Universal McCann Unit Customizes Big Ideas

Mike-Siegenthaler

Interpublic Group's Universal McCann has been striving for years to transform the way it does business with media owners. Now, the New York-based shop believes it has hit upon the right formula.

A little over year ago, UM hired Michael Siegenthaler, a branded content specialist who was then working at Microsoft, to run a new unit called the MOR (media owner relationship) Group. He oversaw a team of four staffers, whose mission was to penetrate media company bureaucracies beyond the normal buyer-seller contact point. The main idea: forge deeper relationships that would produce "big ideas," usually consisting of tailor-made content for individual clients.

The MORs group has evolved into what is now called the North America Custom Division (NACD), with Siegenthaler running it as executive vice president, UM content and experiences.

The group has expanded to a team of 20, spread around UM offices in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Detroit, as well as the New York office of J3, the unit that services the agency's Johnson & Johnson business.

How did MORs become NACD? "The name didn't really match the job description, which was really around custom," explains Siegenthaler. But he stresses that in order to create custom content that is truly unique to individual clients, the relationship with media companies did have to change.

"We are reaching out to the media community with a framework and a path that we want to go down, rather than the old model which was, here's a bunch of demographics and a few psychographics -- now just guess," he said. In order to ensure that the custom team is giving the right guidance to the media companies, he adds, it works closely with UM's strategy and audience insights teams. "We have to understand their audiences enough to effectively collaborate with them to bring ideas to life."

The effort has resonated with clients, who increasingly are looking for break-out work that goes beyond impressions. About 75% of UM's roster has used the services of the division for some work, according to Siegenthaler. In addition to J&J, clients include BMW, Sony Pictures, Chrysler, MasterCard and Charles Schwab.

For Sony Pictures, for example, the unit teamed with TNT during its NBA All-Star Weekend coverage in March to showcase a new film, "Battle: Los Angeles." While March is considered a "depressed" time to launch an action film, the NBA game and surrounding content would give the film a huge promotional "pop" according to the UM research.

One problem: official NBA sponsorships were sold out. But with help from TNT (and its relationship with the NBA) a workaround campaign was implemented. Ads throughout the weekend meshed footage of the film with NBA action shots. Spots ran in-stadium, outdoors and on TNT throughout its ancillary All-Star Weekend programming.

Success varies by media company, Siegenthaler said. "The ones we work with best have an infrastructure where sales is aligned with marketing, which is aligned with content creators and producers -- all looking at it with the same common purpose and through a lens of 'what can we do?' versus 'we can't do that'."

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