Magna Sees the World

Perhaps it’s best if you think of it in terms of the training montage from the movie Rocky, the telescoped series of cuts that show Sylvester Stallone’s humble club fighter gearing up for a shot at the heavyweight champ.

As Bill Conti’s “Gonna Fly Now” soars on the soundtrack, Rocky jogs past garbage can fires, chugs a glass of raw eggs, pumps out a bunch of one-armed pushups and works the speed bag. Compressing the boxer’s entire training regimen into about three minutes, the segment ends with the now iconic shot of Rocky raising his fists in triumph atop the stone steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

While Elizabeth Herbst-Brady (shown) isn’t exactly climbing into the ring to fight Apollo Creed, the president and CEO of Magna Global over the past several months has faced an uphill climb of her own, taking on the arduous task of redefining the company’s mission.

Under her guidance, the Interpublic Group property has transitioned from an upfront-focused national television unit to a research-driven investment group that works with the Mediabrands agencies (Initiative, UM, Hill Holiday, Deutsch, Mullen, etc.) on behalf of their global client base.

Because Herbst-Brady has effected such sweeping change in her brief tenure as the head of Magna — after having overseen some $2 billion in business as Starcom’s svp, director of national broadcast, she joined the firm in October 2008 — a little montage is in order here. After a three-month in-house listening tour, Herbst-Brady began the process of opening up communications among IPG’s competitive agencies while crafting a blueprint to position new research models at the center of all of its global media negotiations.

As it was transforming its worldwide transactional processes, Magna was also busy stateside, expanding into local TV, national radio, print and digital. At the same time, it chucked the old Bob Coen forecast methodology in exchange for a new model based on revenues derived by media suppliers, rather than the hidebound method of making projections based on client and agency ad spend estimates.

“The basic idea behind this evolution was to take some core tenets about how you buy and what you buy, and then you apply those as they make sense,” said Herbst-Brady. “The core is always to do what’s in the best interest of your client. It’s not about aggrandizing the center; it’s about using the center to help work with the agencies on behalf of their clients.”

From an activation perspective, breaking down some of the higher walls that divided agencies like UM and Initiative has been a boon to many network partners. In the past, sellers had been stymied by some of the more competitive aspects that defined the agencies’ interrelationships.

“It’s definitely a lot less territorial,” said one senior media executive, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “It’s no longer the old Magna quagmire where the refusal to cooperate when competitive categories were on the table often meant that you couldn’t get anything done [with either agency]. It’s still a jump ball, but under the new structure, they somehow make it work.”

According to Jeff Lucas, evp, ad sales, MTV Networks Entertainment Group, the Herbst-Brady era has engendered markedly improved efficiencies. “In the last couple years it’s really kind of gelled in terms of working as a cohesive unit when it needs to,” Lucas said. “The different agencies have their own responsibilities to their clients (as they should), but they’ve really been able to come together, especially around upfront time.”

Lucas is also quick to laud Magna’s intelligence efforts. “A lot of credit has to go to Elizabeth, who was one of the first to introduce research into the equation back when she was at Starcom,” he said. “It’s the smart way to do business, and it helps reinforce what’s already a solid group of smart negotiators on the agency side.”

For her part, Herbst-Brady acknowledges the efforts of chief financial analyst Brian Wieser, who assumed the mantle of lead global forecaster from Coen in March 2009 (see sidebar on this page). The former Deutsche Bank researcher last summer introduced his new methodology, a far more trackable approach that set aside standard rate-card jockeying in favor of a system that examines verifiable supplier revenues.

“It seems like it offers a purer understanding of the marketplace. Because I’m buying from media suppliers, I shouldn’t really care how much so-and-so is spending,” Herbst-Brady said. “That’s not to say that we don’t consider what our competitors are doing, but the focus is really there on the networks.”

Magna’s efforts to produce global best practices is supplemented by intel supplied by agents in some 70 countries. “We apply what we know to inform the market and help set the agenda for the industry in a given country,” Wieser said. “It’s all part of an effort to explain why pricing behaves the way it does in different markets…and to work toward getting past the flawed notion that simplistic supply-and-demand changes drive prices.”

Wieser’s homegrown audience analysis efforts have also received positive reviews from Wall Street, so much so that a number of firms use Magna’s data as source material in their investor communications.

As the new-look Magna Global steps into the ring, the company will mark its evolution by relaunching its client Web site, offering subscribers a vast analytics database as well as an extensive portal for news and information about media sellers.

Going live on July 26, the Magna site not only offers invaluable information about the marketplace, but it also provides a one-stop source for clients to discover what the marketplace is saying about itself.

“Our research is our foundation, and it gives us a distinct advantage,” Herbst-Brady said. “And our new structure allows us to be nimble and proactive across the board, which  ensures we can really take advantage of the bigger pile without getting locked into one process…at the end of the day, that allows us to deliver best-in-class rates.”