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Are the big agencies being locked out of the big awards shows? You bet your sweet bippy they are. Is that an e

Ah, now that’s a good question.
Certainly, 1993 isn’t shaping up as a kind year to the big American agencies. Other than DDB Needham’s famous ‘You never know’ work for New York State Lottery, there isn’t one big agency campaign out there consistently attracting the gold. Of the 112 gold and silver honors awarded by the New York Art Directors Club show, for instance, only nine – a shockingly low 8% – went to the giant agencies, whose work, of course, blankets most of what you see on primetime television and two-thirds of the ads in national magazines. At first blush the One Club of New York was more generous – four (13%) of the 30 golds went to big agency units. But if you subtract the gold awarded to DDB for New York Lottery and the one to Leo Burnett/London for an ad for Guinness Publishing, then only two (7%) of the remaining 28 golds went to big U.S. shops.
Steve Penchina, creative director at Ketchum and a board member of the One Club (which chooses the judges), cautions those who would argue there’s some kind of conspiracy afoot: ‘The fact is the better work is coming out of the smaller shops and the out-of-town (translation: non-New York) agencies. The big agencies get strapped with big clients. The bigger the account, the more levels of approval. Hence the creative product is often diluted. Oftentimes in bigger agencies what starts out as a powerful creative idea gets watered down to the point that it loses its edge.’
Mike Vitiello of BBDO/New York and another One Show judge, agrees: ‘It’s a little easier for agencies with smaller clients to do good work. The smaller clients don’t have the media dollars – so they want more bang for their buck. But it’s also true that the economy is forcing bigger clients to be very cautious. I don’t think that’s smart – but that’s what they do.’
None of this is new or startling. There’s been a lot of complaining for some time about the freedom the regional agencies seem to have. But never has there been a year where the shows were so dominated by the great, mid-sized shops: Fallon got in 75 finalists in the One Show; The Martin Agency of Richmond, Va., 52 and Goodby, Berlin & Silverstein of San Francisco, 30.
‘Sure big clients like Procter are difficult,’ says Bill Westbrook, a One Show judge, currently at The Martin Agency and on his way to assume the presidency of Fallon McElligott. ‘But I have difficult clients. So does Fallon and so does Goodby. It’s just that we’re so single-minded that the work is everything.’
He points out that with large accounts – like the $100-million Mercedes account Martin shares with Scali, McCabe, Sloves/N.Y. – there are also various levels of management which have to sign off on ads. Yet Martin was able to get a lot of its work for Mercedes into the shows. ‘I don’t think New York agencies face any different problems than Fallon or Martin or Goodby,’ says Westbrook. ‘The issue is not coming up with great ideas but protecting and nurturing them, so they get sold and produced. Agencies outside New York don’t have a corner on the talent market. Agencies in New York have brilliant people working for them. It just seems that agencies outside New York right now are better at protecting the work and their point of view.’
I’ve been to about a dozen shows this year and seen plenty of wonderful, fresh work from regional agencies which have a real shot at gold lions at Cannes. Among those cited are Fallon McElligott’s Lee Jeans ads and Wieden & Kennedy’s dreamlike Black Star beer work, as well as Chiat/Day’s Reebok campaign. I’d add a few other nominations: Stein Robaire Helm’s minimalist campaign for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles; Cliff Freeman’s latest extension of the marvelously elastic Little Caesars pizza campaign; Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopoulos’ light, delightful ads for the Boston Ballet; and Earle Palmer Brown/Richmond’s stunningly simple but powerful effort for Water Country USA, which shows kids boiling in their backyards with the line, ‘It’s going to be a long summer.’
But there are a few big agency candidates worthy of consideration. Leo Burnett’s creative team put some killer whales into a 747 fuselage in ads for United Airlines; J. Walter Thompson/N.Y. has done a set of controversial but powerful ads for Warner-Lambert’s E.P.T. pregnancy tester; and Lintas:N.Y. won a gold from the Andys for its now retired celebrities campaign for Diet Coke.
In a few more weeks, we’ll see if the judges on the Riviera are any kinder to the big agencies than our own creative stewards.
Copyright Adweek L.P. (1993)