However, since the arrival of Tom George as the managing director in 2004, the agency's fortunes have radically improved. Now chief executive, George presides over an agency that has many strengths and no noticeable weaknesses.
During 2007, MEC ticked every box required to establish itself as eminent among its peers. Coming on the back of a strong 2006 (when MEC was the runner-up to Carat for this award), MEC continued its impressive new-business record in 2007.
The agency has been top, or near the top, of Campaign's new-business league for most of 2007 and claims a success rate of ten wins out of 12 pitches contested. Its most impressive account gains were Paramount Pictures, Next and GoCompare.com. However, its largest triumphs were planning-only, including BT's communications planning account and wins from COI - the most significant being the smoking cessation activity: a sign MEC's planning can compete with the best.
Just as importantly, MEC recorded a 100 per cent client retention rate and acted swiftly when there were issues with clients. For instance, it moved the Morrisons planning and buying business from its Manchester agency to London and managed to stave off a predicted pitch process. All of which contributed to a billings growth of 38 per cent and an increase in headcount at MEC of 40 per cent. MEC has a staff turnover of 12 per cent, significantly lower than the industry average.
MEC's management team, headed by George, has been stable at the top, with the joint managing directors, Toby Jenner and Steve Hatch providing excellent support. Under the chief strategy officer, Stuart Sullivan-Martin, the agency has strengthened its strategy team with several senior hirings including Stuart Bowden, the group strategy director who previously worked for BT.
The agency also hired talent to expand its offer in sponsorship and branded content. Tove Okunniwa, the former BBC Sport marketing director, joined as the head of its sponsorship division Access, and Chantal Rutherford-Browne, a former head of programming at UKTV, joined in the newly created role of head of programming.
MEC was also unafraid to promote from within in key areas; Clare Rush and Phil Wise were promoted to head of print and head of broadcast respectively.
Rutherford-Browne's arrival saw the formal launch of the agency's branded content offer. It also launched an in-store marketing division called MEC Retail, which has assignments from Paramount Home Entertainment, Colgate Palmolive and SAB Miller already underway. Its Interaction digital unit, under the managing director, Jason Dormieux, continued to grow and MEC expects 48 per cent of 2007 revenues to come from non-traditional media planning and buying.
The quality of MEC's work for clients was also impressive, with work for Xerox, Nintendo, Sony Ericsson and COI creating particular standout. During 2007, the agency set itself the task of making an impact on its clients' business performance. Results included an increase of 5.6 per cent in Xerox's market share of the colour copying market, launch work for Nintendo Wii that helped Nintendo claim the number one console crown against Sony and Microsoft, and a strategy for Sony Ericsson's Walkman handset, called Music on the Move, that helped increase sales. Its ongoing work on the NHS anti-smoking activity has resulted in close to 750,000 people interacting via text, phone or red button.
Much has been made of MEC benefiting from the power of the WPP Group M proposition, and undoubtedly this is true as the agency now has access to strong group resources and buying clout. However, the agency regularly pitches against its sister WPP agencies for UK business and has won on more than one occasion. It's also invested in planning and diversified services to the degree where this is impressing clients. This, added to strong client relationships and a fantastic new-business record, made MEC hard to beat in 2007.
Last year's Agency of the Year, Carat came a close second in 2007, and continues to combine a strong new-business performance with creative work for its clients. The Carat Communications Framework that was launched in 2006 to move the agency away from its traditional buying-focused heritage helped it increase digital billings by 73 per cent to more than £150 million - non-traditional revenue streams now account for nearly 40 per cent of the agency's income.
Campaigns for the Department for Transport with MTV and for Renault saw the agency win awards, and there were some impressive internal and external initiatives too: a new graduate scheme that will now be implemented across its sister networks Vizeum and Synovate and a media owner collaboration committee to improve working relationships outside the agency.
Carat scooped two of the year's most hotly contested international media pitches - Johnson & Johnson EMEA and the global Mattel business - in a year that saw it win £113 million of new billings in the UK from 13 new clients. It is to Carat's credit that it hung on to Abbey and Philips after both called reviews. However, it did lose the £18 million Royal Mail business, and there were times when the agency seemed to be a little more focused on fire-fighting than it might have liked.
Media Planning Group deserved third place after an excellent new-business year capped a strong all-round performance. Three or four years ago, questions were being asked about MPG's future in the UK, but under its managing partners, Mark Craze and Marc Mendoza, the agency's fortunes are improving. At the time of writing, MPG had won £41.7 million in new business (its largest wins being the BBC, Axa SunLife and Credit Suisse) and had a 100 per cent client retention record.
MPG's senior management team was stable and the agency grew its headcount by 40 people, no mean feat for a small agency. It created award-winning work for Ask.com and it boasts one of the stronger digital operations around in Media Contacts. MPG strengthened its skills in key areas with the appointment of Alan Brydon, formerly the ad director of the Evening Standard, as its head of press communications, and Dave Katz, previously at Ad.com, as head of digital trading. It was a strong performance in 2007 that showed it can compete and win in a tough market.
OMD also deserves a mention for its good new-business record, stable and capable management team, and for the strength and depth of its work for a diverse range of clients.
Recent winners: Carat (2006); PHD (2005); MindShare (2004); MindShare (2003); Naked (2002)
This article was first published on Campaign