We are approaching the end of the second decade of the century. It might have been the most far-reaching transformative upheaval for agencies, what with technology advancing in warp speed, plus media fragmenting as new platforms are introduced, and, last but not least, the duopoly preempting traditional agency growth.
This decade hasn’t been easy for most agencies and media companies. After clawing their way out of the recession, they faced smaller budgets, lower fees, more competition, and in-housing accelerated. Despite all this headwind, some excelled, and some new leaders, who adapted better to the transforming ecosystem, emerged.
1. Wieden & Kennedy: They set the bar. The inspirational, iconic “Just Do It” tagline was created in 1987 for Nike’s first major television campaign. Everyone has their favorites, mine are these two: an ad featuring an obese boy running on a dirt road during the 2012 Olympics; and an ad featuring Collin Kaepernick titled “Dream Crazy” which just won an Emmy.
2. Droga5: This year Accenture acquired Droga5, known for Under Armour ads with the dancer Misty Copeland. Now it remains to be seen if the two cultures can merge without squelching the energy that made the agency such a great standout.
3. Work & Co: This technology and design company is one that is focused on making digital products and services; and all their revenue is from products, none from digital advertising. These range from mobile apps and e-commerce platforms to retail experiences and digital kiosks.
4. Apple In-House Agency: While the most popular trend of the decade has been the adoption of the in-house agency concept by advertisers, top-notch creatives usually shy away from them. Apple, with two of Madison Avenue’s best creative directors, Tor Myhren and Nick Law, has singularly assembled a creative team capable of creating on the level of a top ad agency.
5. 360i: When the lights went out in the middle of Super Bowl XLVII, 360i tweeted “You can still dunk in the dark” for client Oreo, which grabbed the attention of millions and, just at that moment, social media lit up. Pioneering again, they innovate with voice technology for HBO with “Westworld: The Maze” game.
6. Alma: Multicultural agencies have been thought of as matching luggage for way too many years, but recently they are becoming more mainstream as the U.S. evolves to a majority-minority country. Alma is pushing to find more intersections with the general market, as the most awarded multicultural agency in Cannes 4 years in a row. .
7. McCann: The creative transformation of the agency has resulted in the viral Fearless Girl statue on Wall Street. Fearless Girl became an instant icon, a symbol of empowerment and gender equality for all young women.
8. Goodby Silverstein & Partners. For an exhibit at the St. Petersburg Dalí Museum, the agency used an AI algorithm and Deepfakes software to bring back Salvador Dalí from the great beyond, Tupac style. They unadvertised Doritos to Gen Z with a campaign featuring no logo or brand name, just the triangle mnemanic.
9. Giant Spoon: For GE, they created ads for in The New York Times Magazine, that featured stories told through downloadable real-life audio, that correspond with full images that ran without captions, or copy, in the magazine. They paired two traditional mediums together to create a third immersive experience.
10. Influencers: The influencer space, which once consisted of semi-famous bloggers making some extra cash on the side, has now become a bona fide marketing channel. Now, almost 80% of all brands say they are dedicating a sizable portion of their marketing budgets to influencers.
A decade ago, almost half the agencies on this list didn’t even exist. Leading agencies like Razorfish, Y&R, or J. Walter Thompson were “consolidated”, so to speak. Scale is in retreat, the management consultants have yet to prove their creative chops, and, surprisingly, there are still Independents out there. Less than half the agencies on my list are part of a holding company.