U.S. Agency of the Year: BBDO Was 2015’s Unstoppable Creative Juggernaut

Humility, hard work, stellar ads and joyous clients

Headshot of Patrick Coffee

We don't know what's going to happen, but we know it's going to be interesting." That quote from BBDO New York chief creative officer Greg Hahn embodies his agency's approach to an ever-growing range of work.

For BBDO, Adweek's U.S. Agency of the Year, it also summarizes a time defined by perseverance under pressure, collaboration between teams and a philosophy global creative chief David Lubars sums up in three words: "Good, fast and cheap."

What prepared the Omnicom network to adjust to the rapid-fire changes that frustrate so many of its peers? "I don't think it was just one thing," BBDO New York president and CEO John Osborn tells Adweek. This year "was a tale of multiple stories and a resiliency that is testament to the character of the people I work with every day."

It was this sense of doubling down on strategy that allowed the agency to quickly recover from the loss of America's biggest beer brand and the end of one of its longest client relationships. BBDO's U.S. operations ended the year on a tear that included winning the world's largest fast-food marketer and toy store chain and creating head-turning campaigns characterizing its focus on "The Work, The Work, The Work."

(Be sure to check out our gallery of 10 hilarious and touching ads that helped BBDO earn its honor as the year's top U.S. agency.)

That work led to a total of 24 Cannes Lions and 20 Clio Awards for BBDO's U.S. offices, among other honors. (BBDO was also named Agency of the Year by the American Advertising Awards and BtoB Magazine.)

Lubars believes that the industry nurtures "an unhealthy obsession" with accolades, even as his agency continues winning them. "We focus on doing something really great for the client that's going to help them … and by the way, it will win awards if you do it right," he says.

The network's success in 2015 ran counter to an industry narrative pitting large "traditional" agencies against younger, presumably more agile "boutique" shops. "BBDO shouldn't feel like a big corporate established agency," says Hahn. "It should feel like a little nimble startup that just happens to have some massive clients and resources."

BBDO does indeed have some massive clients, including new accounts added this year like Subway, Priceline, Bacardi, Toys R Us, Barbie, Bose, Abbott Diagnostics and Humana.

Here's the story, of a brand named Snickers

Perhaps no work better illustrates BBDO's creative scope across brands, teams and platforms than what it did for confectionary parent brand Mars this year. "The work is scaled from Super Bowl to street art, with each piece designed specifically for its medium," Hahn says.

The year started strong with the Brady Bunch-themed Super Bowl spot for Snickers starring Danny Trejo and Steve Buscemi, which revitalized the 4-year-old "You're Not You When You're Hungry" campaign. As Hahn notes, other work for the candy brand ranged from a spoof of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue to a shape-shifting mural created in collaboration with New York's Colossal Media, an out-of-home activation that "vandalized" urban-planning mistakes with Snickers tags and a stunt in which influential gamers pranked thousands of followers on social platform Twitch by playing like the amateurs they once were.

"[The campaign] illustrates the power of a great idea," says Mars global CMO Bruce McColl. "We just celebrated our 20th year with BBDO, and the reason the relationship is so strong is that they are applying that caliber of work to all their brands." He cites the agency's nostalgic campaign for Extra gum, "The Story of Sarah and Juan," and its teaming with WPP's MediaCom, which won the Mars planning account last December. "The collaboration has delighted all of us, particularly because they are from two different networks," he says. "They don't feel threatened; they feel empowered to bring in additional viewpoints."

The business, the business, the business

"When unfortunate things happen, we have two options: bury our heads in the sand or move forward," Osborn says.

The news wasn't all good for BBDO in 2015. It didn't face any challenges as huge as the loss of Chrysler in 2009, but two big clients did go elsewhere. Procter & Gamble completed the consolidation of its shaving brands with Grey in May, then in July, Bud Light made its fourth agency switch in less than two years, picking Wieden + Kennedy as its new creative shop, despite the success of EnergyBBDO's Pac Man-themed Super Bowl spot.

While the losses were disappointing, insiders say the network achieved a 70 percent success rate on pitches. "All of these wins came in a rolling thunder sort of way," Osborn says, ultimately representing more than $1 billion in business, enabling BBDO's U.S. ops to increase revenue by 5 to 7 percent in 2015.

Beyond its wins, the agency expanded existing relationships with clients like AT&T, Bayer and Mars. BBDO New York also created its first campaign for Pepsi in more than seven years, following decades of iconic ads featuring the likes of Cindy Crawford and Michael Jackson.

Better, faster, stronger

"The era of four 13-week media periods is over," notes Lubars. "There will always be tent-pole projects like the one we did for Snickers for the Super Bowl, but the constant stream of content has to be just as good but cheaper. It's like organized chaos … it's messy and sloppy, but that's how the magic happens."

Lubars' approach to creative efficiency is not a new one, but this year saw those principles applied on a holding companywide scale as Omnicom combined the production studios at its three biggest New York agencies (BBDO, DDB and TBWAChiatDay) to create a single entity called eg+. Its goal: ensuring more rapid turnaround on content-based campaigns. Osborn summarizes the new model: "Data informs communications strategy, which informs content development, which informs production, which then gets executed and distributed in media, which goes back around the loop and informs what we do as a follow-up."

This year, BBDO also strengthened its focus on data as a way to test messages and creative concepts. As evidence of this shift, Osborn points to the hiring of Tina Allan as head of data solutions and Julian Cole as head of communications planning in New York, along with the promotion of Crystal Rix from group planning director to evp and director of business development and the integration of BBDO Atlanta's analytics practice across all its North American offices. "We've definitely gotten a bit more methodical in 2015," says BBDO Atlanta president and CEO Drew Panayiotou. He compares the data team originally created for AT&T to "a cross between McKinsey and Marketshare," adding, "We are looking at how to maximize our creative impact" rather than simply optimizing media spends.

Rix's new role epitomizes this approach. "The real-time nature of the business has taken planning and strategy from something that happens at the beginning and the end of a campaign to something that's happening continuously," she says. "When we pitch, we have to reflect that new reality in the stories, strategies and work we present to clients."

That focus has also changed the nature of the work BBDO produces. "Twenty years ago, there was a hard BBDO style," says Lubars. But that's no longer the case as the new, data-driven shop is both more collaborative and more flexible creatively. "Today, what typifies us is surprising and delighting," he adds. "We're like the invisible hand from the client to people."

There's an increased focus on recruiting creatives who bring their own perspectives. "The age of the prima donnas is over," Hahn says. "We want people who are creators, not just creatives. They have the idea, but they also figure out the way to make it happen." Adds Lubars: "Simply developing great work isn't enough. It has to be work that isn't just distributed, but that people actively seek out and pass on."

Bringing back Barbie for 2015

One key example of such "sticky" content arrived this fall after Mattel tasked BBDO San Francisco with a challenge that has frustrated marketers for years: refreshing its iconic Barbie brand for a newer and more skeptical era.

Richard Dickson, president and COO at Mattel, says his company performed an "exhaustive" review but ultimately chose BBDO because "they felt like an extension of our internal team from the beginning and authentically integrated themselves into the thought leadership on the brand."

"Collaboration" and "seamless" are words that often come up in conversations with BBDO execs and clients. Both apply to "Imagine the Possibilities," a digital-only debut for Barbie that got more than 16 million YouTube views in less than two months while renewing interest in the brand. Dickson praises the campaign for "articulating the brand's deeper purpose."

BBDO San Francisco CEO Jim Lesser explains the underlying strategy: "We always try to come with an opinion, but our real strength is our ability to listen. We spent a lot of time listening to the Mattel team about what was right and what was not with any given concept."

"When it comes to collaboration, geography means nothing," Lesser adds. "The Mars team in Chicago works with the Mars teams in New York and San Francisco, so if we need to borrow team members we can do so seamlessly."

Barbie wasn't the only brand that turned to BBDO to redefine itself. "We have been partners [with BBDO] for 90 years," says GE CMO Linda Boff, adding, "I sometimes say they know us better than we know ourselves." Boff, who became GE's marketing chief in September, has continued her predecessor Beth Comstock's efforts to cast the manufacturing giant as "a digital industrial company"—facilitated, in part, by campaigns like "What's the Matter With Owen," in which a newly minted GE employee tries to help friends and family understand what he does for a living. Says Boff: "We have gotten a great reaction to previous work, but this one is through the roof. It's resonating with people and making GE more relatable."

In the months ahead, BBDO will continue the strategies that made this such a banner year. While New York remains the flagship office, the next 12 months will see major campaigns out of Atlanta (Toys R Us), San Francisco (Barbie, Wells Fargo), Chicago (Wrigley, Ziploc) and Minneapolis (Hormel, Skippy). Chris Thomas, former CEO of BBDO Asia, Middle East and Africa, who was promoted to CEO of the Americas this year, stresses the importance of that cross-office collaboration: "BBDO New York has set a high bar for decades. What is wonderful to see is the other U.S. agencies raising the creative bar for their clients with their own brilliant work that touches people, is rich in insight, challenges convention and fights prejudice."

BBDO Minneapolis president and CEO Neil White says his office will focus more on earned coverage born of PR outreach on campaigns like Hormel's Spamerican Tour, which featured food trucks and celebrity chefs. The Minnesota office has also begun to collaborate with international teams on Skippy, which became a global brand after being acquired by Hormel in 2013. "Not many of our competitors have that kind of reach," he says.

But the guiding principle for BBDO in the year to come will be its insistence on facing challenges head-on. As Lubars puts it, "One good thing about our people is that we're easily bored. We have a culture that's open to the new and not stuck on things."

Adds Osborn: "We are our own toughest critics. We never want to settle."

(Gallery: 10 Hilarious and Touching Ads That Show Why BBDO Was Our Agency of the Year.)

This story first appeared in the Dec. 7 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@PatrickCoffee patrick.coffee@adweek.com Patrick Coffee is a senior editor for Adweek.