Global Agency of the Year: In Turbulent Times, Ogilvy Seamlessly Ushers in a New Era

By focusing on its goal of 'Twin Peaks': creative and results

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When it comes to leadership changes, 2016 will be remembered as a time of disruption. While most will recall it as the year of Brexit and Trump, the ad business saw its own turbulent times, with no less than five top executives at major agencies being fired or resigning abruptly amid scandals.

In contrast, there is Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, whose smooth transition of power, coupled with a breadth of award-winning work, earns it Adweek's Global Agency of the Year for 2016.

When the iconic WPP agency announced in January that Miles Young would hand off the title of worldwide chairman and CEO—ending a 35-year run at the agency, eight as its top exec—Ogilvy plotted a seamless, eight-month transition for his successor, John Seifert. A 37-year veteran of Ogilvy who has led its North American business since 2009, Seifert officially became worldwide chairman and CEO in August. Now he's leading the agency into a new era and building on what was a terrific year for the shop and its network.

This year, Ogilvy expanded its capabilities in social, content, customer engagement and digital media. Meanwhile, it won a slew of awards, including Cannes Lions Network of the Year and, at the Effie Awards, Most Effective Agency Network.

But it's clear Ogilvy isn't resting on its reputation. Much of its best work came from emerging creative offices like South America-based David and Stockholm's Ingo, a Grey-Ogilvy partnership that created the massively successful "Swedish Number" campaign. Meanwhile, the network enjoyed strong performance and growth across Asia and Latin America.

Paving the way

The transfer of leadership from Young to Seifert was a relatively easy one largely because the two had already built a rapport from working together for nearly eight years. From January to August, they traveled the world for meetings with Ogilvy office leaders and stakeholders with whom Young had built relationships. "It did hard work on my sleep patterns, but it was enormously helpful," Seifert says. "There's no leader that came before Miles who knew the network as well as he did. Having been in the job for nine months now, I've found that you don't appreciate what you don't know about everything that goes on in the world until it's your responsibility. Miles shared with me the learning curve he went through in establishing a direction and vision for the company."

Young's advice to Seifert? Build for the future. "Miles came in at the height of the financial crisis," Seifert explains. "When everybody else in our industry was sort of saying, 'How do we cut? How do we scale back?' Miles had come from Asia. The financial crisis didn't worry him much. He wanted to invest for the future, so that was his advice to me."

Young and Seifert also held transitional meetings with global clients like Unilever and IBM. IBM's relationship with Ogilvy goes back to the mid-'90s and the transition from worldwide CEO and current chairman emeritus Shelly Lazarus to Young. "We've been fortunate to have great leadership and great work from Ogilvy during the entire length of the relationship," says Jon Iwata, svp, marketing and communications at IBM, citing "Smarter Planet," created under Young, and the current IBM Watson campaigns, which will continue. "I like everything John has to say about creativity, innovation and trying out new ideas. They really know us, and they constantly bring in new talent from across Ogilvy and WPP, which helps keep the work fresh and strong."

The work

Ogilvy's network has produced a variety of fresh creative this year, particularly "The Swedish Number," which won the Direct Grand Prix at Cannes. The tourism campaign encouraged people around the world to call a number and be connected to a random Swedish person who could talk to them about the country. "There was some risk involved, so kudos to our clients and our people there who believed in the idea," says Tham Khai Meng, Ogilvy co-chairman and worldwide chief creative officer. "You couldn't get more authentic than this."

Meanwhile, David's "#ManBoobs4Boobs" campaign brought awareness to women's breast health and circumvented Facebook censorship of bare breasts by using "manboobs" to demonstrate breast self-exam techniques. "Humor is a great connector," says Tham.

"They know our brands incredibly well, and have both a passion and talent for creating communications that cut through the clutter of today's world with authenticity and relevance," says Aline Santos, marketing evp at Unilever, for which Ogilvy created the iconic "Real Beauty" campaign for Dove.

Twin Peaks of success

In New York, Ogilvy this year achieved better than 5 percent growth through expanding capabilities in social and content, customer engagement and digital media. Ogilvy also grew business 38 percent in Argentina. Globally, it enjoyed 37 percent growth in social and content; 40 percent in consulting through its OgilvyRED practice; 30 percent in marketing technology; and 22 percent in digital media.

Seifert credits much of Ogilvy's growth to its Twin Peaks agenda, introduced by Young and Tham in 2009. The image of the two peaks represents the dual importance of creativity and effectiveness, with the heights of success being demonstrated by wins at the Cannes Lions and Effies.

"Thanks to the Twin Peaks agenda, we have a network that understands that duality and mission of creativity and effectiveness better than at any other time in our history," Seifert says. "The tension that comes from having to constantly raise the bar and compete against agencies that want to kill you is how we raise our standards internally. Some of our clients love the idea of winning at Cannes; some don't care. But culturally, it's critical for us to believe that we're always in search of the highest creative standard."

Adds Tham: "There has to be some kind of metric, in sales and creativity. We believe that you can't improve if you don't measure—otherwise, you're navel-gazing. This helps our clients do great work, and be braver."

One such client is Philips, for which Ogilvy London created "Breathless Choir," which tells the story of a group of breathing-impaired people who, against all odds, learned to perform a song in public. The piece won a Lions Health Grand Prix. "It's an example of where brand vision and a campaign idea came together," says Lenze Boonstra, head of brand at Philips.

The wins

Ogilvy also won new global clients in 2016, including Mondelez-owned Green & Black's (a line of gourmet chocolate bars); Perform Group's live sports streaming service Dazn in Japan; Unilever Philippines; Whaley Technology and Yili Group in China; and Lenovo, already a client in China and now signed with Ogilvy globally. But a major morale boost came with the agency's official reunion, after 25 years, with former client Nationwide, whose relationship with Ogilvy goes back more than 50 years and the "Nationwide is on your side" jingle.

"We're unbelievably proud of that win, because it came from a historical context of Ogilvy being important to their business, and we gave them a modern, integrated Ogilvy to meet their current-day business and brand challenges," Seifert says.

Ogilvy also has received kudos for how it fosters diversity in the workplace—a hot topic in the industry in 2016. The agency's goal is to make its leadership gender balanced in the next five years. Ogilvy works with EY (formerly Ernst & Young) to benchmark its gender-equality practices and with the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media on gender-equality initiatives.

"Our industry is good at talking about diversity, but not very good at doing anything about it," Seifert says. "What will make the biggest difference are metrics: having specific goals, whether it's ensuring equality among the top ranks, or ensuring equal pay across all salary bands. Goodwill, nice speeches and sending people to conferences is nice, but nothing matters more than setting specific goals and holding people accountable to achieving them."
The new era at Ogilvy will borrow from its storied past and the philosophy of founder David Ogilvy, while meeting clients' new challenges, its executives say.

"At the heart of everything is tangible, provable results, because if you don't sell ads, you go hungry," says Tham. "It's a combination of doing great work for our clients, helping our clients realize those numbers and maximizing creative impact. David Ogilvy left us this teaching of divine discontent, and we think about that every day. We remind people that we have to go after the work; nothing else matters. It's all about the work."

For more on Adweek's 2016 Agencies of the Year, be sure to check out:

6 Funny, Moving and Provocative Ads That Showed Ogilvy's Creative Excellence in 2016

• U.S. Agency of the Year: Droga5

10 of Droga5's Best Ads This Year

• Breakthrough Agency of the Year: Venables Bell & Partners

This story first appeared in the December 5, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine.

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@ChristineBirkne Christine Birkner is a Chicago-based freelance writer who covers marketing and advertising.