Agency of the Year: MPG

MPGFrom the Collaborative Alliance to the Meaningful Brands Index, Havas’ MPG continues to translate innovation into the marketplace

Not long ago, I had the opportunity to sit in on a secret, high-level meeting of some big agency and TV network executives in the basement of Donovan Data Systems, the company that processes much of Madison Avenue’s media buys. And as I sat there listening, fly-on-the-wall style, to these important industry stakeholders discussing how they hoped to reshape some key aspects of the TV advertising business, I could almost hear the whirring through the walls where Donovan’s computers were housed, processing billions of dollars of media buys. The meeting was completely unofficial, and technically didn’t even have a host. But everyone in the room knew who organized it: Mitch Oscar, whose official title is executive vice president of televisual applications at Havas media shop MPG, but whose actual role inside MPG — and the industry-at-large — could better be described as “agent of change.”

The meeting was one of many examples of Oscar’s handiwork — sometimes in public forums like his standing-room-only MPG Collaborative Alliance meetings, and sometimes clandestinely, in gatherings like this one — where he helps to accelerate industry change by putting people together who have common interests and goals in making those changes. It is largely because of Oscar’s efforts — both his public forums and behind-the-scenes matchmaking and pressure-putting — that MEDIA has awarded MPG its Media Agency of the Year for the past two years. So coming into this year, we wanted to raise the bar for MPG. We even considered treating the Collaborative Alliance as a separate category, the way we would recognize a boutique of the vertical media service sector, as we have with other agencies and groups. But in the end, we deemed that the Collaborative Alliance is too integral to break out on its own, in part, because of changes at MPG made over the past 12 months. Or as MPG CEO Maria Luisa Francoli puts it, “We began to operationalize it.”

By operationalize, Francoli means that MPG took Oscar’s Alliance meetings and initiatives from simple goodwill — industry relations, PR, learning and insights — and began to apply them in the way its units do their day-to-day business. That was an important development for MPG, for Oscar, and for the industry-at-large, because it took the concept from being a simple forum for jump-starting ideas, conversations and relationships, to a process.

That change was a significant one for MPG: A resource for activating change is now embedded into its overall organization. That’s our idea of strategic vision, innovation and industry leadership, the three major criteria MEDIA uses to determine its agencies of the year. It is also an important change for Oscar, because while he always had some degree of clout, by leveraging relationships under the auspices of a big media-buying agency, operationalizing the Alliance means that it is no longer theoretical, and that ideas and partnerships incubated there could be applied to the billions of dollars in media buys MPG makes for its clients each year. And it is important for the overall industry, because it means that all the classic objections to change — the fact that new concepts don’t have budgets, “departments,” or processes, for example — are minimized.

That was why the meeting Oscar brought me into was so important. It was exactly the kind of process change he has learned is necessary to get something ingrained into the fabric of the media-buying industry. You can have great ideas, even better ideas than the people who came before you. But unless you can integrate them into the way people actually do make their media decisions, those ideas are unlikely to go very far.

Since Donovan, and its chief rival MediaBank (both soon to be merged into an entity known as MediaOcean, pending regulatory approval) are where media buys actually get processed, Oscar understood that it is integral to any innovation in media-buying that would change the way buyers and sellers work. I can’t discuss what transpired at the fly-on-the-wall meeting, or who specifically attended. But I can tell you there were a number of executives from agencies who compete with MPG, and they came together for a common cause they believe will drive the industry forward, and make advertising more effective for their clients.

What I can tell you, though, is about another, more public example with Donovan that appears to be making a profound difference in the way advertisers and agencies buy media, particularly television: the Alliance’s so-called “Set-Top Taskforce.” The taskforce, which was a big factor in last year’s MPG win, established a framework for using TV audience data from digital TV set-top devices as a means of buying television networks that are not rated by Nielsen. Such networks tend to be newer, digital and lower-rated, and don’t have enough distribution for Nielsen to justify rating them. They are frequently described as “long-tail” networks. There are about 100 of them, and while their individual audience ratings may be small, they are estimated to represent about 7 percent of total TV viewing. Without Nielsen ratings, those networks were effectively not participating in the national TV advertising currency, and consequently were not on many media plans or advertising budgets.

In 2010, the Alliance’s taskforce came up with a simple solution that essentially developed a method for indexing what their Nielsen ratings might be, based on their digital set-top audience data from sources like Kantar Media, Rentrak and other suppliers. The concept, which was developed in conjunction with other industry stakeholders, including rival media shops like Carat and OMD, seemed to have merit. But unless the data could be integrated into systems like Donovan that agencies actually use to buy TV advertising time, it wouldn’t have any practical application. After months of collaboration, Rentrak announced deals to integrate its data into Donovan’s systems, as well as another important third-party data processor, Comcast-owned STRATA. At least three agencies agreed to utilize the data — MPG, Carat and OMD — and by the end of 2011, Carat announced a deal to begin using Rentrak’s data to plan and buy TV advertising based on “exact commercial ratings” versus the “average commercial minute” ratings that are the currency of most TV advertising buys.

Both Carat and OMD were strong contenders for MEDIA’s Media Agency of the Year recognition, too, and were given partial weight for the results of this Alliance initiative. In the end, MEDIA felt that MPG simply did a better job of demonstrating more of our most important criteria. And while the Alliance’s initiatives — public and behind-the-scenes — were a large part of that, MPG demonstrated enough vision, innovation and leadership in other areas that it likely would have merited it without the help of the Alliance, including some powerful strategic research initiatives; the development of new, advanced modeling systems; and a shift toward so-called “real-time” planning and buying that many in the industry are touting. Some of those developments are still confidential, and will become public this year, so they weren’t a big factor in this year’s consideration, but they reinforce MPG’s vision cred.

Another development that sets MPG apart is the research coming out of Havas Media Labs, especially its so-called “Meaningful Brands Index.” Havas Media is the parent of MPG, and the lab, which is overseen by Umair Haque, is generating powerful insights about brands that go well beyond media — and potentially, well beyond marketing, too.

Among other things, the global study explored how important brands are to their consumers at a deep, emotional level — how they connect with their sense of meaning and well-being. The study found that only 5 percent of brands in the U.S. actually impact their consumers in a way that is “noticeable” in terms of their individual well-being and quality of life, and that most people wouldn’t care if 82 percent of brands disappeared tomorrow.

MPG is still working on the practical application of those insights to media, but the data, which is part of an ongoing tracking study, is helping the organization to understand what people expect from its clients’ brands, and how media strategies and executions can play a role in that.

MPG cites a litany of other examples of vision, innovation and leadership that are de riguer for best-in-class media shops, including exclusive partnerships to develop new models with leading media suppliers, outreach to the worlds of academia, tech start-ups and Silicon Valley. And all those efforts appear to be bearing fruit, in terms of the most common metrics used by Madison Avenue to gauge agency results. During the past 12 months, MPG won a dozen new accounts, and expanded its relationship with such big existing clients as Volvo and Panasonic. Total revenues grew about 12 percent.

But the part that CEO Maria Luisa Francoli is most proud of is how the organization has come together culturally during the past year, developing an esprit de corps that will help sustain its momentum for years to come. Francoli, who is also MPG’s global chief, stepped into the U.S. CEO’s role a couple of years ago, presumably on an interim basis, but she’s become the hands-on manager and chief cheerleader for building the spirit of the organization. It started, she says, with a “clean-up day” she implemented for the first time about a year ago, and which has become a mechanism for MPG’s organization to bond. The day was earmarked literally for cleaning up, including the physical clutter of unneeded paper and files that fill up any organization over time, as well as the mental clutter that can occupy minds and spirits.

To understand Francoli’s focus on the spirit of her organization, you have to sit in her office and gaze out her window, which overlooks both Ground Zero as well as Zuccotti Park — the Ground Zero of Occupy Wall Street. It is as if her office window is a frame of the tumult of the world around us.

One way MPG seeks to tame that tumult is by bringing the world inside it, literally. MPG’s U.S. organization, which grew out of conventional old-school media-buying shops like SFM Media, once a pioneer in the burgeoning independent media services marketplace, has grown into one of the most contemporary, multicultural media organizations in the world. Francoli, for example, is a Spaniard who transplanted herself and her family to New York, and resides in Forest Hills, Queens. Her management at Havas are French. And her new No. 2, Sasha Savic, is Bosnian.

Savic, who joined MPG last year as COO, after running the Procter & Gamble business at Publicis’ Starcom MediaVest Group, is also the architect for the new, real-time planning and buying systems that MPG will introduce next year. He has also become an important compatriot of Mitch Oscar’s, and part of the team that is working to operationalize the Alliance’s efforts within, and throughout MPG. Both have a similar mindset: Innovation is great, but it doesn’t mean a whole lot unless you can build it into organizations and processes that enable people to use it.

Meanwhile, MPG will continue to use the Alliance in just that way, to get important industry stakeholders to come together — in both public forums and private initiatives — to develop, vet and deploy ideas for moving the industry forward. And if the Alliance’s last public forum in New York during Advertising Week in September is any indication, it can be a great way of shepherding initiatives beyond mere conversation to actual execution. During the meeting, NBCUniversal senior vice president Sheryl Feldinger presented an analysis of the kind of set-top data the Alliance has been championing to show how it could be used to target certain upscale audiences better than conventional Nielsen data can. The analysis showed how unstable Nielsen’s small sample sizes are for measuring very affluent U.S. households — those earning $125,000 or more — versus the large sample sizes that can be derived from set-top data.

That insight, she says, would enable advertisers and agencies to plan and target those audiences more effectively than by using simple Nielsen data alone. But the important thing about that meeting is what happened next. Oscar called on CNBC’s chief revenue officer Tom O’Brien, and asked if the network would consider using such data as the basis of a “secondary guarantee” in its advertising deals with advertisers targeting such affluent households. O’Brien said the network was willing to have those “conversations” with advertisers and agencies. Also in attendance was Jim Speros, the CMO of Fidelity Investments, a financial services marketer that just so happens to target those very same affluent households, and who seemed equally as interested in having those conversations.

It was another example of Oscar playing matchmaker, in order to take innovation from the drawing board to the marketplace. And it continues to be a big reason why MPG is once again MEDIA’s agency of the year.

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