Agency of the Year 2009: Holding Company of the Year: Mediabrands

Media AOY 2009: Holding Company of the Year: Mediabrands: Walking the walk

2009: Holding Company of the Year: Mediabrands: Walk the walk

Walking the walk

Calling Mediabrand's year kind of successful is like calling Super Bowl ads kind of pricey. It took Sherman longer to march through the Confederacy than it took for Interpublic's reimagined media services operating unit to rise from dormant to dominating.

On its Web site home page, Mediabrands says it's "action-oriented." But that's just being polite. "Relentless" is much more accurate.

hat didn't just happen. Even before Mediabrands was formed in July of 2008, president and CEO Nick Brien and his team were pondering how to take a disadvantaged media industry player and turn it into an all-star.

"The point of difference in any brand isn't functionality," he explains. "It's about the personality. Any great brand that resonates has charisma, energy, velocity and a focus not just on what it does but on the way it does things. And we all signed up to have a character focused on being bold and taking risks. We had to be. We were coming from farther behind."

Actually, when you consider how far Mediabrands had to travel to get to the top, you need to add one last adjective: "Remarkable." Which is why you can also call it MEDIA magazine's Media Holding Company of the Year for 2009.

The competition was stiff this year. By all three criteria in which our top shop is chosen - strategic vision, innovation and industry leadership - GroupM and VivaKi also did incredible jobs over the past year and could easily have qualified. But they've been best-in-breed for years. Mediabrands really had to earn it.

The unit's saddle-up-and-ride ethos produced more progress in more areas in 2009. Brien's centralized vision of an open-source organization in which collaboration is a core value also is more holistic than others. And this bunch brings a little extra to the game - they're faster, more fearless and they execute extremely well.

Off course, there's also that amazing turnaround.

That Vision Thing
A company is as dynamic as its leader, and in Brien, Mediabrands has a chief executive who defines the term. Also one "who looks around the corner and over the horizon," says an industry consultant who works with the Interpublic unit. And really, no other management style could have pulled off such a daunting transformation.

For more than a decade, Interpublic fiddled while competitors built separate media services operating units that burned bright and elevated the discipline. IPG, preoccupied with financial difficulties and other distractions, just tried to stay within hailing distance. It didn't even formally create an umbrella media services unit until 2005, when IPG Media was formed.

That enterprise got off to a slow start too, and eventually ground to a halt. But by then, vibrant new leadership was beginning to turn around the Interpublic media agencies, including MediaVest's Richard Beaven, who took over Initiative in 2006 and Brien, who left Starcom to run UM in 2005.

IPG Media morphed into Mediabrands and Brien took the reins (leaving UM to yet another imported creative thinker, PHD's Matt Seiler). The timing couldn't have been better.

Strong corporate entities (like VivaKi and GroupM) were transforming the business, acting as centers of innovation and cross-pollination for the agencies in their portfolios, supported by investment spending by their corporate parents. (A key part of the turnaround, in fact, is that Interpublic gives Brien complete financial backing for any Mediabrands' play.)

Mediabrands shot out of the gate and never looked back. By 2009, it was one of the elite. Not coincidentally, Initiative and UM successfully defended or won more than half a billion dollars each in media review combat in the past year, most notably the stirring defense of a legacy Initiative client, $400 million-plus Home Depot, and impressive UM victories in pitches for the $225 million Nationwide business, the $400 million-plus Chrysler account and the $150 million BMW media account.

Making Change
Throughout the year - almost every week, it seemed - Mediabrands unveiled a constant stream of new talent, new ideas and new tools, continued to incorporate other Interpublic media companies, and restructured - radically and with conviction.

The Holding Company of the Year put particular emphasis in building a leadership position in retail media. It beefed up its hyper-local bona fides in August with the formation of a media services unit called Geomentum, launched with $2 billion in local media billings aggregated from the holding company's retail forces, including print buying powerhouse Newspaper Services of America, directory shop Wahlstrom Group, Yellow Pages and outdoor agency Outdoor Services.

Former client John Ross, who had been CMO of Home Depot, was recruited to run the Los Angeles-based Emerging Media Lab. The link between retail and emerging technology was thus established as one of the opening salvos in what Mediabrands calls "retail 3.0." Brien says four more Emerging Media labs will open in 2010 around the world.

In branded entertainment, Mediabrands innovated again, bringing in former Entertainment Weekly and Advertising Age publisher Scott Donaton, a pioneer in the field, to run a new unit called Ensemble in a unique alliance with MediaLink, the influential media, marketing, entertainment and technology advisory firm founded by former Initiative CEO Michael Kassan.

Mediabrands innovated yet again to close out the year, when it acknowledged the increasing importance of finance in big media holding companies by promoting CFO Tara Comonte, a key member of the team that created Mediabrands with Brien, to COO as well. It is the only media management holding company to have combined the two C-suite jobs into one.

And the news kept pouring forth. In 2009, Mediabrands absorbed Reprise, the Interpublic search marketing specialist. It launched a media trading system called the Cadreon Audience Marketplace - joining its competitors in a new area, a quick catch-up that Interpublic probably couldn't have accomplished pre-Mediabrands. And it unveiled Greenhaus, an initiative to nurture and guide start-up media and technology companies.

The peripatetic operating unit made a deal with Microsoft Corp.'s addressable technology company, Navic Networks, to gain access to Navic's products, and then partnered with Microsoft itself (also a client) to deploy a new online buying processing system, an "ad ops" foray called Media Operations Management System.

Mediabrands was not averse to making tough calls in its efforts to create a 21st-century media services holding company. The re-tasking of Interpublic's former negotiating unit Magna as a supplier of media marketplace intelligence intensified in 2009, as the company let go well-known and much-liked audience analyst Steve Sternberg and refocused the discipline into its general data analytics activities. And it renamed the Magna barter division as Orion Trading, to distinguish it from the research and intelligence functions that are now the Magna charter.

And then there's talent, important to any company but absolutely imperative for one that sees itself as a risk-taker and innovator. Creating a Yankees-quality roster is a major preoccupation of Mediabrands leadership. The company named six media owner relationship managers and five new CMOs, and made untypical hires of high-quality minds like Donaton.

And it didn't simply import new blood. Besides elevating Comonte, Mediabrands found plenty of talent inside Interpublic walls in the past 12 months, particularly in digital media. It centralized digital media services and tapped UM head of digital media Quentin George to lead it as chief digital officer. It also recruited Lowe Worldwide technology expert Scott Beltran as executive vice president and chief information officer.

Action oriented, indeed. As Comonte, who in November was named to the AAF's Hall of Achievement, puts it, this is a "highly impatient" media services holding company that is "not interested in being talkers. Strategy and vision must equal reality."

It did for Mediabrands in 2009. But that's not enough for Nick Brien.

"We are driven by continuing change in the marketplace," he concludes. "Any legacy business is trying to outrun the flames of digital and the new marketing models. And then there's the recession. That's the same [challenge] for everyone in the game. But what isn't the same is the way we do it."

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