Agency of the Year 2009: Agency of the Year: MPG

Hitting on all Cylinders

All too often, MEDIA's Agency of the Year profiles begin by rationalizing why we made the picks we did. We do that mainly for readers who may not have had the privilege of being exposed to the winner's work, which in the case of media services, sometimes may not be as visible as other forms of marketing communication. We didn't have that problem with MPG, which did some of its best work in the most open of forums - for all the industry to observe and, in fact, to participate in directly.

There were many reasons for picking MPG as our 2009 Media Agency of the Year, but No. 1 was its ability to take on some of the media services industry's most vexing challenges, and to enlist the industry itself to help solve them. It began with the industry's perennial underachiever - interactive and addressable TV - but it has grown into an open-source experiment that has been, or is in the process of, tackling digital set-top data standards and utility, digital out-of-home media buying, and TV ad verification. MPG calls it a Collaborative Alliance, but the editors of MEDIA call it leadership.

While the concept isn't 100 percent new - MPG televisual applications chief Mitch Oscar originally developed a similar concept years ago at Carat - it blossomed under former MPG COO Steve Lanzano (now president of the Television Bureau of Advertising), who took the reins off Oscar, allowing him to explore a broader array of industry initiatives, and to partner with anyone capable of moving them forward, including rival agencies.

We don't really have a point system for scoring AOY winners, but if we did, we'd have to place a great deal of weight on the altruistic approach developed by the MPG team, whose only real benefit from the Alliance is improving the way the industry works, so that its clients have access to more effective forms of media.

Sure, MPG gets plenty of ink and a fair amount of industry goodwill for these efforts, but unlike comparable industry initiatives, there is not direct financial gain. When Publicis' VivaKi formed its so-called Pool Initiative, for example, it asked the companies it partnered with on its first two "lanes" - labs to develop better long- and short-form online video advertising units - to pay for the privilege. Not so at MPG, which has footed most of the bill for hosting the majority of its alliance meetings, though some of them have taken place at conference rooms provided by, or had lunch paid for, by alliance partners.

The approach has proved to be incredibly nimble and effective. Whereas better-funded industry initiatives - including the Nielsen-backed Council for Research Excellence and the Coalition for Innovative Media Measurement - have also taken on digital set-top data inquiries, MPG's was the first to yield any public insights. It also managed to get three of the industry's leading digital set-top data aggregators to donate data, processing time, and analytics free of charge, as well as assembling an ad hoc group of some of the industry's best research and analytics minds. The initial result might have been murky, raising more questions about the value of digital set-top data than it answered, but it at least got people thinking and talking and, most importantly, collaborating about it publicly.

What sets MPG's Collaborative Alliance apart from the rest of the industry is the pragmatic way that MPG's Oscar approaches it. A war-worn veteran of big Madison Avenue agencies, Oscar is all about getting things done and not getting bogged down in minutiae, politics, or the kind of negativism that has stalled so many industry initiatives before. As far as he's concerned, it's all about moving the ball and, hopefully, scoring a shot every now and then.

While the Collaborative Alliance put MPG over the top this year, the shop would have been a contender even without it. Like its rivals at Starcom MediaVest Group, both are owned by Paris-based agency holding companies that pride themselves on strategic vision, innovation and industry leadership - the three criteria MEDIA prizes most in these recognitions. MPG simply demonstrated it a little better in 2009.

Under worldwide chief Maria Luisa Francoli, and new North American CEO, Shaun Holliday, MPG operated on all cylinders during 2009, including the other digital front - online. While much of those initiatives fall under the banner of Havas Digital and MPG sister unit Media Contacts, it's difficult to draw a line where they leave off and MPG begins. So through much of Havas' digital innovations - including AdNetik (a first-mover in the "demand-side" online ad network marketplace), Artemis (one of the biggest and best online user databases and analytics systems), and a series of insightful white papers steering the industry's best practices - MPG also led in the part of the business that seems to be driving Madison Avenue these days: online.

It also embraced the frequently overlooked medium of digital out-of-home, launching Chrysalis, a specialized think tank that worked via Oscar's Collaborative Alliance to organize what is likely the first "upfront" market for digital out-of-home MEDIA buys of its kind for client Schering-Plough.

And when clients began inquiring about better proof-of-performance for their biggest budget medium - TV - MPG organized a series of tests of Nielsen's and Eloda's systems for client Reckitt Benckiser.

Some of MPG's other client-specific work remains confidential per their request, but the editors of MEDIA can tell you that there's more lurking below the surface of this profile.

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