But it was OgilvyOne's enviable combination of strong management, high-quality creative output and impressive new-business achievements that helped it to secure top spot in this category, making it the first network agency to do so since 2004.
Most will recall the glory days of the 80s, when Ogilvy Direct employed some of the best talent around, and represented the only formidable force in the DM industry. For OgilvyOne, 2007 marked a return to those times, re-establishing the agency as one of the most lustrous jewels in WPP's crown.
In a year that boasted relatively few large pitches and some underwhelming creative work, OgilvyOne bucked the trend, securing a substantial £55 million in billings, as well as netting several creative accolades.
Of the two main pitches of the year, British Gas and LloydsTSB, OgilvyOne triumphed in the former, beating Rapier to the whopping £50 million account. But while most agencies would be content to shut the doors to new business and bed down such a huge account, the agency's ambitious management team ploughed on, winning a chunk of the British Airways below-the-line business for its Asia-Pacific route following a six-way pitch, as well as securing more business from BT for its Openzone wireless internet brand.
Other account victories included a brief to produce a business-to-business campaign for Monster, a consultancy project for Aviva's Norwich Union and RAC brands, as well as work for the car-maker Kia.
By the end of the year, OgilvyOne's client list contained some of the most iconic British brands around, and the agency achieved this without compromising its relationship with its existing clients. Not one of the agency's accounts went up for review in 2007, which was a feat that no other finalist achieved. As a result, OgilvyOne recorded an impressive billings increase, as well as 15 per cent revenue growth, proving its stance as one of the most robust direct businesses around.
This continued success gave the agency the impetus and the capacity to increase its staff numbers, especially in its digital department. And while most other direct agencies stumbled around in the dark trying to get to grips with the sector, OgilvyOne demonstrated that it was the most switched on to the significance of the medium by expanding its digital operation, Neo@Ogilvy, from a rather paltry one to 42.
Despite the relative infancy of the digital division, it secured several pieces of digital business from Flora, Vaseline, Kodak and Castrol, and produced some very impressive web work for Castrol's sponsorship of the Uefa Cup, IBM's sponsorship of Wimbledon 2007, and Unilever.
The agency also responded to the 2006 departure of one of its key creative talents, the creative director Cordell Burke, by significantly bolstering its creative department with 16 new signings. The agency poached Wunderman's associate creative director, Matt Williams, who joined as an associate creative partner, hired the creative director Melanie Ferguson, and appointed Andrew Jolliffe as the creative group head.
Buoyed by this expanded creative team and the talents of the executive creative director, Colin Nimick, the agency proved the network sceptics wrong and went on to bag several top accolades while pushing the boundaries of the traditional DM format.
Its most highly regarded work was the "smoke is poison" campaign for Cancer Research UK, which depicted a cigarette-shaped petrol tanker adorned with chemical warning signs. Not only did it secure top honours at the Campaign Direct Awards, but it also went on to ensure the UK DM industry received international recognition at Cannes, by scooping a gold, silver and bronze Lion.
However, the agency was certainly not a one-trick creative pony, and its direct TV campaigns, such as the British Gas HomeCare spot, proved it could produce humorous TV work that rivalled the experts at Rapier.
An instrumental ingredient in this continued success was OgilvyOne's strong and long-serving management team, comprising the chief executive Mike Dodds, managing director Annette King (, Nimick, Bo Hellberg, the interactive creative director, and the vice-chairman, Rory Sutherland, who have an average tenure of 11 years at the agency.
A combination of Dodds' and King's shrewd business brains, Nimick and Hellberg's creative brilliance and Sutherland's ambassadorial role has helped the agency to enjoy a triumphant year. And in 2007, their loyalty and experience didn't go unrewarded. In October, the senior management received promotions, with Dodds moving from managing director to become the chief executive. King took on the role of managing director, and the client services director Sam Williams-Thomas became the managing director.
Choosing the runner-up in this year's contest was just as hard as selecting the winner, with two independent shops enjoying prosperous years. But it was the sheer scale of Kitcatt Nohr Alexander Shaw's growth that demonstrated the five-year-old agency is on a steep success curve.
Unlike the other shops in line for the top spot, Kitcatt Nohr didn't have one massive account win taking up its time and attention. Instead, it made a concerted effort to secure several smaller, but still very meaty pieces, including the £20 million John Lewis account, which it scooped in March following a shoot-out against Rapier; the £11 million Charles Tyrwhitt account; Slingbox Media's direct marketing business, as well as charity wins from the Salvation Army and WWF. The agency also landed project work for RAC, Carphone Warehouse and Goldfish.
This run of wins led to an impressive 70 per cent increase in turnover, which gave the agency the impetus to invest in its own data consultancy, The Huw Davis Partnership, and media agency, Trinity Communications. It also heeded Campaign's calls to improve its art direction by hiring the former KBK founder Phil Keevill as its creative director. The agency scooped a silver at Campaign's Direct Awards and three DMA nominations.
The hiring of the former Claydon Heeley chief executive and planner Richard Madden as a joint planning director was another coup for the agency, helping it into second place.
For the third year in a row, Rapier dominated the new-business league and showed a pioneering approach to direct TV campaigns.
The main feat for the agency in 2007, though, was securing the LloydsTSB consolidated account, which gave its billings a boost to the tune of £50 million. But there was also new business from COI and Message Labs, and the agency managed to squeeze more work out of its existing clients, with digital briefs from the AA and more work for Virgin Mobile.
The agency reacted to the loss of its creative director, David Prideaux, by hiring Andrew Fraser. It also brought in Bill Griffin, who joined the agency from Kiss, to take on the role of strategy and planning partner.
Staff numbers grew from 108 to 140, and the chief executive, Jonathan Stead, and creative partner, John Townshend, continued to drive the ever-excellent agency to what will be a profitable buyout, if and when it happens.
Recent winners: Rapier (2006); Rapier (2005); Claydon Heeley Jones Mason (2004); Craik Jones Watson Mitchell Voelkel (2003); Harrison Troughton Wunderman (2002)
This article was first published on Campaign