MEDIA's Agency of the Year 2010: MPG

A new kind of piéce de résistance

ProtegeThe word "collaborator" might not be the first one that comes to mind as an attribute for an agency of the year, much less one that is owned by the French, but it has proved to be one of the strongest qualities differentiating MPG from the rest of the media agency world, and it is the main reason why we've picked it as our media agency of the year in 2010 - and for the second consecutive year.

During 2010, MPG helped make a difference for its clients - and the advertising industry as a whole - by collaborating. It collaborated internally, of course. It collaborated with its clients. And it collaborated with the media companies and technology providers that ultimately enable the most important collaboration of all: the one between its clients' brands and the consumers they are trying to reach.

It also collaborated, dare we say, with the enemy. Well, in the parlance of our times, let's just call them frenemies. To make advertising and media better, and more effective, MPG invited agencies that would just as soon steal its ideas, as well as its clients, into its process to collaborate on things that would ultimately require some industry buy-in - including that of its competitors - to make happen.

It's not that MPG management is necessarily altruistic, but it is smart enough to understand that the only way to make some important things occur is if they happen in a way that others also embrace, even if those others ultimately want to eat your lunch. It's a brilliant tactic, and not one that MEDIA originally factored in when we established our criteria for these awards - innovation, strategic vision and industry leadership. But it is one that when executed the way MPG has, enables a media agency to lead the industry by getting the industry to lead itself. It is the kind of behavior you might expect of an industry trade association, or even the multitude of coalitions, councils, consortia and private industry enterprises that have organized with the goal of collaboration, but which ultimately fall prey to their own self-interests and guarded bottom lines. MPG has managed to avoid all that by embracing some simple truths about the modern and increasingly digital media era: open source, critical mass and perhaps most important of all, utility, functionality, design and implementation.

MPG's primary device has been its so-called Collaborative Alliance, a loose affiliation of ideas, projects and information-sharing that was conceived, organized and led by Mitch Oscar, a former Madison Avenue "futurist" turned pragmatist who has learned that nothing ever happens unless everyone - all sides of the table, including clients, suppliers and even rival agencies - buys into it. Oscar may have started with interactive and enhanced television platforms and advertising applications, a concept MPG has tried to convince the industry to coin "televisual" media and which makes up Oscar's official MPG title (executive vice president/televisual applications), but he has broadened the mandate to include anything and everything that could reshape the way advertisers and agencies communicate with consumers, including online, mobile, out-of-home, augmented reality and platforms and technologies that may not be so easily classified.

To be fair, the concept first originated at Aegis' Carat unit, and was originally nurtured under the helm of former Aegis Media chief David Verklin, now CEO of Canoe Ventures, who has become the brunt of Oscar's jokes for failing to achieve - with much greater resources and, presumably, influence (Canoe is backed by the major U.S. cable and broadband operators) - even a smidgen of what the MPG's loosely affiliated alliance has managed to pull off. But that's another story. This one is about the culture of collaboration that has infused MPG, and while the alliance is its most visible example, it has actually become part of the DNA of the organization, setting it apart from the rest of Madison Avenue. So much so that the prestigious London-based M&M magazine recently named MPG parent Havas Media its 2010 "Collaborator of the Year."

But Maria Luisa Francoli, the Spaniard who runs MPG globally and is a key part of the Havas Media management team, says MPG's collaborative approach makes a great deal of sense and that it may be uniquely positioned to take advantage of it. For one thing, she notes that MPG is smaller than most of the other media networks run by the major agency holding companies, so it has less to lose and more to gain by collaborating with others.

"We're a smaller organization and that makes it easier for us to do," she says. "That enables us to work more closely with others and to work more closely internally because we're all connected." She also says that the smaller nature of MPG's organization enables it to be "closer to innovations," because it is not as consumed with ongoing processes the way other big agency holding companies might be. In essence, she says, MPG is fleeter of foot and has more to gain by collaborating with others.

And it's not just through the alliance, but through much of the way it has organized and structured a variety of business operations. For example, when MPG wanted to find a better way of scaling its out-of-home media operations, it collaborated with rival Aegis Media to come up with a solution that benefited both organizations and put them in a position to compete with the biggest out-of-home media buyers in the world, while finding a way to preserve a strategic edge that would give its clients a marketplace advantage.

MPG had incubated Chrysalis, a strategically focused out-of-home planning and buying unit created by two entrepreneurial Americans - Connie Garrido and Ray Rotolo - on the assumption that if MPG couldn't outspend its competitors, it could at least outthink them. But MPG soon realized that the most brilliant thinking in the world will only get you so far if you cannot execute those strategies broadly in a world where physical presence still counts a great deal. Working with the Chrysalis team, Francoli hatched a plan to collaborate with one of her chief rivals, Aegis Media's Posterscope (see related story in this issue). The end result was that Garrido and Rotolo left Chrysalis to run the North American operations of Posterscope and to infuse their strategic and creative approach to buying out-of-home media into the Aegis unit, while at the same time servicing MPG's Chrysalis. The deal required a fair amount of open-mindedness, vision and the suppression of some pretty strong egos to make happen, but it's working.

Garrido reports simultaneously to the boards of Aegis and Havas Media, somehow managing to maintain a secure firewall between the two of them. Aegis gains clout and strategic insights for Posterscope and its clients. Chrysalis gains buying clout and global resources, while preserving the unique, strategically focused approach to its clients.

While Havas and Aegis both share a common largest shareholder - Havas chairman Vincent Bolloré - and there is incessant speculation that the two holding companies will ultimately merge, Francoli says the collaboration had nothing to do with corporate-level interests and everything to do with figuring out a better way to service the clients of the two organizations.

In a similar vein, when Francoli needed to figure out a way for MPG to launch a barter media division, she utilized a collaborative approach. Barter media, a practice in which agencies trade some of their clients' unsold goods or services in exchange for media credits, can be an effective and efficient way of financing media buys, especially during a global economic recession where many clients had above-average surpluses. But barter media also is a complex and often convoluted process that requires expertise and acute knowledge of two simultaneous markets - the marketplace of unsold goods and services to be liquidated and the marketplace of media inventory they can be exchanged for.

Instead of building a division from scratch the way other big agency holding companies have, Francoli structured a deal with one of the biggest and most established independent barter media firms, Active International, to service MPG and its clients in a way that is similar to the deal she structured to service Chrysalis out-of-home media-buying through Posterscope.

In both cases, the MPG teams work in collaboration with their outsourced partners to develop strategies and executions uniquely beneficial to MPG's clients.

"It's managed in-house," Francoli says, "but overnight we immediately gained the benefits of big organization - 200 people who are experts on corporate trading. They do the execution. We collaborate on the strategy. But the stewardship is handled in-house."

MPG's collaborative approach fuels everything it does, but nowhere is it more publicly visible than in Oscar's Collaborative Alliance. Many people may think of that alliance as a series of quarterly, or occasionally more frequent, industry meetings, hosted by MPG but where an array of thinkers and next-generation vendors show their wares and kick around ideas. Yet it is actually more than that: it is a live laboratory for testing and for deploying next-generation approaches to media. Sometimes that takes the form of a specific one-time project. Or it takes the form of a separate series of meetings, coupled with projects and new meetings to share the results. That's been the case with the alliance's so-called digital set-top data initiative, a project in which the alliance got most of the industry's leading TV digital set-top data providers to agree to share their data publicly, and to be used as the inputs for a series of tests, executions and even new models that could help make the planning and buying of TV advertising time more effective.

In one notable example, Oscar corralled some of the industry's leading TV audience researchers and analysts, including many from agencies competing with MPG, to work together to develop a means of using digital set-top data to create an index for the audience of TV networks that are not currently measured by Nielsen. The collaboration produced a simple approach, which while it may not be up to the same rigorous media-buying and posting standards of Nielsen data, nonetheless provide a pragmatic means for agencies to include networks for which there currently are no conventional TV ratings. At least two rival MPG agencies - Carat and Omnicom's OMD unit - worked on and endorsed the method and have said they plan to use it.

That collaborative approach worked so well that it has spawned a separate initiative for Spanish-language TV networks that are not currently measured by Nielsen and Oscar believes it can be applied to other areas of the industry as well.

While other agencies have worked collaboratively to move the industry forward, most notably the "Pool" approach developed by Publicis' VivaKi unit, what differentiates MPG's approach is that it is completely open to anyone, including competitors. The outcomes are available to everyone and they are intended to benefit the entire industry, whether they choose to participate or not.

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