At a time when direct marketing consultancies are being snapped up by marketing services groups, it is unusual to see an agency release itself from the shackles of a network. Given the upheaval that goes hand-in-hand with such a process, Partners Andrews Aldridge could have been forgiven for not performing as strongly on the existing and new business front. However, the direct marketing agency had its best-ever year - growing through significant new business wins, expanding organically and producing outstanding work for its clients. So the decision to award Partners the accolade of Marketing's Direct Agency of the Year was easy to make.
In 2004 the agency negotiated a management buyout, moved offices, won awards and poached staff while winning £21m of new business. Its 37% incremental growth, from £2.2m to £3m, and 23% overall turnover increase, from £3.4m to £4.2m, look modest compared with bigger DM agencies. But in an environment where marketing groups wrestle over global integrated accounts, it is refreshing to see an agency step away from network politics.
Since the summer, when Phil Andrews and Steve Aldridge bought out French marketing services group Havas' majority stake, Partners has been able to provide an independent service to clients that span a wide range of industry sectors, from niche brands such as The Grove in Hertfordshire, a country retreat with all the trappings of a luxury London hotel, to premium car marque Lexus.
The £10m RAC account was one of Partners' three wins of 2004. The fact that the pitch process was overseen by the RAC's commercial director, David Lewis, and its head of customer operations Ian Dobson is testament to how important the organisation views direct marketing as part of its strategy to close the gap on rival the AA.
Partners also picked up Lloyds TSB's £7m insurance account, having already worked on its utility and telecom sub-brand, Ideal. To gain the insurance business Partners had to pitch against Lloyds TSB's other roster agencies, including WWAV Rapp Collins. The brief covers car, home, pet and travel insurance, and Partners' appointment reflects Lloyds' shift in emphasis away from advertising to a more direct strategy.
Partners also pitched alongside Wieden & Kennedy to grab the £1.8m integrated Wales Tourist Board account. The agency is developing creative to position Wales as a must-visit destination and boost tourist spend in the country by £23m over the next four years.
Producing effective campaigns is one of Partners' core strengths, and a campaign to promote Lexus' SC430 model bucked convention. The mailing, resembling a bespoke copy of Conde Nast Traveller, was sent to customers of brands such as BMW and Jaguar. The campaign had a conversion rate of 0.4% and a return on investment of 126%.
A campaign for management training company Video Arts enjoyed similar success. HR and training managers were sent a bin bag and offered £300 off the usual price of a DVD as an incentive to replace their old training videos. The company made £18 for every £1 spent on its direct marketing.
It is fitting that Partners has done well on the awards circuit. As well as winning a couple of silver awards from industry magazines, the agency gained a place in this year's D&AD book with its work for the Art Fund. Its activity for Lexus, meanwhile, won three awards at the DMA Awards in the automotive, acquisition and consumer direct mail (low volume) categories.
Partners' reputation has helped it recruit high-calibre people to its data, planning, account handling and creative departments. It lured Euro RSCG's deputy planning director Kate Waters in September to join as planning partner; Clare Simpson as senior planner from Rapier in April; and the creative duo of Simon Nicholls and Daniel Wright from TBWA\GGT in December.
Partners also promoted Shaun Moran, its head of copy, to the post of creative director. He will work closely with Aldridge to build the agency's creative reputation.
With its MBO complete, the agency can now focus on acquiring new business. Creatively, it will be interesting to see what it does with the RAC, its biggest win of 2004. Partners is one direct marketing agency that is certainly blurring the so-called 'line'.
2003: Harrison Troughton Wunderman
2002: TBWA\GGT Direct