Media Agency of the Year: Universal McCann

Although he’s a friendly sort, quick with a smile and often charming, one gets the sense that Robin Kent is the kind of executive who wouldn’t mind a good row. This is particularly true when the chairman and CEO of Interpublic Group’s Universal McCann is asked what he thinks of detractors who claim UM is too beholden to creative sibling McCann-Erickson.

“We really want to shove it down the throats of our competitors,” says Kent with the confidence one might expect from the son of a pub owner in England’s Midlands. “They are always putting our positioning down.”

Being closely aligned with creative sister McCann-Erickson is a competitive advantage, he argues. “In the bigger global picture, in the past five years, we’ve not had to concern ourselves with breaking away from our parent, merging with another media agency or creating a new identity,” he says. “We didn’t have to live through any of that, which can take a year, maybe two, to become one company. While everyone else was doing that, we were getting our act together.”

The results: UM added or successfully defended $1.7 billion in billings in reviews last year. In media-only pitches, it won eight out of the nine U.S. media-only contests it entered, and not a single client defected. On its own or with McCann-Erickson, UM tallied a diverse list of impressive clients, including Sony, Purina, Major League Baseball, L’Oreal, Maytag, American Airlines and Wendy’s. And the agency added to its considerable management depth with big-name hires from rivals including MindShare and Zenith Media.

Because the agency triumphed with a distinct positioning, because it was able to recruit top talent, and because it excelled at building relationships with a blue-chip client roster, Universal McCann is Adweek’s Media Agency of the Year for 2002.

“I think they had so much success because they come at things a little differently, they don’t look at things in a cookie-cutter way,” says Dawn Jacobs, vp of advertising for Johnson & Johnson, for which UM does planning on several brands and national broadcast buying on all brands. “They’re smart, very committed to [the client’s business], and when they say they’re going to do something, they do it. People notice.”

Says competitor Charles Courtier, CEO of WPP Group’s Mediaedge:cia: “There’s no question they’re formidable right now in the U.S.”

But rivals tend to add a caveat when acknowledging the agency’s success. “I do have a whole lot of issues with this full-service thing they’re fooling around with,” says one, who grants that, “from a competitive-respect standpoint, they’re in the top tier.”

Kent clearly relishes the discomfort of competitors. “People haven’t been able to understand how we’ve managed to be what we are,” he says. “It flies in the face of what everybody has been saying about media independents for the past 20 years. I know, I believed it, too. Our success flies in the face of what every single one of them does every day and what they preach. They are all waiting for us to fall on our faces.”

With its McCann sister, the agency won six accounts, including Avaya, Wendy’s International, Advanced Micro Devices and Major League Baseball, accounting for $400 million of its new billings last year.

The one that got away in 2002, the $400-$500 million Gillette review, was big, however, and the sting of the loss has not diminished with time. “I got in the shower the other morning and staring at me is a bloody Gillette Venus shaver!” exclaims Kent. “I got out and said to my wife, ‘Are you torturing me?’ “

Still, it was the only blemish in Kent’s first year as chairman and CEO. Promoted from president in January, he wasted little time in readying UM’s act for prime time. Kent had considerable help at the top from Sean Cunningham, head of UM New York; top client services director George Hayes; and head buyer Donna Wolfe. And Kent’s arrival freed up chief strategy officer Mark Stewart, who had been managing UM in North America, to concentrate on one of the network’s core strengths, strategy. (The agency’s largest clients, including Sony, Johnson & Johnson and Néstle, single out strategy as a primary benefit of UM.)

Hayes was named AOR director, and UM moved aggressively to build an agency structure based on what Stewart calls “discipline and practice” hubs rather than geography.

UM hired Rob Kabus from Leagas Delaney as a hybrid media and account planner (Kabus is both director of strategy planning at McCann and a director of media planning at UM). And Brett Stewart was brought across the country from UM San Francisco to serve as director of strategic print services.

But the attention getters were the hires from other shops. An all-star team of top recruits included Peggy Kelly, longtime head of Bristol-Myers’ in-house media team, who took over as global client services director on Johnson & Johnson. OMD’s Annette Cerbone, following a brief stint at Discovery Networks, joined as director of national broadcast. Zenith Media’s Greg Smith came over to run UM’s IT operations and Kim Kadlec was named svp of the Coca-Cola AOR. MindShare’s Jean Pool signed on to run UM’s critical spot-buying operation, LCI, which handles upward of $1 billion in General Motors billings.

The team jelled quickly. Kent cut his advertising teeth at Saatchi & Saatchi in London from 1976-82, a period when the agency terrorized the competition and became one of advertising’s largest and most famous shops. He knows how to build a motivated team.

“Robin doesn’t stifle people from saying what they want to say,” notes Pool. “There’s a sense of freedom here. We have these North American management meetings once a week, [and] I can tell by the way these people interact with each other that they really like each other, that they like working with each other. There’s nothing more powerful [in the pursuit of] new business.”

“Our core team has been working together five, six, seven years now,” adds Mark Stewart.”We finish each other’s sentences. And we brought in good people. When you get the right resources and the right management, it’s like a sports team. You have the right coaching, the key positions filled, and you get on a roll.”

The consistency of the team is one attribute cited by client David Raines, vp, media director of Coca-Cola’s North America division. “I’ve known Donna Wolfe and the core agency people for many years,” he says.

“They’re smart and respected,” adds Raines, who has worked with the agency for 14 years. “They negotiated a little property we have been involved in called American Idol and you can see the results of that. Robin Kent adds a whole new dimension to UM leadership that is paying dividends. I have always though they were a terrific group, but now that is being marketed. And when their capabilities are sold effectively, people get it.”

Anne Fox, vp of advertising and relationship marketing for 12-year UM client Nestlé, says one selling point is that despite its size, the agency is flexible, always open to new ideas. “They’re willing to learn,” she says.

But Robin Kent still has that shaver staring him in the face, a reminder that things don’t always work out the way you want them to, no matter how good the team is or how high client satisfaction may be. And all those fully independent specialist rivals are still out there, waiting for the chance to prove UM’s positioning wrong.

“Unless conflict excludes us, we will be in everything to the death in 2003,” he promises. “We will torture ourselves if we don’t win, and we are constantly looking for new areas and new opportunities. I am actually expecting us to be better this year.”