OPINION The 7 greatest ad agencies of today

The holy grail of advertising awards is the Grand Prix Lion, the highest creative prize in the world’s biggest and most prestigious advertising event: the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity.

These awards are given to the most iconic, culturally-defining advertisements that are indelibly etched into our collective memories.

We wanted to find out who had won the most Grand Prix Lions in the new millennium. Taking a deep dive into the Cannes Lions archives, we counted all the Grand Prix Lions winners since 2000. In doing so, we found seven agencies who consistently won advertising’s top prize.

In this article, we celebrate these agencies and go into detail about some of the greatest campaigns of the modern era.

So who are the 7 greatest ad agencies of today?

Shared 3rd Place: Ogilvy (8 Grand Prix Awards since 2000)

Prix Lion in 2005 for the Lego outdoor campaign “Street Building”.

Ogilvy found its award-winning stride in 2007, when Ogilvy Toronto received 2 Grand Prix Lions for their brilliant and enduring Dove Evolution campaign (highlighted below). Another Dove campaign — the clever “Real Beauty Sketches” — earned Ogilvy Sao Paulo a Titanium Grand Prix in 2013.

Winning four Grand Prix Lions in 2013, Ogilvy’s strong performance last year earns them a spot in our list of today’s greatest ad agencies.

Grand Prix Highlight


Watch Evolution video here:

Ogilvy’s keys to success

  • A Solid Base

Ogilvy Toronto was able to jump on the bandwagon of The Dove Campaign for Real Beauty, a brilliant strategy conceived a few years earlier in 2004.

  • Throw Out Your Ego

Tim Piper, writer and co-director of the video, said that the campaign was so successful as the work was the priority, not the ego.

  • Mutual Respect

Despite heavy debates with fellow art director Mike Kirkland, Tim Piper had blind faith in his good taste: “at the end of the day we both have huge respect for each other’s work”.

*Fun fact: Tim Piper later married the girl in the video, Stephanie Betts, who is a Canadian cartoonist and television producer.

Q&A with Tim Piper, art director/writer/director; and Janet Kestin, chief creative officer


Pie: How did the teamwork stand out compared to other campaigns you’ve worked on?

Tim: It was good to have the support of Janet and Nancy and the agency because the post production took quite a few weeks. And for a long time it just wasn’t working… At least not as I had envisioned. But with the patience of editors from Soho Post in Toronto we eventually got there by removing frames one at a time in order to capture the most fluent time lapse imagery possible - basically the footage was too chaotic when sped up over 1000 times (head moving around like crazy and extras thrown in the scene were too distracting). We had several issues to fix but things like dipping to black and adding titles ended up being happy accidents.

(The first cut was about 5 minutes long so you can imagine the work that went into it before realizing the best execution was around 1 minute.)

Janet: Best client-agency trust-fall ever. Everyone instinctively knew when to support vs when to get out of the way.

Pie: Anything that was unique when working on this campaign?

Tim:  I actually think the entire process was unique. The brief was extremely open and actually changed half way through, but it didn’t matter. The concept came from understanding that film was the best medium for speaking emotionally even though there was no media budget and few people knew about YouTube back then. The concept was always “to create a viral film”, which everyone says is impossible. (we repeated the success a year later with Dove Onslaught and no media spend.) the client was incredibly flexible and supportive, that was probably the biggest help.

Janet:  The idea came from trying to solve the problem - girls’ self-esteem issues - not from trying to solve a brief - get moms and daughters to the self-esteem workshops - but it solved that brief all the same.

Shared 3rd Place: TBWA (8 Grand Prix Awards since 2000)

TBWA is one of the most steady performers on this list. Its Paris office grabbed their first Grand Prix of the millennium in 2003 for “Rebirth”. The ad for Sony Playstation shows a woman giving birth with the head of a grown man emerging from the womb.

A year later, TBWA would win another Grand Prix with Sony. The epic TVC ‘Mountain’ (highlighted below) required over 1500 extras including 50 trained extras climbing up a 20 ft cone fitted to the top of a 538 ft tower in Rio de Janeiro.

A notable mention in TBWA’s Grand Prix track record is “The Trillion Dollar Campaign” launched in 2009. To demonstrate the problem of hyperinflation in Zimbabwe, real Zimbabwean banknotes were repurposed as printing paper.

Grand Prix Highlight

Watch Mountain video here:


TBWA’s Keys to success:

  • Pick a winning team

The production company working on Mountain was the first company in the world licensed to use the crowd replication software developed by Weta Digital. At the time Weta had won 3 Academy Awards for Best Visual Effects in The Lord of the Rings series.

  • Keep it simple and execute well

Grand Prix jury president Piyush Pandey commented: “it was the simplicity of the idea and the magnitude of execution that helped Mountain stand out.”

  •  Mix up ideas

Mountain was praised for it’s music, Shirley Temple’s “De Gospel Train” from 1936. Campaign magazine commented: “Shirley Temple’s sweet, innocent vocals contrast splendidly with the frenzy of activity onscreen.”

Fun fact: director Frank Budgen went on to direct “Water Balloons” in 2006, promoting the competing Xbox 360 console system.

Q&A with Tony McTear, art director/writer

Pie: Could you tell me about the process of pitching Mountain to the client?

Tony: Mountain was just one script of a much bigger campaign. FUN ANYONE? was a thought which the agency had demonstrated the many different directions in which it could live and the client liked. But before he would press the button, the client wanted to see one big TV/Cinema execution which could demonstrate just how big ‘Fun anyone?’ could be.

The account/planner team came into my office at 5pm one evening and explained they needed a script for a meeting the following day. At 9.00am the next morning I showed my then creative partner the Mountain script, she said it was too close to a Guinness commercial she’d seen. I ignored her. At 9.30am the script was presented to The PlayStation client and sold.

However, to make this script happen we needed the buy in of the big 5 European countries, so the client, the account director and myself had to go and present the script to the local clients. All we needed was a the local clients not to say a definitive ‘no’ to the script and we would be fine. I do confess our description of the mood of the commercial varied dramatically depending on which country we were in.”

Shared 3rd Place: Wieden + Kennedy (8 Grand Prix Awards since 2000)

W+K is a late bloomer in this list. Only in the past 4 years has it proved it’s one of the best agencies of this millenium. In 2002 W+K snatched up a Grand Prix for their Nike “Tag” ad. Three years later a second Lion was added: the trippy “Grrr” Honda campaign was awarded with the Film Grand Prix.

Then out of the blue, after 4 years of silence, in 2010 W+K won 3 Grand Prix Lions for some of the most memorable campaigns of the decade. The hugely successful Old Spice commercial (highlighted below) was rewarded with Film Grand Prix. An encore of the ad, the Response campaign, would win W+K another Grand Prix a year later.

The Cyber and Interactive Grand Prix Lions were awarded for work on the Nike Livestrong Foundation. The campaign included a robot that used the road as a canvas and was described by the jury as “brilliant work in every aspect of the campaign - print, broadband, an event and specifically Chalkbot”.

Grand Prix Highlight

Watch The Man Your Man Could Smell Like video here:


Shared 3rd Place: Wieden + Kennedy Keys to success:

  • Give good feedback

Too many cooks in the kitchen are bad and slow things down. That’s why the approval process was kept simple, with Dan Wieden getting feedback from a single executive. According to Adweek, P&G’s nimble approach in terms of process and execution “reflects a company loosening its tie, embracing change and moving faster.”

  • Trust the people you work with (or: clients, be brave!)

The Old Spice campaign concept was never subject to the usual rigors of client testing. Instead, P&G just did it and according to former Old Spice brand manager James Moorhead, the process itself became a part of the storytelling.

  • Have fun

Iain Tait, global interactive ECD at W+K, has pointed out the importance of enjoying what you’re doing. “What’s happening is, everyone is having such fun with this thing,” Tait said. “It transmits itself through to the Internet. People have a sense of something fun going on here.”

Shared 3rd Place: Crispin Porter + Bogusky (8 Grand Prix Awards since 2000)

CP+B is one of the more steady performing agencies of the bunch with Grand Prix wins evenly spread out over the past 14 years. A notable stretch was in the years 2005 - 2007 when the agency managed to reel in 4 Grand Prix Lions.

In 2006 two separate Volkswagen Golf GTI campaigns were both awarded a Grand Prix. One for Promo & Activation and the other for Interactive. A year later a Titanium Grand Prix was awarded to the King Games campaign which involved a bunch of XBOX 360 games featuring Burger King’s jolly brand personality, the King.

CP+B’s stormed the Cannes beach again in 2012 when the AmEx Small Business Day campaign (highlighted below) landed 2 Grand Prix Lions, the first for Promo & Activation and the second for Direct. The win shut up critics that questioned the agency’s vitality after Alex Bogusky — the B in CP+B and referred to as the Steve Jobs of the ad world by Fast Company — left the company in 2010.

Grand Prix Highlight

Watch American Express - Small Business Gets An Official Day video here

Crispin Porter + Bogusky’s Keys to success:

  • Think long-term

The Small Business campaign shows that an idea can transcend advertising. Congress officially designated the Saturday after Thanksgiving “Small Business Saturday” for years to come. A Cannes Lions direct jury chair commented: “This is a great example of something that ‘s not temporary,” and “In 10 years, it’ll still be here.”

  • Give people the right tools

To help shoppers turn to mom and pop stores, small business owners all over the U.S. were given a digital toolkit to help them participate in their own Black Friday. The toolkit contained instructions on how to create a Facebook page, YouTube videos and Foursquare deals.

  • Collaborate to achieve greatness that matters more

The AmEx campaign was lauded for rallying both business owners and public officials to participate. Even U.S. President Barack Obama endorsed the initiative. The campaign resonates with something Alex Bogusky said in an interview: “the greatness that matters more is the greatness people achieve through helping each other, through collaborating”

Q&A with Dan Ligon, creative director

Pie: Anything could say about why Small Business Saturday was so successful?

Dan: SBS had a lot of moving parts. But basically: American Express asked CP+B to help blow up SBS. We gave them a simple but proven formula: twitter + OpenForum = . Obviously it worked.

2nd Place: McCann (9 Grand Prix Awards since 2000)

McCann gained steam very late in the race. After 8 years of drought things finally kicked into gear with a Grand Prix win for their Halo 3 campaign in 2008. The campaign told the story of Halo 3 hero Master Chief and reached beyond the game’s core fanbase. It was praised for it’s craft and strategy, transforming a game into a worldwide cultural phenomenon.

After 2 more Grand Prix wins, 1 in 2009 and another in 2010, McCann really started to put its foot on the gas. In 2011 it picked up 2 Grand Prix awards for their provocative ROM chocolate bar campaign. The campaign involved replacing the Romanian flag on the ROM wrapper with an American one. It didn’t stop there, ROM further stirred up Romanians with “Let’s build America here” billboards.

Then 2 years later came McCann’s ultimate glory moment with the biggest Grand Prix ownage in the history of the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity. The “Dumb Ways to Die” (highlighted below) train-safety campaign from McCann Melbourne won a total of 5 Grand Prix Lions. Advertising legend Dan Wieden described “Dumb Ways to Die” as “the campaign everyone here wishes they did”.

Grand Prix Highlight

McCann’s Keys to success:

  • Don’t Try To Control The Conversation

In an interview John Mescall, ECD of McCann Australia, said that brands should “create things that you know will take on a life of their own”. “[Brands that] actively allow consumers to participate, survive. Those who want to control the conversation, they can’t operate in this [chaotic] environment.”

  • Give People Space

The best way to tap into other people’s expertise is to not micro-manage, but to leave as much creative room as possible. “We gave [Australian designer Julian Frost] the most open brief we could: Just make it really funny and really awesome and do it to please yourself,” says Mescall.

  • Don’t Tell People What To Do

By creating something that people can enjoy a usually repelling and didactic ‘be safe around trains’ message was changed into something that was socially acceptable to discuss. “It’s far more effective to bring people along than hit them with your message” according to Mescall.

Q&A with Adrian Mills, group account director

Pie: How did the teamwork stand out compared to other campaigns you’ve worked on?

Adrian Mills: The teamwork between Metro and McCann was very strong. There were mutual ambitions for the campaign in that both parties genuinely wanted to create something that would actually work. To many PSA’s are being made by governments that want to be seen to be caring, rather than driving behaviour change as their primary objective.

I’d also say that they strength of the relationship as such that the clients input improved the campaign, as opposed to diluting the agencies ambitions.”

Pie: Anything that was unique when working on this campaign?

Adrian: The answer is no. We followed the creative process and the agency philosophy of “Truth Well Told” and it got the result you see before you.

The only weird thing is that this is one of those very rare campaigns where the advertiser shows its product killing its customers. That doesn’t normally happen.

Shared 1st Place: DDB (11 Grand Prix Awards since 2000)

Never in doubt: looking at the race results DDB has always been ahead of the rest. It’s one of the few on the list that earned a bunch of Grand Prix awards early on in the race - when it was harder as there were fewer categories.

It’s hard to believe that it’s almost 15 years ago that Budweisers “Whasssup!” commercial first aired. The campaign cleaned up in Cannes picking up DDB’s first Grand Prix of the new millenium.

In 2001 DDB was at it again when their Diesel campaign “European Developing Countries…” was rewarded with the Press & Poster Grand Prix. The campaign presented a vibrant successful African elite against a poverty-stricken Europe.

An honourable mention on DDB’s impressive track record is the Mobile Grand Prix that their Phillipines office picked up last year for the “making textbooks light and easy for all” campaign. The smart TXTBKS project put school books onto old SIM cards, using SMS messaging, cleverly repurposing old useless phones.

Grand Prix Highlight

Watch The Fun Theory video here:


DDB’s Keys to success

  • Make Things Fun

The Fun Theory’s social experiments like “Piano Staircase”, “The Bottle Bank Arcade” and “The World’s Deepest Bin” show that learning can be fun and that by making things fun it can change people’s behavior for the better. Raph Koster, author of A Theory of Fun for Game Design: “That’s what games are, in the end. Teachers. Fun is just another word for learning.”

  • Make Creativity Social

Chuck Brymer, President and CEO of DDB Worldwide on the campaign: “Fun Theory is a terrific model for the kind of social creativity that will genuinely move the needle for brands in the coming years – ideas that change behavior and that consumers want to be a part of.”

**Stick To A Simple Hypothesis **

“Fun Theory” originated from the simple hypothesis that fun can change people’s behavior for the better. The broad appeal of a simple idea was demonstrated by the global nature of the coverage and conversation about the campaign. Also over 700 ideas from 35 different countries were submitted for the ‘Fun Theory Award’.

Shared 1st Place: BBDO (11 Grand Prix Awards since 2000)

Pissing off Sterling Cooper Draper Fisher, BBDO has pulled off an impressive sprint to a shared 1st place in this Grand Prix Lions race. Closely correlating with 5 years of winning Network of the Year at Cannes (2007 - 2011) BBDO started snooping up Lions every year starting in 2006. In that year the “noitulovE” campaign where 3 guys wait 500,000,000 years before taking a sip of Guinness, was awarded the Film Grand Prix.

Then from 2007 to 2008 BBDO won 4 Grand Prix Lions. Both 2008 Grand Prix wins - 1 for Promo and 1 for Outdoor - were awarded for the HBO “Voyeur” campaign. Judges called the projection, that presented a building cut in half, a “paradigm shift” in outdoor advertising.

2011 proved to be one of the best years in BBDO’s history as 3 different campaigns landed Grand Prix Lions. Standout was the “Sandwich” campaign (highlighted below) that won the first-ever Creative Effectiveness Grand Prix. “Sandwich” involved multiple celebrities, such as Jensen Button and Pamela Anderson, descending on Sandwich - a tiny village - to show that “Any Sandwich is more exciting with Walkers”.

Watch Walker’s Sandwich video here


BBDO’s Keys to success:

  • Clearly Define The Problem

Steve Coll, one of the creatives behind the campaign: “Like all the best briefs, Sandwich came about from a business problem. The major retailers weren’t positioning Walkers in the sandwich aisle; so although time-poor lunchtime shoppers were buying sandwiches, they weren’t buying crisps. Our brief was to remind Tesco, Sainsbury’s, and the British public, that sandwiches and crisps belong together - leading us to the thought ‘Any Sandwich is more exciting with Walkers’.”

  • Measure Results

Coll described the Effectiveness Lion as a great way for the Cannes Festival to demonstrate the undeniable connection between creativity and business results. Giles Hedger, Leo Burnett’s group chief strategy officer and one of the judges, praised Pepsico for clearly documenting the link between objectives and outcome. According to Hedger “Sandwich” was one of the few entrants that had a clear model about how the idea was intended to work.

  • Build An Open Culture

In 2004 BBDO appointed a new CEO, Andrew Robertson. Robertson has completely reinvented the company and proved instrumental in the impressive Grand Prix sprint. From day one Robertson’s top priority was to build a strong team and create a culture of close networking, a major shift in a company known for its siloed offices. The streak of Grand Prix wins starting in 2006 is a testament to Robertson’s vision, “to break down the barriers” and “leverage the talent and experience of the network”.

Q&A with Tom White, lanner

Pie: How did the teamwork stand out compared to other campaigns you’ve worked on?

Tom: “Sandwich was a really complex logistical challenge. Because it was designed to be a big surprise for the locals, there was no scope to rehearse the events that we put on. But it was planned with military precision, and that involved the co-operation and teamwork of a whole range of disciplines. Of particular note is the role of the PR and social media teams who, in order to ensure our idea spread, were continually working together to produce and distribute content from the event.”

Pie: Anything that was unique when working on this campaign?

Tom: “The big thing that was different different about this campaign was that Walkers departed from their traditional TV led approach (their ‘Gary Lineker’ campaign is the longest running and most famous in the UK) to a social media driven model. Walkers had also never created an event before, but here we were able to invite the sales directors of the biggest supermarkets in the UK along to enjoy the fun, and persuade them to situate Walkers crisps next to sandwiches in their stores, which was key to this campaign’s success.

We feel the key to the success of this campaign was the genuine reactions of surprise and delight of the people of Sandwich. That was only achieved by keeping the whole thing under wraps until it happened.”

So there you have it, a ranking of the best ad agencies of the millenium. Looking at all of them together, what are the things that makes these agencies so good? How come they do better in Cannes than all others?

Combining the key learnings of the most iconic campaigns there’s 2 things that the most successful ad agencies have in common:

The best teams have fun and have mutual respect
The most successful teams have demonstrated that having fun in the process is vital to creating the best work. Elements that drive fun are giving your team members the space they need and having mutual respect for each other’s input. Real team players can throw out their ego so they can tap into the collective expertise of their coworkers.

The best agencies have a social, open culture
Top agencies have shown that it’s essential to have an open culture where inspiration flows freely across departments and offices. To promote such a social culture teams need the right tools. Using the right tools - like team chat app Pie - teams can mix up different ideas and drive creative thinking.

The writer is Dillah Zakbal , a product manager at Pie. The views are her own.

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