Campaign US report cards: Independent agencies and networks

Read on for a breakdown of the industry’s best creative and media agencies in the U.S.

Badger & Winters

Badger & Winters went into 2020 having landed business from big names including Citigroup and PepsiCo, and also made an impact in February 2020 with its Super Bowl spot for Olay. 

Since then, it has seemed very quiet from the New York shop that prides itself on building “brave brands.” That said, Badger & Winters did work with mattress brand Beautyrest on the launch of an eco-friendly brand, Harmony Lux. The campaign highlighted how sustainable fabrics can better serve the Earth while providing a luxury sleep experience.

Looking ahead, we’ll be looking to see whether Badger & Winters returns to the spotlight with its own form of progressive creative that pushes for cultural change and positive action.

Barkley

The Kansas City-based independent posted impressive growth going into 2020 and continued that form with wins for Terminix and Copper Mountain Resorts. Since then, it was named in December as agency of record for Post Cereal Consumer Brands, coming soon after its capture of the Motel 6 account, a beneficiary of the fallout from Stan Richards, founder of The Richards Group, making racist remarks and sparking a review of the business.

In November, Barkley strengthened its team with the appointment of Adam Miller as director of diversity and inclusion. Then, in January 2021, it was shortlisted as Campaign US’s Independent Agency of the Year – a clear sign of an agency in good health that simply needs to keep the momentum going. 

Big Spaceship

In the early days of the pandemic, Brooklyn-based Big Spaceship worked with non-profit International Rescue Committee on a 30-second spot to raise awareness about the dangers of refugees contracting Covid-19 – all delivered in less than a week.

The agency’s partnership with the NFL continued to flourish, with its “Twitter confetti” Super Bowl idea running for the second straight year in February 2021 – which included celebratory fan tweets on pieces of confetti raining down on the field. 

Big Spaceship also supported a new non-profit, ALL IN to Vote, with a brand experience to encourage college students to check out trusted sources of information ahead of the 2020 U.S. presidential election. 

The agency’s best work is connected, motivational and full of energy. Not a bad place to be as brands look to provide experiences across channels.

Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners

There was a big change at the top in 2020 for BSSP – in March 2020, it hired Digitas exec Tracey Pattani as chief executive to replace departing David Eastman, to work alongside founders and co-chairs Greg Stern and John Butler to lead the agency.

Since then, standout creative work has included the “One tap, one app” spot for ESPN and a campaign for Noosa Yoghurt, based on TikTok influencer Matty Benedetto creating seven out-of-the-box gadgets for eating yogurt.

California-based BSSP’s ongoing relationship with health insurance brand Blue Shield of California has most recently seen the agency focus on a campaign to change the tone of the conversation around receiving Covid-19 vaccines and combat misinformation.

With a strong range of recent creative work in its locker, BSSP has every reason to be pleased with its performance in a difficult year.

Campbell Ewald 

It seemed like the beginning of an era when, in September, the Detroit-based agency appointed a new creative leadership team in the shape of Clarence Bradley and Silmo Bonomi – the pair filling a vacancy left by the departure of Jo Shoesmith.

The duo soon bolstered their department with the appointments of executive creative directors Alejandro Ortiz, Nathalia Resende and David Mackereth, and promotion of Laura Rogers to executive director, branded content.

Work highlights before the revamped creative team were in place included a summer campaign for Dole Food out of the Los Angeles office and Campbell Ewald’s own “MiCROWN” initiative in Michigan, a statewide campaign to abolish race-based hair discrimination that disproportionately affects the black community. 

In February, Kaiser Permanente, a client for 17 years, launched a review. At least the agency’s strengthened creative team will give other clients pause for thought before doing the same. 

Canvas Worldwide 

Canvas, a joint venture between Horizon Media and Innocean Worldwide now employing 400 people across six offices, is committed to diversity and inclusivity among its teams. This was reflected, perhaps, in its appointment to handle McDonald’s national Hispanic media strategy business in a partnership with Lopez Negrete Communications.

Canvas continues to work with flagship client Hyundai while branching out into new verticals. The McDonald’s success followed another significant win in November when Canvas landed The Lagunitas Brewing Company’s media business. 

Canvas’ senior team remained relatively stable and, in March 2021, it promoted Madhavi Tadikonda to chief investment officer, replacing Amy Ginsburg, who had joined Havas Media. With business wins coming through the doors and a compelling offer based on providing an alternative to holding companies, Canvas is well-set for further growth.

Cartwright

Cartwright, backed by WPP, was launched in June 2020 by Keith Cartwright, who founded Union Made Creative before selling the business to Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners in 2016, and was executive creative director at 72andSunny Los Angeles. His vision? To build a shop to work with brands that want a more direct relationship with agency leadership.

Based in Venice, California, Cartwright opened its doors with an impressive bunch of advertisers on board, including Procter & Gamble, Facebook, Häagen-Dazs and LVMH brand Loro Piana. And it didn’t stop there – the agency was appointed by the NBA for the 2020/21 season. A strong start, especially given the tough market conditions Cartwright launched within.

Cheil Worldwide

Cheil tends to go overboard with innovations, as has been the case in Asia-Pacific. In 2020, it offered a litany of new solutions including CYLNDR, a creative production collective. It’s still unclear how these have made a difference to growth and creativity, but some elements of its ongoing Connec+ initiative have begun to bear fruit, especially in North Asia. 

One area where Cheil is markedly weaker than many networks is diversity and culture, and the company currently doesn’t have any targets or quotas in place to address its dearth in female leadership.

Cheil UK had its own personnel upheaval during 2020. Chief executive Peter Zillig, credited with helping the agency more than double its revenue by building a business that gleans more than 60% of income from digital marketing, announced his exit for Ford. David Coombs, at Cheil for four years, stepped in to replace Zillig. In addition, Michael Chadwick arrived as head of strategy and Gary Jobe as head of technology.

The one constant was partial parent and biggest client, Samsung. Cheil unveiled the Galaxy Note20 during the first lockdown and smashed the brand’s pre-order record by 121% within the first two hours. It also ran an integrated launch for Samsung 5G.

Away from Samsung, there was award-winning work for Nivea and the agency won the social account for Warner Bros/HBO and began working with Asda, Dishoom and Neom Organics.

Crossmedia

Crossmedia’s reputation for looking after its people really came to the fore in 2020. Regularly featuring in lists of “best places to work,” it was able to avoid lay-offs during the pandemic and introduced a range of benefits for its talent, including contributions to employee savings plans and tuition programs.

Beyond this, as Crossmedia celebrates 20 years of independence, its strong emphasis on transparency and accessible big data provides a persuasive alternative for clients looking for something a little different and for creative agencies that want a strong working partnership. The agency won some significant business in 2019 and, now the media pitch carousel is spinning once again, it will look for more wins in 2021.

David

David Miami’s “Moldy Whopper” work for Burger King in February 2020 shaped the agency’s fortunes, leading to it win Agency of the Year at the 2020 D&AD Awards and multiple Grand Prix awards at Cannes Lions. David also swept at Cannes 2021 for Stevenage Challenge, in which the agency snuck Burger King's logo into FIFA 20 by sponsoring a low-ranking English football team.

There was more well-received Burger King work to come, with David’s campaign in September offering something more appealing than fungus to highlight the brand’s commitment to natural foods – listing ingredients on Whopper wrappers to highlight natural flavors.

More recently, David created a campaign for Budweiser, in association with the Ad Council, to link National Beer Day with Covid-19 vaccination awareness through a plug for educational site GetVaccineAnswers.org.

David’s creative reputation has never been higher and this bodes well for further business growth.

David & Goliath

David & Goliath’s new work for the Kia K5 was impressive. However, the Innocean-owned agency is doing a good job of broadening its reel beyond the auto brand.

Early in 2021, it was appointed agency of record for Jollibee, the Filipino multinational fast-food chain. Its first work, “Serving joy daily,” followed soon after.

Otherwise, the agency made a series of appointments and promotions, for starters hiring Blake Winfree as chief of social impact and promoting Ben Purcell to chief creative officer.

Purcell boosted the creative department in March, promoting Lixaida Lorenzo and Frauke Tiemann to executive creative directors. David & Goliath also hired Michael Molinaro as group creative director and design director, and Bruno Cunha as group strategy director.

Perhaps David & Goliath’s most intriguing appointment was Tiffany Persons, a casting director, as the agency’s first director of empathy — a progressive move that should have a positive impact.

Droga5

Droga5’s U.S. new-business performance was impressive in 2020. While it lost Dos Equis to Sid Lee, it landed Molson Coors soon after. Molson Coors later hired Droga5 to work on new alcoholic hard seltzer brand Topo Chico. 

Clothing retailer Lululemon and not-for-profit Adcolor both named Droga5 as agency of record (the latter received blowback for the organization not choosing to work with a Black-owned firm), while Sean “Diddy” Combs turned to the agency to work across Comb Enterprises. In late 2020, Droga5 was named Airbnb’s lead creative agency.

Standout creative included David Beckham finding escape in a Maserati campaign and Droga5’s first work for Petco.

On the people front, though, global creative chief Neil Heyman left to become a founding partner of Publicis Groupe’s new Le Truc network of creatives, strategists and producers in New York.

With Amazon as its biggest client, Droga5 London was well-placed to see out the pandemic and during 2020 won more projects from the tech giant. And it didn’t end there – in its second year under Accenture Interactive ownership, the shop grew revenue significantly  and also picked up DeLéon, European work for the Volkswagen Cupra and a mobile project for Facebook. 

There were low points, including losing GoCompare.com, but Droga5’s creativity continued to shine through in a tough year, with highlights including Amazon’s Super Bowl spot starring Ellen DeGeneres, a retelling of Little Red Riding Hood for Rustlers and a comic campaign that brought a little-known app called Setapp into the limelight. 

Duncan Channon

2020 was a solidly successful year for independent agency Duncan Channon, which built on its Ferrara Candy Co. win in early 2020 with further new business success.

Duncan Channon was named creative and media agency of record for Covered California, the country’s largest state-run health insurance marketplace under the Affordable Care Act. Then there was more positive news, early in 2021, when it was announced that the shop would lead a $40 million Covid-19 vaccination public-education campaign in California.

On the people front, the agency tapped Kumi Croom as its first director of collaboration and equity. The new role emphasises values that are important to the agency and should resonate with clients.

Eleven

It’s interesting to see the extent to which Eleven’s client list is evolving beyond the tech companies at the heart of its business – Google, Lyft and Samsung.

Early in 2020, for instance, Eleven created an emotional campaign for Dignity Health, the San Francisco-based hospital system. The agency also showed off its humor chops with a campaign for Casper starring Saturday Night Live's Vanessa Bayer. And one of the agency’s more recent wins is rum brand The Kraken, which hired Eleven as agency of record.

Having appointed people in 2020 across its offices in San Francisco, Chicago and New York, Eleven continued in the same vein with the appointment of Michael de Wit as creative director and Ruben Martinez as senior designer. There’s no reason to believe that the growth will stop there.

Empower

The agency’s success in 2019 – when it was named Campaign US’s Corporate Communications and Marketing Team of The Year, after 25% revenue growth – continued in 2020 and it was shortlisted for Campaign US’s Independent Agency of the Year.

Based in Cincinnati and Chicago, Empower’s highlights included “Flush 2020” for American Standard, creating custom toilet paper filled with some of the worst parts of 2020; its work for Brooks Running; and “ICU for healthcare” ads for TriHealth.

Committed to delivering creative media solutions, Empower’s name also expresses its values and should catch the eye of clients looking for partners with integrity in difficult times.

Fig

Fig was appointed creative agency for the Zillow real estate platform in 2020 and some memorable campaigns have followed, including April’s “To move is to grow,” which attempted to bring humour and emotion into the category.

Other notable creative included Benjamin Moore’s “Thank you walls” campaign, which adopted a spring-cleaning vibe to indicate that life is starting to move on after the pandemic. 

The independent agency also built out its senior team with new partners, with the appointment of former PHD chief data officer Federick Stallings and Droga5 strategy lead Ramon Jimenez, while Kristen King was promoted to partner, account management.

Fig’s recent success landed it a place on Campaign US’s Independent Agency of the Year shortlist – fitting recognition for its strong performance.

Goodby Silverstein & Partners

GS&P’s excellent creative work in 2020 helped it to win Campaign US’s Advertising Agency of the Year award – fair reflection, too, of its willingness to engage with the big issues that defined the year, including racism and climate change.

Its superb leadership team, with founders Jeff Goodby and Rich Silverstein still on board, was also a key factor. Campaign US named the agency’s Graham North Strategic Planner of the Year and Margaret Johnson Creative Person of the Year. No surprise, then, that the agency won a Creative Strategy Grand Prix at Cannes Lions 2021 for its 2020 Super Bowl spot for Cheetos, starring rapper MC Hammer singing his famous song Can't Touch This.

Into 2021 and GS&P created two Super Bowl spots for Frito-Lay: the Doritos 3D commercial, featuring Matthew McConaughey, and a Cheetos ad starring Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis. Evidence, if it were needed, that the agency remains in a rich vein of form.

GSD&M

GSD&M captured a sizeable win early in 2020 in the shape of the Capital One creative account. More good news followed in February 2021 when the agency landed fruit brand Avocados from Mexico, a former client that had moved to Energy BBDO, as agency of record.

The agency’s creative output included a new spot for Dodge, which continued the brand’s history of movie tie-ins. But this time, it was for a 14-year-old film – channelling the spirit of Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. GSD&M was the creative arsenal behind Popeye's fight in the chicken wars, in which fast food giants sparred on Twitter over who has the best fried chicken sandwich.

GSD&M experienced a blow when Crispin Porter & Bogusky raided its management team, hiring long-term president Marianne Malina to be its new global chief executive. Malina had been in the role since 2012 and her departure will be felt by the agency.

Gut

Gut was on fire when it came to winning business in 2020. It landed both the Popeyes restaurant chain account and Kraft Heinz’s Philadelphia Cream Cheese business.

Excellent work for Popeyes followed, and then the agency made some senior appointments to boost its ranks. Gut Miami tapped FCB Chicago veterans Dean Paradise and Bruno Mazzotti as creative directors, and Fernando Ribeiro was promoted to the new role of global chief strategy officer, as Gut looks to grow from its bases in Miami and Buenos Aires.

This intent should appeal to clients that share the independent agency’s belief in “courage,” “feeling” and “transparency.” 

GYK Antler

The full-service agency’s solid new-business form (it won the Wahlburgers account in February 2020) continued through the year as it won clients including Hasbro Gaming, Monopoly, Sallie Mae, Ocean Spray, Brekki, Manscaped and Little Leaf Farms, joining a roster already featuring brands including Cedar’s hummus and Dunkin’. 

With its headquarters in New Hampshire, GYK Antler claimed a total of nine wins and a 23% increase in revenue, supported by 25 new hires, during 2020. Executive creative director Mike Gatti strengthened the department with seven appointments, including creative directors Cristin Barth and John Mathieu. In addition, Nicholle Fagan joined as group account director. In 2021, the agency debuted its “Blank Canvas” program and sneaker design contest, increasing awareness of creative careers among diverse high school students by 46%.

After such a fine 2020 and early 2021, GYK Antler’s belief in its approach of integrating strategy, creative and media teams will be unwavering.

Heat 

Located in San Francisco, Heat was acquired by Deloitte Digital in 2016. The relationship looks set to become stronger with the recent appointment of Leslie Sims, who joined Deloitte Digital and Heat as U.S. chief creative officer to “drive the relationship between creativity and consulting.”

Heat was responsible for a wide range of creative output – including a fall campaign that invited girls to #DaretoSTEM in partnership with the Ad Council and She Can STEM. This aimed to break down stereotypes by encouraging girls to create an inclusive Minecraft world for musician Ruth B to perform in. The summer 2020 campaign for Halo Top Creamery featured up-and-coming artist Mama Haze busting out her best moves while enjoying some Halo Top.

New-business success came when Heat was named in October as agency of record for Energizer Holdings’ Auto Care Group. 

Horizon Media 

Horizon Media’s stellar new-business performance in 2019 – it claimed 60 account wins – insulated the independent agency more than most from the effects of the pandemic. In recognition, it was shortlisted for Campaign US’s Media Agency of the Year.

When things started to thaw and pitches sparked into life, Horizon was dealt a blow in the $2 billion T-Mobile account review, losing by its own estimation some $300 million in billings due to a consolidation into Initiative. Horizon Media had been the media AOR for Sprint, which was merged with T-Mobile in 2020. It did, however, hang onto the Sprint Boost account. And then it landed the $432 million Hershey business and strategy for Great Wolf Resorts.

In terms of innovation, Horizon was the first U.S. agency to sign a partnership with TikTok, providing first sight of new ad products and incentives on the platform.

In March 2021, Horizon paid fitting tribute to Serena Duff, the long-term head of its West Coast operation, who had passed away. A reminder, if needed, of the human side of business.

Jellyfish

Jellyfish focused in 2020 on investing some of the cash it raised from significant funding provided by French group Fimalac. It acquired creative agency Social Life and then launched a San Francisco-based training center to educate marketers on digital marketing tactics and tools.

The shopping spree continued into January 2021, with Jellyfish announcing the acquisition of five global media companies – Seelk, Splash, Quill, Data Runs Deep and Webedia Brand Services. Its goal was to sharpen focus on e-commerce, creative tech, content creation and gaming.

Jellyfish invested in more traditional advertising skills, too, hiring Omnicom veteran Tom Roach as vice president of brand planning, and there were signs that its acquisition strategy was paying off. Social Life won an Emmy for Outstanding Derivative Interactive Program for “Guide to life” for Netflix series Big Mouth. This took the form of an eight-chapter sex-ed book on Instagram.

Joan Creative

Named Campaign US’s Independent Agency of the Year, Joan helped Virgin Hotels appeal to local audiences by encouraging staycations, raised awareness of Potential Energy and its goals, and highlighted Science Moms and its fight for action on climate change. The agency also blended vintage design with futuristic storylines in a campaign for Hewlett Packard Enterprises. 

Joan also launched a production arm to enhance its full-service model. Daniel Marin moved over from head of production at the agency to take the new role of president of Joan Studios.

Following that, there was a major change in creative leadership. Lauren Costa joined as executive creative director to replace Dan Lucey, who left for the chief creative officer role at Havas New York. Costa’s career spans roles at Droga5, Wieden & Kennedy and Ogilvy & Mather New York.

Joan won the creative account for foot-care brand Dr Scholl’s and, with a new creative director installed as part of a dynamic female management team, the agency has all the building blocks in place to enhance its reputation for creating standout work.

Johannes Leonardo

The good vibes that emanated from Johannes Leonardo pre-Covid returned early in 2021. The agency, which promoted Emily Wilcox to managing director and hired Julia Neumann as chief creative officer, landed a prized place on the Facebook creative roster, selected to lead creative strategy for Instagram in partnership with the internal Creative X team. However, it then lost life-insurance brand MassMutual to Grey after a review.

Work highlights included Volkswagen “The wheel.” The visually stunning spot chronicled the wheel’s contributions throughout history, from bicycles and horse-drawn buggies to the railroad. However, VW’s “Voltswagen” April Fool stunt attracted a more mixed reception.

Johannes Leonardo also created good work for Adidas with a spot featuring Kermit the Frog for Stan Smith sustainable shoes. 

M&C Saatchi

M&C Saatchi Plc shares were suspended in September 2020 after it failed to file its 2019 audited results. The episode put 2019’s accounting scandal back in the headlines. On the personnel side, M&C Saatchi’s last three founders bowed out and long-time lieutenant Moray MacLennan was installed as chief executive.

In the U.S., M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment worked with client Natural Light Beer to create the Da Vinci of Debt, an art installation that renewed attention for the brand's 10 year commitment to help consumers pay down their college debt.

As for the UK agency, which turned 25 in 2020, Covid struck just months after its merger with Lida, meaning its new leaders – including chief executive Camilla Kemp and chief creative officer Ben Golik – had to bed in the merged entity remotely. 

But there were bright spots. Winning the Office for National Statistics’ census campaign was a once-in-a-decade opportunity, while M&C Saatchi helped Public Health England and the NHS battle adult obesity and raise awareness of cancer warning signs respectively. Meanwhile, the agency captured the zeitgeist with Promote Iceland’s digital drive inviting users to scream into beautiful locations.

Asia-Pacific operations have been less directly affected by the accounting fallout. Less avoidable, however, has been the impact of Covid. A sharp drop in global demand led to senior pay cuts and staff furloughs that included Australia. In the first half of the year, some APAC offices suffered considerable revenue dips. Australia was also hit by the 2020 bushfires that grounded much work for Tourism Australia. The office lost CEO Jaimes Leggett, but this was on the cards before the pandemic and the agency replaced him with Justin Graham, formerly chief strategy officer.

The Yuu loyalty program work for Dairy Farm Group in Hong Kong was a bright spot, with more than 50% of the territory’s population registering in the first three months, making it the most downloaded app in the market. 

M&C Saatchi Indonesia was an outlier, beating 88 other agencies for the biggest account of the year with the Ministry of Tourism. Combined with new-business additions of Axiata, L’Oréal and Tinder (also won in Thailand and Vietnam), it ranked second on R3’s Indonesia New Business League and 20th in the APAC table. The three-year-old Indonesia shop also scooped four Campaign Asia-Pacific Agency of the Year awards: gold for Creative and Independent, bronze for Digital and Southeast Asia Agency Head of the Year for Anish Daryani.

McKinney

The Durham, North Carolina-based agency continued to bring in new business – it was named Stop & Shop’s agency of record, for example, to handle advertising, strategy consulting, creative campaign development and production.

Work also continued to flow from its creative department. After 2020’s Super Bowl spot for Little Caesars, McKinney kicked off 2021 with another big campaign for the brand, which chose to sit out the Big Game this time around. Other creative highlights included a commercial for Posh, a virtual receptionist service, which showed how cloning yourself could prove a nightmare.

The agency’s impetus was also demonstrated in the form of new arrivals including Chandra Guinn as executive director of diversity, equity and inclusion and Anita Schillhorn as director of strategy at the Los Angeles office.

MediaMonks

The Dutch integrated content production agency has been making a lot more noise since being acquired by Sir Martin Sorrell’s S4 Capital in 2018. And it has some big wins to boot, including BMW and Mini across Europe, while other key clients include Slimming World, Google, Avon, LinkedIn and Mondelez International

MediaMonks may have built a reputation as a tech structure and distribution specialist, but it also created a Super Bowl ad for 2021 in the U.S. The spot, for trading app Robinhood, focused on democratizing share trading, even as the brand was in the midst of the GameStop stock market frenzy.

The multi-market nature of much of MediaMonks’ work makes it hard to judge how individual offices have fared, but in the UK, headcount more than doubled during 2020. The UK agency was also named Campaign’s EMEA Digital Innovation Network of the Year. 

In Asia-Pacific, MediaMonks' headcount increased by nearly 300 during 2020. Meanwhile, revenue in the region more than doubled for S4, with APAC playing a key role in Sorrell’s growth ambitions. With offices now in Bangalore, Delhi, Melbourne, Mumbai, Shanghai, Singapore, Sydney and Tokyo, MediaMonks is increasingly competing with more traditional agencies. 

MediaMonks won work from Procter & Gamble, Shiseido, Havaianas, health provider Gleneagles and Indian learning platform Embibe in 2020. It has considerable technical chops, including the India team's mastery of Unreal Engine, a 3D rendering technology that can quickly produce realistic video of multiple product variants or last-minute packaging changes without real-world shoots.

Mediassociates

With Mediassociates, you get both a head- and heart-based approach. On one side, the agency delivered its “Gameboard” predictive analytics offer to clients including Seiko, WinStar and SolarCity. And, on the other, it focused on a passion project with World Vision to help a rural mountaintop village in Honduras bring clean water and economic growth to its 250 residents.

Mediassociates claimed that 2020 was the best year in its 25-year history. The agency won new assignments including the University of Phoenix, Mount Sinai Health System and Panasonic North America. It also hired 30-plus people and expanded training, development and internal programs. Evidence that a balanced view combining data with people works best.

MightyHive

The digital media business, part of Sir Martin Sorrell’s S4 Capital, looked to be partly responsible for some healthy financial results at its parent company. On the flip side, it benefitted from S4’s investment when Sorrell acquired performance agency Metric Theory and merged it with MightyHive.

MightyHive worked with Mondelez to develop more personalized creative by setting up a global taxonomy and data spine that reduced creative production speed by 25%.

Growth prospects at MightyHive seem good given shifting client models and demand for its blended offer of data and media consultancy. The evidence for this came towards the end of 2020, when MightyHive was appointed to handle T-Mobile’s in-house digital media account – a win that should keep revenues coming in for S4. 

Mischief @ No Fixed Address

Named as bronze runner-up in Campaign US’s Advertising Agency of the Year for 2020, Mischief @ No Fixed Address opened its doors mid-pandemic, led by Greg Hahn and Dave Lafond.

The agency made a mark with a series of surprising and cheeky campaigns for clients including Capri Sun, OkCupid and Kraft Macaroni & Cheese. And it used deepfake technology to have Kim Jong-un and Vladimir Putin deliver messages on behalf of non-profit RepresentUs.

Work that pushed boundaries in 2021 included the creation of a limited-edition shaving cream collection for Eos and a chilling 15th “Happy birthday” message to Twitter, created with sister agency No Fixed Address, in the shape of a public-service announcement for the Canadian Centre for Child Protection. The film collected testimonials from real child sex abuse survivors who are haunted by their images that continue to spread on the social platform.

Mother

Mother London is known for its work for KFC and it was perhaps an ominous sign when the brand paused its spring campaign, which featured people licking their fingers, during the first wave of the coronavirus outbreak. 

However, Mother did work with KFC and other clients to help them navigate the crisis. It helped the fried-chicken brand stay connected to consumers via social media when restaurants were shut and later created a cheeky campaign paying tribute to fans’ homemade efforts. In the summer, Mother created KFC’s first global campaign and halted the use of the “It’s finger lickin’ good” slogan.

But it’s not just about KFC. There were plenty of other creative campaigns, the standouts being Ikea’s prequel to The Tortoise and the Hare, Greenpeace’s “Rang-tan” sequel and a love story about onions for Samsung, the agency’s biggest win in 2020. 

Mother ended the year in profit and returned the money it received from the UK government for furloughed staff. The turnaround was complete when it was named Campaign UK’s Independent Agency of the Year. 

Meanwhile, Mother launched a U.S. media agency called Media by Mother, which will operate independently from the creative side of the business. The shop is led by former WPP global head of media strategy David Gaines as founding partner and chief executive. But the future of the shop is in question as Will Heins, a former Accenture executive who was partner and chief operating officer, quickly moved over to You & Mr Jones in May to help launch its new media division. 

Mother hired Katie Longmyer as managing director and partner in New York, completing that office’s senior leadership team. Amaris Singer joined as head of strategy. 

Noble People 

Noble People, notable for bringing high levels of creativity to media solutions, was one of a group of 10 independent agencies to back an internship program that gives up-and-coming Black creatives a chance to break into the industry with hands-on advertising experience. The BLAC (Building Leaders and Creators) initiative was supported by Procter & Gamble.

Leading the way in terms of the agency’s client experience was its involvement with pay-later brand Klarna’s Super Bowl debut, supporting a campaign featuring Saturday Night Live star Maya Rudolph that featured small and minority-owned businesses as part of a western town depicted in the commercial.

O’Keefe Reinhard & Paul

There was a change in creative leadership at Chicago-based independent O’Keefe Reinhard & Paul, with Aubrey Walker promoted to the new role of executive creative director. This followed the departure of chief creative officer Laura Fegley.

OKRP also enhanced its senior team with the appointment of Elena Robinson as head of production. She previously held senior posts at agencies including Energy BBDO, R/GA and Leo Burnett.

The agency was involved in a number of local Chicago initiatives, including “Black shop Friday.” Ahead of shopping on Black Friday, it worked with the Chicago Urban League and the City of Chicago to encourage consumer spending at black-owned businesses in the city the day after Thanksgiving.

Pereira O’Dell

In October 2020, Pereira O’Dell entered into an important tie-up with another independent when it sold a 30% stake to Munich-based Serviceplan Group. The deal is intended to allow both agencies to grow internationally while expanding their services and client bases. 

Pereira O’Dell was busy closer to home with two significant campaigns for the Ad Council. In December, it launched “Belonging begins with us,” a 75-second public-service announcement that urged Americans to create a “more welcoming nation” by showing some empathy. And then, early in 2021, it was involved with the first phase of the $50 million national Covid-19 vaccine education campaign and the “It’s up to you” execution. 

The agency showed its creative breadth by working with Corona on an original series of films. It established the format and ran the casting, production and a remote global shoot in partnership with Rocket Film.

Proof Advertising

Austin-based Proof, which created an impact in 2020 with its Travelocity work after winning the business in 2019, was recognized for its excellence in B2B advertising following its inspired work on rebranding Mouser Electronics. The agency was named AOR for Waterloo Waters, Champion Energy and Visit Branson in 2020, and ran hyper-targeted local campaigns for Travel Texas to help people travel safely throughout the state during the pandemic. 

More recently, the agency worked with Subway on its Pro Teen Awards activity, encouraging guests at restaurants to “go pro” and make better choices. Proof’s campaign featured NFL veteran Marshawn Lynch in TV, social media and digital activity to promote a range of protein-filled menu choices and help aspiring professional athletes through the Pro Teen Awards.

This latest purpose-driven creative for Subway, following the agency’s work with the brand on Hunger Action Month, demonstrates its ability to really connect advertisers with consumers.

Quirk Creative

Brooklyn-based Quirk positions itself as a “one-stop-shop of video specialists” that lifts brands and sells.

Its ideas are good too. In October 2020, Quirk worked with storage company MakeSpace on a quick-turnaround ad – shot and completed in just three days – to fill a last-minute opportunity to buy media during the 2020 U.S. presidential debates. The resulting film leaned into the election narrative by envisioning a world where MakeSpace services are needed to facilitate a transition at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. 

Quirk often works with smaller or start-up brands looking to get the most from their budgets. This is exemplified in the agency’s recent exploration of the potential that TV ads can deliver for Trade, the direct-to-consumer coffee brand.

Real Chemistry

The health specialist formerly known as W2O rebranded to Real Chemistry in March 2021 to better serve client demand for collaboration and integration.

Management, led by chief executive Jim Weiss, emphasised that the name change followed a successful 2020, in which the agency grew its revenue to $334 million – a 67% jump over 2019’s $200 million (although the 2020 figure includes revenue from companies acquired during the year, including specialist consultancy Discern Health).

Real Chemistry’s integrated model comes at a timely moment, as clients of all kinds are looking for healthcare communications solutions in the wake of the pandemic. 

Sid Lee

Busy times at Sid Lee since the agency installed a new U.S. leadership team under its first dedicated U.S. chief executive Andy Bateman. It moved to expand its San Francisco offshoot with eight creative hires, including Christina de la Cruz, Eric Molina, Juan Davila Morris and Francisco Rojas as creative directors. And it acquired Los Angeles-based social media agency Denizen.

Meanwhile, at a global level, long-serving executive Vito Piazza was elevated to global chief executive, replacing Bertrand Cesvet, who became executive chairman. Piazza’s clear priorities are to grow Sid Lee in the U.S. and Europe.

Sid Lee staged an impressive coup in winning Heineken’s Dos Equis account from Droga5 and its best creative work included a Minecraft activation for Rock the Vote and activity for The North Face on Facebook.

SS+K

SS+K, part of M&C Saatchi Group, claims to “combine the rigor of political strategy and the power of creativity to help brands navigate and create change.”

Not a bad positioning to have right now – and its recent work has lived largely up to the billing. SS+K worked alongside the National Collegiate Athletic Association on its regular “March Madness” public-service announcement to highlight that less than 2% of college athletes go on to play professional sports. The spot asked: "What happens to those who don't?"

SS+K also created a campaign for voting rights organisation More Than A Vote, with an opening ad featuring LeBron James that sought to combat voter suppression amid the wave of measures aimed at rolling back the gains made by Black voters in the 2020 presidential election.

But not all of SS+K's campaigns are serious. For Visit Iceland, the agency leaned into its humorous side with "Looks Like You Need To Let It Out," a campaign that encourages people to visit Iceland and scream into its vast open spaces to shake off the stresses of the pandemic. 

Terri & Sandy

Recognized as Most Effective Independent Agency in America by Effie Worldwide, the New York shop continued to make a strong impression with its work for Applegate, Disney and BJ’s.

Terri & Sandy had its best year ever in 2020 with revenue up 15% year over year. The agency  expanded its relationship with French pharmaceutical giant Sanofi, which hired the agency to handle U.S. creative duties for its Icy Hot and Aspercreme pain-relief brands, and gained new assignments from Ferrara and I-Health.

The agency’s founders, Terri Meyer and Sandy Greenberg, argue that as a woman-owned business Terri & Sandy has diversity within its DNA, and it is committed to 50% of candidates being people of color. This is having an impact – to date, 38% of the agency’s new hires, including interns, had an ethnic-minority background.

The & Partnership

The & Partnership was in the minority in 2020 in that it managed to increase headcount– and it has its plethora of new and varied accounts to thank for that. 

In February 2021, The & Partnership launched a Los Angeles office to support the agency's growing portfolio of West Coast clients. The shop will house operations for both The & Partnership and its media shop, M/SIX, which is jointly owned with WPP’s GroupM. 

The & Partnership hired Shabnum Palomba to lead the LA location, joining as managing director with responsibility for both M/SIX and The & Partnership. Palomba was previously a client partner at AKQA. The LA launch followed recent campaigns created for The Wall Street Journal, Toyota and Electronic Arts.

In the UK, wins included Pets at Home, Danone’s Light & Free and through-the-line work for the Lawn Tennis Association. It didn’t technically lose any accounts, but a number of clients moved to project status over the course of the year. 

In terms of creative output, there was particularly strong work for RNIB, including an “upside down” billboard at Piccadilly Lights and a prototype of an accessible pregnancy test. There were campaigns for Argos, Toyota and the LTA too. 

The Richards Group

Stan Richards seemed to have caused irreparable damage to the agency he founded after making racist remarks in an October 2020 meeting to discuss client Motel 6. In a single week, his comments led to the Dallas-based operation losing 40% of its clients – and things would only get worse.

Alongside Motel 6, among the biggest losses was The Home Depot’s $1.1 billion account, which was reviewed and moved to BBDO. More than 100 people have since left The Richards Group, accounting for around 15% of its staff.

Richards stepped down from the agency and, looking forward, The Richards Group has partnered Do What Matters, a strategic management consultancy, to implement its diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives. However, a turnaround in fortunes, if at all possible, will take genuine commitment to change over time. That’s no easy task with the Richards name still above the door.

Tinuiti 

Performance marketing agency Tinuiti was shortlisted for Campaign US’s Independent Agency of the Year.

Among its innovations was the launch of an Instacart accelerator program, and it hired senior 360i executive Kolin Kleveno as its first senior vice president of addressable audiences.

Tinuiti is proud of its independence and the culture it has built for its 700-plus people. Although it manages $2 million in media spend, it continues to focus on ensuring it has a reputation as a good place to work. Even before the pandemic hit, the agency had a flexible approach to working from home and has since introduced a mandatory monthly mental health day to fight employee burnout.

Tombras

Despite losing a quarter of its revenue in the immediate wake of Covid-19, independent agency Tombras ended 2020 with 2% organic growth and is projecting 25% growth for 2021.

Work of note from the Knoxville-based, full-service agency included campaigns for Pernod Ricard, Big Lots and popular mobile game Best Fiends, and recent new-business success included being named media agency of record by the American Cancer Society.

In a display of its confidence, Tombras made nine creative hires in January, including people from prominent agencies such as BBDO Los Angeles and Vice Media’s creative team. Positive news from an agency that is going places. 

VaynerMedia

In common with many other agencies, VaynerMedia is attempting to address the issue of taking action on racial equity. Founder and chief executive Gary Vaynerchuk acknowledged his agency’s lack of progress to date and confirmed plans to fill three C-suite positions with ethnic-minority candidates by Jan. 1 — a deadline he missed and pushed to June 1 earlier this year.

VaynerMedia created a light-hearted Super Bowl spot for Scotts Miracle-Gro, after winning both the creative and media accounts, featuring Martha Stewart and John Travolta, and a campaign for WeWork that highlighted now is the time to be “more creative than ever.” 

The agency also launched consulting products to help marketers reach Gen Z audiences through gaming, esports and influencer marketing. 

Venables Bell & Partners

After some wise investment in 2020 in the shape of in-house production unit Lumberyard Productions, Venables Bell & Partners opened 2021 with Chipotle’s first Super Bowl spot, a purpose-based ad that asked: “What if a burrito could change the world?” It also created a campaign for 3M to show how removing the Nexcare adhesive bandage needn’t be painful.

Having promoted Kate Jeffers, chief operating officer/partner, to the role of president, the agency was also in hiring mode, looking to the future with the appointment of Brittni Hutchins as head of growth and marketing. She previously worked at 72andSunny and returned to the agency after a spell there earlier in her career helping to lead major accounts including Intel and Google.

Virtue

Owned by Vice Media, Virtue aims to connect brands with younger and more diverse audiences. It installed a new leadership team in summer 2020 with Krystle Watler as managing director and Genie Gurnani in the role of executive creative director, Americas.

Virtue’s offer was enhanced early in 2021 with Vice Media’s acquisition of PLTFRMR, the creative consultancy run by Chris Garbutt and Colin Mitchell. PLTFRMR was integrated into Virtue with Garbutt and Mitchell as co-presidents.

Client work included the launch of HBO Max’s Pa’lante! initiative for Latinx audiences. Virtue also signed up as one of the major New York sponsors of the Creative Comeback program from Creative Equals that retrains creatives who have been out of the workforce for more than 15 months and places them with potential job opportunities.

Walrus 

After a good run of account wins in 2020, including Schuman Cheese and pain-relief brand Arnicare, Walrus’ work so far in 2021 has included a humorous spot for streaming service Topic, which used real scenes from foreign crime thrillers paired with mismatched subtitles.

Walrus also stepped up to join the 10-strong small agency coalition, backed by Procter & Gamble, to provide internships for promising black creatives. And it kept bringing in new accounts – landing agency of record duties for private aviation company Jet Edge towards the end of 2020. A promising situation to be in for the New York independent shop.

Wieden & Kennedy

Like many networks around the world, it was a tough 2020 for W&K, which cut its global workforce by 11%. 

W&K maintained its high standards in the U.S. with an ad for Sprite from its New York office that embodied the spirit of Langston Hughes' poem Dreams; the Nike short films “We play real,” which celebrated Black female athletes, and "You can't stop us," which won a Grand Prix in Film at Cannes Lions; and Super Bowl spots for Anheuser-Busch InBev, Bud Light, McDonald’s, Michelob Ultra and TurboTax.

The agency also captured the global Visa account, including the U.S. business, which was previously handled by BBDO.

In New York, W&K promoted executive creative director Karl Lieberman to chief creative officer. Neal Arthur, managing director, rose to chief operating officer. And in June, W&K hired Ana and Hermeti Balarin, creative powerhouse duo of Mother London, as executive creative directors to lead its Portland office alongside managing director Jess Monsey. 

In the UK, high-profile departures included executive creative directors Ian Tait and Tony Davidson, who will leave in the summer, while chief strategy officer Ben Armistead also left (although W&K insists these were not redundancies). 

A major loss was Three, which had been with the agency for 10 years, but W&K did go out on a high with a futuristic final campaign, “Real 5G.” Other work was excellent, too, including an artistic film for Lurpak, debut work for Facebook, a cheeky festive goat for TK Maxx and a moving Christmas campaign for Sainsbury’s. 

In Asia-Pacific, W&K has fewer than 200 people (in Shanghai, Tokyo and Delhi), but delivers an outsized impact. It made a wide range of remarkable work, including, for Nike, a smash-hit Chinese New Year film and a serious spot about race in Japan. 

Notable wins included, in Delhi, OnePlus and HP; in Shanghai, Estée Lauder and Montblanc; and in Tokyo, HP, Budweiser and Netflix. The agency is also showing increased creativity when it comes to marrying media and message. For example, it created sheep influencers to promote Woolmark by live-streaming on Chinese ecommerce market Tmall. Managing director Ryan Fisher left Tokyo for a global role in 2020 and was replaced by Yosuke Suzuki, previously MD at R/GA Tokyo.

Young & Laramore

With its headquarters in Indianapolis, Young & Laramore helps “brands take a stand.” And the agency’s recent work certainly fits the bill.

Young & Laramore created a bold, global out-of-home campaign for shoemaker Merrell to drive home that its footwear can be both stylish and comfortable. Working with non-profit Goodwill of Central & Southern Indiana, the agency launched “The good in Goodwill” campaign. The initiative helped Goodwill express its brand mission while inspiring consumers to take action, either by making a donation or a purchase. The agency also created a collaboration for luxury faucet brand Brizo with fashion designer Jason Wu.

And the agency enlivened lockdown for many consumers with an integrated campaign for ClusterTruck, which conveyed that it isn’t like more traditional delivery services. The activity used chatty copy and playful visuals across posters, social media and packaging to take shots at rivals.

You & Mr Jones

In January 2021, founder David Jones announced brand tech group You & Mr Jones had raised $260 million in a round of funding, bringing its valuation to $1.36 billion. The money will be used to fund expansion in North America and internationally, part of which will be spent by Nick Emery, the former Mindshare global chief executive, who was brought in to run a newly established media division.

As a disruptor in the space, You & Mr Jones has a focus on tech and digital services and investments, leading to 35% revenue growth year-over-year as of April. The company hired Paulette Forte, formerly senior director of human services at the NBA, as its first-ever chief people officer in recognition that the brand tech group has grown from two employees at launch in 2015 to more than 4,500 people around the world.

You & Mr Jones' Gravity Road launched a gaming and esports marketing practice out of its New York City office and it recently invested in Blacktag, a black-owned content creation platform for black creators.

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