Some Funny Things Happened On The Way To This Year's Agency Of The Year Awards

Last week was the deadline for submissions for our annual agency of the year awards, and thanks to some promotional email assists from Nicole Fadner and her MediaPost Awards team, we got a record number.

We’re still digging through them and deliberating and will finalize our picks in the next 24 hours or so, likely announcing them tomorrow or on Wednesday morning at the latest.

But I’d like to devote this morning’s column to some common themes and patterns that have emerged from this year’s awards, most of them encouraging, and a few of them nettlesome.

I’ll start with the last observation first, which is probably more of a slap on MediaPost -- and me personally -- for not doing an adequate job of explaining our criteria and what it takes to win our awards. I say this because most of the submissions we get each year are fairly prosaic agency-credentials pitches, combined with ample stats on the contender’s growth, client retentions, and other industry awards its won.

In other words, generic ad-agency awards submissions.

That’s fine, because we always get a few that actually hit the nail on our head, which is about demonstrating explicitly what an agency -- or client or media supplier -- has done in the past 12 months that shows vision, innovation and industry leadership.

We use those criteria because we have committed these awards to celebrating those who are advancing the industry and moving it forward, even if they are doing it mainly to gain a competitive advantage for themselves and/or their clients.

You’ll be reading more about the ones who did that in the next day or so, and early next year when we publish our profiles of this year’s awards winners. And I promise, there is good stuff to learn from the ones we end up selecting.

And like most years, we will have to make some difficult choices this year, because the competition is so good.

My last nit is that each year agencies ask us to provide a “form” or template or list of questions to submit, and I always respond by explaining we got rid of those a long time ago because we believe agencies are the best communicators in the world and therefore know the best way to tell their own story/ies.

The truth, I’ve learned, is that many are not. And this surprises me, because I see all the amazing work they do for their clients, creating and shaping their messaging, and making it accessible to average people to see and understand.

As someone who has covered advertising in general – and agencies in particular – for more than 40 years, I am disappointed about that, and I feel a personal obligation to help change that. And I’m starting with this column.

I’ve already begun drafting a bigger version analyzing and digging into the greatest agency brands over the years, focusing mainly on the media ones that I’ve covered most closely, and plan to publish it concurrent with this year’s awards package. My goal is to help others understand how powerful agency-media brands have been created, differentiated, sustained and evolved over time in order to help others.

If you have any ideas for how to do that, or some explicit data or research I can use as part of it, please let me know at

Lastly, I’d like to point out the interesting common patterns that have emerged from this year’s submissions.

Without naming any names, they included the following themes:

  • That the past few years have been unprecedented and transformational for agencies, clients and consumers alike, and have therefore required that new rules be written among them. It began the divisive social discourse leading up and continuing through the 2016 presidential election, accelerated with the social-justice movement that spiked around the reaction to George Floyd’s murder, became exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic -- especially the dislocation or work behaviors, including for many agencies and their clients – and has continued through the economic volatility of supply chain disruptions, inflation and a looming recession.

  • Those events, as well as a series of concurrent cultural shifts including the #metoo movement, and a refocus on diversity, equity and inclusion, rethinking about gender and other identities, has transformed the way many advertisers and agencies think about their role within various communities, as well as society as a whole. I was surprised by the number of submissions we received that led with or focused so much on their DEI efforts, not just because of the social justice aspects, but because they believe it is a genuine industry imperative to rebalance how the ad industry talks to and includes consumers of all kinds.

  • A surprising number of entries leading with the fact that they are “women-led” organizations.

  • The number of pitches focusing on some form of proprietary “identity resolution” solution to deal with the deprecation of cookies and device IDs used for targeting ads to consumers.

  • A surprising focus on the “creator” economy and a corresponding shift from “influencer marketing” hyperbole.

  • The industry’s embrace of carbon reduction or net-zero initiative, both internally and in terms of the way they activate and use media.

  • A material shift toward “attention metrics” rhetoric, including a variety of proprietary tools for measuring and activating it.

  • An evolution from “brand safety” (avoiding the bad stuff) to supporting good content, especially responsible journalism vis a vis various data and marketplace solutions.

  • The development of integrated systems for measuring and inputting all of the above and tying them explicitly to client outcomes and various proprietary KPIs.

There are other trends too that I hope to outline as we get deeper into the package we publish early next year -- but perhaps the biggest one frustrating me personally is the degree to which big agency holding-company-level media operations have become the centralized source for innovation and a corresponding shift making the individual media brand agencies client-facing service units.

While that makes sense, because the resources needed to invest in innovation obviously are at the holding company level, and we have an ample number of examples where media agency units incubated and spawned innovation that was adopted and brought company-wide by the holding companies.

But it is frustrating, because in many cases, it’s getting harder to identify the specific contribution line agencies are making to the greater whole.

Lastly, I think it is time that MediaPost add a new category recognizing smaller and medium-size agencies servicing the longer tail of the advertising community. We’ve always said we don’t discriminate between big and small shops, and that it’s all about the innovation, the cases they make and the stories they tell us.

But the truth is there is something about the economic scale and focus of big agencies servicing big clients vs. their smaller counterparts.

It’s almost like they’re becoming two separate industries.

I’m not sure what to do about all of that, but stay tuned to see how we distill it when we announce our winners in the next day or so.

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