At the same time, they were also innocents upon the advertising stage. If they ignored conventions – like the one preventing IPA agencies poaching each other’s business – it was because they didn’t know such rules existed.

Quite how Saatchi & Saatchi made such a profound impact on the industry defies easy explanation. Undoubtedly, both Charles’ instinct for publicity, which got the Saatchi name known well beyond the industry, and Maurice’s business acumen and relentless salesmanship had a lot to do with it.

Or perhaps it was their tireless energy. Or their knack of employing talented people or identifying a new trend. Or their focused approach to new business – in which prospects were called methodically at regular intervals – something Maurice learned as a junior assistant at Haymarket when helping to launch Campaign.

However, it is equally true to say that the Saatchis taught the ad industry a lesson that nobody would wish to repeat – that acquisition for its own sake and with little thought given to integration is a recipe for disaster.

Certainly, nobody seemed to consider the long-term consequences of the mind-blowing $450m 1985 takeover of Ted Bates, then a pillar of the Madison Avenue establishment and the world’s third-biggest agency. It had clients asking why they should be paying 15% commission to big agencies when the Bates deal suggested they were awash with money.

They made an abortive bid to buy Midland Bank in 1987, which proved to be the harbinger of the collapse of the Saatchi empire, leading to the ousting of the brothers at the end of 1994. They set up M&C Saatchi, while Publicis Groupe later bought their old agency. Charles’ interest turned to his art collection, leaving Maurice to reflect on the rise and crash of Saatchi & Saatchi as a salutary lesson.

5 Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO

T here’s something of the ocean liner about Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO. Its stabilisers seem to cope with the vicissitudes of a stormy commercial climate, while its voyage to the top of the UK agency rankings has been an outstanding piece of navigation and its continuing berth there has never been in serious doubt.

So it’s curious to note that, in founding what is arguably Britain’s most successful agency, David Abbott, Peter Mead and Adrian Vickers never set out to make waves. Indeed, Abbott, whose elegant creative style and principled behaviour personified AMV, once left a previous shop with his name over the door because he believed it had grown too large to retain its creative potency.

They just happened to be three people from different backgrounds – Abbott and Vickers both studied at Oxford, Mead was a Peckham windowcleaner’s son, who left school at 16 with two O-levels – who liked and respected each other and just wanted to produce quality advertising while having fun and making some money.

In doing so, AMV proved that despite operating within an often cut-throat industry, rewards would come to agencies that showed integrity towards clients and treated their staff with respect. And that principles and profits weren’t mutually exclusive.

At the same time, the 1991 deal that brought AMV into BBDO’s worldwide family will go down as one of the neatest agency mergers ever.

Vickers later recalled how the agency principals’ founding instincts were to behave honourably and decently. "While we would not hire nice fools, we would not hire nasty geniuses," he said. "If laughter was not heard frequently in the corridors, something had gone wrong." Not that AMV’s approach meant it was a soft touch. As Mead explained: "If somebody wasn’t good enough, and we couldn’t help them any further, we made it very easy for them to leave."

Shared values aside, why did the chemistry between AMV’s principals work so well? Many believe it was because Abbott’s partners were happy for him to stamp his personality on every aspect of the agency’s life. They deferred to him on all creative and most other matters, while their complementary skills allowed his genius to flourish.

Tall and striking, but rather shy, Abbott was one of the finest copywriters Britain has seen. In Campaign’s collection of the 20th century’s best ads, he had seven entries – one more than his great contemporary John Webster.

Abbott’s craftsmanship and warmth were no better defined in his work than by the genteel character of JR Hartley, who managed to find a copy of his out-of-print book on fly fishing with the help of Yellow Pages. The wit and brevity of The Economist posters, meanwhile, exemplified his amusing and terse style that caused one commentator to observe that "his sentences click together like Lego".

It is hardly surprising that so many talented creatives were eager to work for Abbott, in an eclectic department that accommodated experienced teams and young Turks alike.

Abbott, Mead and Vickers

That said, it is an open question as to whether Abbott would truly have come into his own without the sustaining skills of his partners. The larger-than-life Mead’s lack of overt intellectualism was always compensated for by his instinctive personal skills and his shrewd talent-spotting.

In driving AMV’s early transformation into a broadbased communication group, he did much to change the investment community’s perception of the industry as a place peopled by dilettantes.

By providing a counterbalance, Vickers can be said to have pulled the whole thing together. Never in the limelight, but always witty, charming and ego-free, he was the consigliere and a natural at the daily business of ensuring the agency ran smoothly. He was the client’s voice in the agency but always a persuasive advocate of what it was selling.

Mead is the only founder to remain a fixture at AMV’s Southwark home, safe in the knowledge that, despite their modest ambitions, he and his partners raised the status of the business significantly.

4 Mother

Mother’s influence on adland and British creativity cannot be overstated. From the outset, it took an original, innovative and unwaveringly creative approach to business and has reaped the benefits.

It broke the traditional mould by doing away with rigid roles such as suits and planners, ensuring the creatives spoke directly to clients, and recruited from abroad when the practice was uncommon. Its much-talked-about shared desk – a concrete slab running through its Shoreditch office at which both staff and visiting clients sit – is a metaphor for what the agency holds dear: open communication, dialogue and equality. This is also shown in its no-suits culture and the collective crediting of the work.

It all started in December 1996, when Robert Saville, a former joint creative director at Gold Greenlees Trott, had just two weeks to present creative work for the launch of Channel 5. He called up Mark Waites, a creative at McCann Erickson’s Amster Yard in New York, Stef Calcraft, an account director at Bartle Bogle Hegarty, and Libby Brockhoff, a US art director from GGT. The agency was born.

Mother’s defining era was the 2000s; it bagged Campaign’s Agency of the Decade for this period. Some of its earlier new-business coups included ITV Digital in 2000, the £43m Orange business in 2002 and Boots in 2003.

Its pursuit of creative excellence has led to some brilliant campaigns, including "Lilt ladies", Super Noodles ads that celebrate the lazy, and beautiful work for Stella Artois. The superbly scripted and joyful Orange "gold spot" campaign was undoubtedly Mother’s defining moment. These cinema ads depict the mobile operator’s clients as humourless bores that destroy all good ideas. The commercials starred celebrities such as Rob Lowe, Snoop Dogg, Patrick Swayze and Anjelica Huston. Between 2003 and 2008, Mother created 20 of these spots.

Huston in an Orange gold spot

Mother also paired Monkey, a Jim Henson’s Creature Shop creation, with Johnny Vegas to promote ITV Digital. Monkey’s longevity was greater than that of the broadcasting service, which ceased in 2002. In 2007 he reappeared as the brand mascot for PG Tips.

The agency continues to produce outstanding work for Ikea, under its "Wonderful everyday" strapline, including the award-winning "Beds" spot, directed by Juan Cabral. In recent years, Mother has brought a Jesus lookalike to London to spark a debate about tolerance and belief; photographed vaginas to encourage young girls to think twice before having their pubic hair waxed; and floated a giant breast on its rooftop to celebrate a woman’s right to decide how and where she feeds her children.

Mother has inspired other agencies to rethink their approaches and paved the way for more creative and braver clients. Not content to make great TV ads, the agency has produced other inventive work, including Somers Town, a feature-length film directed by Shane Meadows for Eurostar that won the top award at the Edinburgh Film Festival, a Time Out comic, a Pot Noodle musical and a comedy gala for Amnesty International.

From a talent perspective, the industry also owes the agency a great debt. Many of today’s creative leaders have been nurtured at Mother – Rob Doubal and Lolly Thomson at McCann, Chaka Sobhani at Leo Burnett, David Kolbusz at Droga5, Darren Bailes at VCCP, Andy Jex at TBWA\London and Juan Cabral at MJZ, to name but a few.

As well as expanding its own brand to New York and Buenos Aires, Mother has helped to spawn other businesses, taking a 25% share in the media strategist Naked, 59% in the digital specialist Poke, a stake in the design agency Saturday and 7% of the TV production company Monkey. It also partnered Nick Jones of Soho House to create Shoreditch House in the Biscuit Building, which opened in 2007.

Mother has continued to resist the lure of the big holding company cheque and is perhaps the most successful example of a creative agency choosing to remain independent and continuing to flourish. Its work has set a new standard for British creativity and its people – past and present – are continuing to shape the industry.

3 Bartle Bogle Hegarty

Fired up by the perceived injustice of propping up TBWA’s European network but not getting rewarded for doing so, and armed with Campaign’s first-ever Agency of the Year award, the leadership team of TBWA/London – John Bartle, Nigel Bogle and John Hegarty – set up Bartle Bogle Hegarty in 1982.

The agency’s first three clients were Audi, Levi’s and Whitbread – all enduring relationships – and the black sheep, the agency’s mascot, came from its first work for Levi’s. This was a poster that showed a black sheep going against the herd, with the endline "When the world zigs, zag".

An early poster for Levi's inspired BBH's logo

In 1984, the "Vorsprung durch technik" idea for Audi was born with the film "Villas", which ultimately led to one of the most successful and awarded campaigns in history. It continues to deliver: Audi’s "Clowns" ad scooped Campaign’s 2017 Creative Grand Prix of the Year and has won awards at every single global show over the past 18 months.

But it was in 1985 that BBH really entered the public consciousness with its first film for Levi’s – "Laundrette", featuring model Nick Kamen and set to the soundtrack of Marvin Gaye’s I Heard It Through the Grapevine.

BBH’s ads for Levi’s over the following 28 years have resulted in some of the most memorable work across any generation. It launched Brad Pitt’s acting career in the 1991 ad "Camera" and delivered other creative classics, including "Creek", "Flat beat" (featuring Flat Eric) and "Twisted".

Music has always played a fundamental part in BBH’s work; seven tracks used in Levi’s ads made it to the top of the charts as a result of the exposure. As the 90s dawned, BBH continued to "zag" by focusing on big, unconventional ideas for clients that managed to cut through to reach popular culture. For example "Cream of Manchester" for Boddingtons and "The Axe/Lynx effect" for Unilever.

The awards juries were impressed, too – BBH won Cannes’ Agency of the Year twice, in 1993 and 1994, and Campaign Agency of the Year in 1993, having first won it in 1986. It also became the first agency to win the Queen’s Award for Export twice, resulting in a couple of trips to Buckingham Palace for its founders.

Acknowledging that media was now a discipline in its own right, the agency launched Motive out of the BBH media department as a standalone business. In response to client demand, it also created a micro network, with offices in Singapore in 1996 and New York in 1998. In 1999, 49% of the business was sold to Leo Burnett, which was to map out its future direction without compromising its own integrity.

The early 2000s brought further success and it was named Campaign Agency of the Year again in 2003, 2004 and 2005 – becoming the first agency to have won three years in a row. Notable highlights included Barnado’s, Vodafone and Xbox, and its presence on the global stage was rewarded with international wins from British Airways, Google and Barclays.

In 2007, Hegarty was invited back to the Palace once more, in this case to be awarded a knighthood. Further structural changes (as well as gongs) came in the newest decade and BBH was named Campaign Agency of the Year in 2011 and 2012. The creation of BBH Sport, BBH Health and then BBH Live, a social-content division, kept the agency firmly forward-facing.

In 2012 the agency sold the remaining 51% share to Publicis Groupe, but with an "autonomy inside protocol" that guaranteed operational independence. The following year, it was Bogle’s turn to go back to the Palace to pick up his knighthood.

BBH’s work continues in the vein started by its founders – even if they have now all stood back – with the likes of "Three little pigs" for The Guardian and "Equal love" for Absolut. When advertising zigs, BBH continues to zag.

2 Collett Dickenson Pearce

Collett Dickenson Pearce was never going to qualify as the greatest UK agency of all time. Its shining hour was all too brief. It was a child of its time and never managed to reinvent itself when that time was past.

And yet for a fleeting few years, CDP was adland’s Shangri-La, a gamechanger that created some of the most effective and memorable advertising this country has ever seen. We’ll never forget that "Happiness is a cigar called Hamlet" (1966) or "Heineken refreshes the parts other beers cannot reach" (1973). And we’ll always think of Hovis every time we hear Dvorák’s New World Symphony.

Hamlet 'Happiness'

It played a crucial role in the British bringing to an end the US hegemony of the global ad market. If no agency has ever been perfect, CDP, in its pomp, was about as good as it gets. Small wonder that when an enfeebled CDP effectively disappeared in 2001, when merged with its Travissully stablemate by their Dentsu parent, the industry tributes were heartfelt. But there was also a tacit acknowledgment that the agency had been put out of its misery.

CDP’s success belied the bunch of oddballs and misfits who were responsible for much of its creative output. Indeed, it seemed entirely appropriate that the agency opened for business on April Fool’s Day 1960, given that it sometimes behaved as if the lunatics had taken over the asylum.

CDP was the brainchild of John Pearce and Ronnie Dickenson, a couple of agency executives who had also worked for Hulton Press. Having taken over John Collett’s struggling Pictorial Publicity, Pearce, a hard-drinking ex-Army officer and the agency’s philosophical architect, vowed to put creativity at the heart of everything it did. Charged with delivering it was Colin Millward, a taciturn, meticulous Yorkshireman. He was given a blank cheque to hire the best creatives. And if that meant some excessive behaviour would have to be tolerated, it was a necessary trade-off.

But what a collection of talent Millward assembled. Robin Wight and Paul Weiland cut their teeth in the creative department, as did Charles Saatchi, who acknowledged later that, without Millward, "I would still be delivering groceries in Willesden."

Film director Sir Alan Parker helped set UK advertising on a new course having been given his first break as a commercials director at CDP. He later said that Frank Lowe, who became CDP managing director in 1972, "single-handedly cajoled a whole generation of writers, art directors and film directors into revolutionising British and world advertising".

It was a confluence of events that enabled the agency to fly. At the start of the 60s Britain began shaking off post-war austerity. Old class barriers were breaking down and agencies became magnets for young talents united by their creative curiosity, rather than social background. At the same time, commercial TV was coming into its own and CDP’s mavericks mastered the medium brilliantly.

Even though an attempt by Doyle Dane Bernbach to buy the fledgling CDP came to nothing, Bill Bernbach’s creative approach hugely influenced CDP’s offering. Bernbach’s wry wit and ironic style, based heavily on New York Jewish culture, chimed with Pearce’s belief that an ad worked only if it was noticed, digested and remembered. Bernbach eschewed "hard sell". CDP simply anglicised it.

At a time when clients’ knowledge of advertising was limited, campaigns were not researched to death and 15% commission allowed the industry to thrive, CDP’s creative approach was rarely questioned. And when it was, the agency often responded in what today would be regarded as breathtaking arrogance. There’s an old adland joke that even a client asking CDP the time would be told to fuck off.

Pearce once fired Ford, then CDP’s biggest client, for trying to change ads. He did the same to a tobacco client, telling him: "I really do not think it sensible to work for a client who will not accept the advice of his agency."

With shareholders to satisfy and parent companies demanding that the numbers be hit, today’s adland has little place for the "if you don’t like it, screw you" way of conducting business. CDP could get away with it because the balance of power had yet to swing dramatically in clients’ favour.

When it did, the agency found itself a prisoner of its history, and unable to come to terms with the way technology was changing how advertising was produced and consumed. Lowe’s 1981 breakaway (Lowe Howard-Spink) – and the business that went with him – began a downward spiral that couldn’t be halted even by the 1991 takeover by Japan’s Dentsu. A much less worldly-wise organisation in those days, Dentsu was dismayed to find the "hotshop" it thought it was getting was well past its sell-by date.

Nevertheless, many believe CDP has lessons to teach today’s industry from beyond the grave. One is that, despite a media world now far more fragmented and sophisticated, creativity remains an agency’s raison d’être. Another is that advertising that is witty, confident, consistent, relevant and never self-indulgent still works – and a sack-load of creative awards doesn’t matter a jot if an ad doesn’t do what it’s supposed to.

1 Boase Massimi Pollitt / BMP DDB / Adam & Eve/DDB

Our choice for the best agency of the past 50 years is, in some senses, several different agencies united by common DNA, a chromosomal thread that has carried the company through those five decades and earned it a special place in the industry’s heart and history.

Boase Massimi Pollitt launched in the same year as Campaign and, although the BMP name disappeared from the UK ad scene 14 years ago, such has been the enduring nature of its founding philosophy that it survived and, mostly, thrived through a number of incarnations, right up to its current one as Adam & Eve/DDB.

So what was so special about the shop that, arguably, was the first of the new-wave UK agencies when Martin Boase led a team of senior managers out of Pritchard Wood to launch BMP in 1968? After all, as Jeremy Bullmore was later to recall: "It wasn’t as though the three hottest names in London had got together."

Certainly, Boase and the late Stanley Pollitt, the agency’s driving forces (US-born creative director Gabe Massimi left after just three years), made an odd pairing. Boase was so urbane, stylish and unflappable that Campaign once dubbed him "the David Niven of British advertising".

Pollitt: the 'father of account planning'

Pollitt couldn’t have been more different. Small, scruffy and irascible, his working days were fuelled by cigarettes and claret. He mumbled his way through meetings, turning his back on his audience, losing his notes and often his temper. It scarcely seems possible that this most uncharismatic of men should today be regarded, along with JWT’s Stephen King, as the father of account planning.

Between them, Boase and Pollitt evolved the agency’s "grown-up" approach to all it did, encapsulated in its creative mantra "the relevant unexpected". Indeed, BMP can reasonably claim to have been the first agency to have successfully bridged the gap between those shops that produced eye-catching work with no strategic foundation and those that turned out ads that were soundly based but utterly dreary. As Boase explained: "Good advertising doesn’t have to be bad."

Boase: 'the David Niven of British advertising'

But if BMP was good, Boase wanted to make sure everybody knew it. He relentlessly courted the press to get favourable coverage and was adept at headline-grabbing stunts. For example, he persuaded former Tory cabinet minister Ernest Marples to become BMP’s chairman, and announced the news on the electronic tickertape at Piccadilly Circus.

Behind the hype, though, was an agency whose founding partners were inspired by the wry and witty work of Bill Bernbach (BMP became Doyle Dane Bernbach’s London outpost in 1989) and strove to emulate it.

It took John Webster’s arrival in the creative driving seat for BMP to begin doing work that bore comparison with DDB’s Volkswagen, Alka-Seltzer and Avis campaigns. "I wanted to do stuff like that," Webster later recalled. "The advertising scene over here was pretty banal at that time and I made it my purpose to try and emulate their wit and intelligence."

Webster created the Sugar Puffs Honey Monster and the Smash Martians

Studious, unflamboyant and often painfully shy, Webster was nothing like a creative titan was supposed to be. Yet he originated some of the most enduring British advertising of all time – from the Smash Martians (1974) and the Sugar Puff's Honey Monster (1976) to the Hofmeister Bear (1983). In a 1999 Campaign poll of the UK’s top 100 ads, 16 were from BMP.

Hofmeister Bear ads were among the stellar output from BMP

So very many of the UK advertising industry’s most admired and renowned practitioners learned their craft at BMP, whether in the planning, creative or media department; nowhere in the agency wanted for a depth of talent.

Quite why the agency went off the boil is debatable. Mergers, as well as the successful fending off of a hostile bid from France’s BDDP, proved painful and disruptive. Also, despite their shared creative inspiration, BMP and DDB were very different cultures.

Such situations are often the cue for an agency panic-buy but Omnicom, bought wisely. The upshot was the £60m alignment in 2012 of what had become DDB London with Adam & Eve, one of the UK’s most creatively successful independent shops. It has been a marriage made in heaven, not least because the new management team returned the agency to producing the famous, populist work on big accounts – always the BMP trademark.

Adam & Eve/DDB has achieved more in its relatively short lifetime than agencies of far greater vintage. Of course, it is the sum of its parts but the driving force of its latest success has come from Adam & Eve – formed just 10 years ago by James Murphy, David Golding, Ben Priest and Jon Forsyth.

The shop won all six of its first pitches, and when John Lewis called its review of Lowe at the end of 2008 and appointed Adam & Eve in February 2009, the pairing became responsible for the creation of a genre in its own right, as well as a mutually commercially successful partnership.

Clockwise from bottom left: Murphy, Priest, Golding and Forsyth

The first John Lewis Christmas ad broke later in 2009 and coincided with the resolution of the agency’s dispute with WPP. John Lewis’ Christmas ads are now a national talking point.

For those with long enough memories or who owe their careers to BMP, the real joy of the merger with Adam & Eve was the re-establishment of a thriving, exciting, industryshaping agency carrying on the Boase Massimi Pollitt DNA.

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