Meet the 12 Most Successful Media Agency Execs in Southern California

Some things in Los Angeles always remain: palm trees, the Santa Ana winds, convertibles, In-N-Out Burger. But the country’s second-largest media market has also witnessed its share of change, much of it expressed through a rapidly evolving media planning and buying business. Here, we introduce the inaugural L.A. Media Stars, written by Adweek’s longtime West Coast contributing writer T.L. Stanley and spotlighting the most important people in that universe. Among the many changes this city has seen: movie marketing that has been turned on its head in the digital age. Gone are the days of well-placed spots on “Must-See TV” and a handful of billboards. Data and insights, Snapchat displays and branded-content upfronts are the new currency of getting butts into multiplex seats. Not surprisingly, the number of media agencies in L.A. has grown, each securing its base in the entertainment industry (20th Century Fox and Zenith, Sony Pictures and UM, Universal Pictures and Maxus, Lionsgate and Mindshare) and building the business from there. It makes sense that many of our Media Stars are steeped in branded entertainment—a most natural fit for any media player in the City of Angels. —Michael Bürgi


Steven Abraham, evp, managing director, Los Angeles, MediaCom USA

Hollywood loves a good reboot, and no one understands that better than Steven Abraham, who has spent the last five years remaking the Los Angeles office of MediaCom into the agency equivalent of a box-office blockbuster.

He's grown the head count from six to 65 and annual billings from $25 million to $450 million, with a massive win early this year of the Sony PlayStation global account. The brand joins a roster that includes Universal Music Group, Pokemon, Tempur Sealy and home security firm Ring.

It's a total revival since Abraham arrived in 2011, just after MediaCom had lost Warner Bros.—its most significant client of nearly two decades.

"The office needed to be reborn, and we really had to pound the pavement for new business," says Abraham, evp, managing director, who relocated to the West Coast from MediaCom London. "But it was also an opportunity to make our mark in L.A., broaden our business and seek other categories, instead of being an extension of a studio."

Moving the physical operation from WB-adjacent Burbank to Santa Monica, Calif., Abraham gathered what he calls "young and hungry" staffers who pitched the boutique nature of L.A.'s MediaCom, backed by the vast resources of parent company WPP. He shepherded new divisions to handle search, social media, analytics and strategy so that his office "wouldn't be considered just an offshoot" of the New York headquarters.

That foundation helped MediaCom snatch PlayStation from bigger competitors Carat and OMD, which Abraham calls "a game changer" (pun intended). With its newly assembled 17-person team, the PlayStation account embodies Abraham's philosophy of retaining a small-shop sensibility while "getting under the client's skin."

"It may sound twee, but we'll always try to maintain that personal touch and chemistry, along with offering all the data and analytics and planning," he says. "It stems from putting the right talent with the right clients and then living and breathing the partnership."


Claudia Cahill, chief content officer, Omnicom Media Group

Not to start an East Coast-West Coast rumble or anything, but Omnicom Media Group's chief content officer Claudia Cahill had wondered for years why there was no Los Angeles equivalent of the annual network upfront presentations or the Digital NewFronts—both of which are held in New York each spring.

But any event would need a distinct and separate personality and, since L.A. has grown into a content-churning machine, Cahill hit on the idea of bringing together blue-chip advertisers who are hungry for great projects-in-the-works with content creators looking for sponsors.

So, OMD's Final Front was born, and in its four years the event has grown from one to three days of marketer/content producer powwows, with the recent September gathering drawing BuzzFeed, Vice Media, Upworthy, NBCUniversal, Live Nation, Fox and Viacom. Those content powerhouses rolled out exclusive ideas before Omnicom media networks OMD, PHD and Hearts & Science and clients like Procter & Gamble, JCPenney, Walgreens, Nissan and McDonald's.

The high-profile conference shows Cahill's dedication to bringing the marketing and content communities together to tell stories in a way that traditional media can't. "Since we first launched the Final Front in 2013, our clients' perspective on content has evolved from seeing content as an add-on tactic to a core component category," she explains.

Cahill's group practices what she preaches, with programs like the Intel integration in this year's Grammy Awards around Lady Gaga's tribute to David Bowie. Some 25 million people watched the pop diva perform live, using Intel's "ring" to control stage effects in real time, emphasizing the brand's capabilities beyond PC processors. The deal combined paid placements and behind-the-scenes bits, with heavy digital and social media to support it. (A groundbreaker for the Grammys broadcast, the placement won Adweek Project Isaac and Media Plan of the Year awards.)

Cahill and her team were also responsible for Pepsi's multi-episode arc on Fox's hit drama Empire and the brand's alliance with MTV's Video Music Awards.


Tina Pukonen, evp, U.S. regional director, Zenith

Tina Pukonen didn't literally send in the clowns, but she did assemble a group of comedians to help brainstorm ideas for the marketing campaign around 20th Century Fox's action flick Deadpool this year.

It turned out to be a good tactic to loosen up a roomful of clients and unearth some solid concepts.

"They weren't checking themselves; they weren't afraid to say something inappropriate," Pukonen, evp, U.S. regional director at Zenith, recalls of the guest wisecrackers. "They brought so much energy and they came up with things that we ended up using as campaign assets."

The bawdy, comic book-based Deadpool went on to snag more than $360 million at the domestic box office, Fox's highest-grossing R-rated movie ever, with frequent hat tips given to its edgy advertising, viral videos and massively popular social media campaign.

It's part of Pukonen's commitment to finding "a new approach" to her clients' business, whether it's a Fox film, a Hallmark Channel miniseries, a Hulu subscription or an Epson printer. And the Deadpool campaign was an interesting peek into human nature, which Pukonen says she finds herself thinking about a lot lately. "I'm intrigued by what motivates people to do what they do," she says, "and I'm always looking for ways to dig deeper into that."

Leading the Los Angeles and San Francisco offices of Zenith, Pukonen says she relies on the "continuous intelligence and data" now available to measure consumer behavior and the effectiveness of media plans, noting that the ability to track both is "unprecedented" and "a huge opportunity for us to craft a new architecture."

During her 20-plus years in media, Pukonen has worked on everything from consumer products to Cirque du Soleil, with focus groups, commercial production and brand briefs under her belt.

She heads the regional acceleration division, scouting for new business—and landed the luxury brand Crystal Cruises in her first few months in the role. The San Francisco native and veteran of FCB and Goodby Silverstein & Partners has her eye on mobilization and the portable content trend, with the challenge being to think of it "as a personal hub, not just a channel," she says. "We need to think about the role the devices play in our lives."


Jonathan Haber, co-founder, Giant Spoon

It's no contradiction to Jonathan Haber to worship equally at the altar of Ira Glass and Chris Harrison, since the NPR legend and host of ABC's The Bachelor have more in common than it might appear. They're both pop-culture touchstones, says Haber, and either could in some way inspire his next groundbreaking work at Giant Spoon.

"I don't make a distinction between high- and low-brow," says Haber, the Los Angeles-based co-founder of the bicoastal, independent media and marketing agency. "I need to keep an eye on all of it because consumption and creation go hand in hand."

And creating is at the heart of Haber's mission at Giant Spoon, which in three years has grown from four original founders to a team of 40 in L.A. and New York, boasting a client roster that includes Hewlett-Packard, NBC, Cole Haan, Amazon, STX Entertainment and General Electric.

The scrappy startup is responsible for programs as varied as last winter's GE-sponsored podcast The Message, a Cannes Lion-winning, War of the Worlds-like thriller, and the current 50 Styles, 50 States, an influencer-driven, shoppable "democratization of fashion" guide for Old Navy in partnership with

Haber and the "Spoons," as his staff is called, recently tricked out a shipping container, turning it into a jungle-themed infinity room for the Warner Bros. adventure The Legend of Tarzan. It traveled to major markets, eventually setting down, via massive crane, at the tony Beverly Hilton this summer. And for Lego, Haber brainstormed a flurry of original animated shorts that bucked the superhero obsession by starring real-world characters like firefighters, cops and explorers.

Haber's goal is to help brands become content companies, unobtrusively weaving their messages into stand-alone events and entertainment, and using that as a launch pad. "We want to elevate the content and put a comms plan against it," says Haber, a San Diego native, "and build a whole ecosystem around it so it's bigger than a video or a documentary or a VR experience."


Jennifer Bolt, executive director, idea communication, Team One

Don't use the term "fragmented landscape" like it's a bad thing, says Jennifer Bolt, because in truth it simply means more choice for consumers and more opportunity for media executives.

"It makes our jobs more complicated, but we need to look at it from the inside out," says Bolt, executive director, idea communication at integrated agency Team One. "Consumers are having a great time [with all this choice], and if we truly understand them, we should be able to reach them in an environment that makes sense, that's relevant."

For client Lexus, that philosophy has played out in a partnership with Sports Illustrated and Major League Soccer star Clint Dempsey around a viral-ready digital series filled with trick shots (which has racked up nearly 2 million views on Facebook and Twitter). And for April Fools' Day, Team One employed a clever stunt in a seemingly serious ad to introduce a fake product—a Velcro-covered driver's seat.

A native of Edmond, Okla., and veteran of Horizon Media and several digital and tech startups, Bolt arrived at Team One early this year to oversee paid, earned, owned and shared media. She also leads several of the agency's other areas, including experiential marketing, strategic alliances and partnerships, public relations, search and media planning and buying. Her previous brand experience runs the gamut, from packaged goods and travel to retail and fast food.

For Lexus, she's searching for "talk value and mass reach," with programs including a virtual reality mini-episode of ABC drama Quantico. She and her team embedded the brand's new LX 570 sport utility vehicle into an immersive, 360-degree video this spring for the hit series' midseason launch, avoiding a "low-energy stagnant product placement" in favor of "product participation," she says.

Having worked in smaller markets around the country, Bolt finds inspiration in L.A.'s diverse communities and the bustling agency and tech scene in Silicon Beach. And like a good Southern California transplant, she's taken up meditation since she arrived a few years ago, and is in training to be a yoga instructor. "There's an energy to the city and a vibrancy," she says, "and I love that a meeting could actually be a walk and talk on the beach."


Cheryl Idell, West Coast lead, Mindshare

Cheryl Idell was a data geek before it was cool.

Having started her career as an intern at Ted Bates Advertising in New York, she found her way into research almost by accident, through an early mentor there, and found that she loved it.

"I could've never been an accountant dealing with columns of numbers all the time," says Idell, recently named West Coast lead at GroupM's Mindshare, "but I really connected with the logic of applying data in a creative way."

The rest of the business has caught up to her over the past few decades, with data's role in marketing and media strategy "truly being recognized as mainstream rather than fringe," she explains.

Because of that, and the fact that "more data doesn't mean more good data," agencies play a critical role for clients now in sifting and interpreting the research, says Idell, a veteran of Initiative Media and IAG, which was bought by Nielsen. She'll use those well-honed skills as she shepherds the Los Angeles, Portland, Ore., and newly opened San Francisco offices of Mindshare, where the head count has grown 27 percent over the past year to about 150, including a fourfold expansion of the analytics team.

Three months into her new role, Idell oversees a roster that includes Lionsgate, Nike, Nordstrom and financial services company BBVA.

Idell says she will pull from her Nielsen experience, where she was evp, client services, in charge of the Disney relationship, along with her stint as a client at 20th Century Fox in pitching new accounts and serving existing clients. The exec looks forward to working in movie marketing again, she says, with Lionsgate releasing the much-anticipated musical romance La La Land in December.

Preaching the gospel of being an early media adopter, Idell admits to having "the media habits of a 16-year-old girl," with Snapchat living next to an eclectic assortment of trades, tech blogs, The Financial Times, LinkedIn and others. "There are great curators and resources," she says, "but as far as platforms, I think you need to personally experience them."


Karen Hunt, president, West Coast region, UM

Karen Hunt doesn't miss the good old days of gut-instinct movie marketing, but she's glad she saw it firsthand so she can fully appreciate today's near-scientific approach.

"The biggest difference between then and now is data—and it's informing every part of the planning and marketing process," says Hunt, president of UM's West Coast region, who launched her career as an assistant media buyer more than 20 years ago at DDB Needham. "We have better data, and that feeds better art, which leads to better outcomes."

Hunt and her team have worked on a number of industry firsts for client Sony, including an immersive, 360-degree video ad on Snapchat for summer thriller Don't Breathe. The low-budget, home-invasion flick opened to $26 million, more than double projections, on its way to topping $100 million in the U.S.

That followed another unusual partnership among the agency, studio and Facebook Messenger for an augmented-reality push around last fall's Goosebumps movie. A chatbot, in character as Slappy (a ventriloquist's dummy), generated 750 hours of fan interaction, and helped move tickets and related merchandise. Being first is key in the film business, says Hunt, a lifelong Californian and second-generation native of Santa Monica, "because you need to create social conversation."

With Hunt at the helm, IPG's UM retained Sony Entertainment, its film, home entertainment, television and other divisions after a global media review last year. This summer, as part of an agencywide reorganization, she added oversight of the San Francisco office where the roster includes, Edmunds and Schwab.

As Hunt continues to shepherd the Sony account, she will direct fact-finding projects like one with National CineMedia that ties media effectiveness to ticket sales. The exclusive partnership, announced in June, comes as Sony shifts much of its marketing budget from traditional media to digital­—investing, for some releases, half of its usual spend.

It's an attempt, for the first time, to use data to find out what marketing methods are helping to put butts in seats. "The goal is to close the loop," Hunt says, "and really track consumer actions."


Pam Sullivan, managing director, Maxus

The days of the PowerPoint presentation are long gone, and Pam Haupert Sullivan, for one, is thrilled that she doesn't have to rattle off options for clients like daily specials at a restaurant.

"I used to call that being a media waiter, offering a menu of tactics, like, 'You need more radio,' or, 'Let's shift money to TV,' and the clients picked their favorite," says Sullivan, managing director at Maxus. "We've moved past that. We're consulting and collaborating from the earliest stages, helping to create that big footprint beyond just media."

The result has been a slew of high-impact programs for client NBCUniversal's film and TV divisions, from the Snapchat snap-to-unlock ads for just-released Universal Pictures thriller The Girl on the Train to the football-field-size GIF installation at the World Trade Center transit hub for the NBC sitcom Superstore. Both were industry firsts.

Those are examples of the new reality, Sullivan says, where "we're not living in the buying and selling ads business anymore. We're all figuring out awareness, attribution, engagement and persuasion."

At the center of the strategy is what she calls a "bespoke flagship execution that can be promoted across platforms," such as the massive Jurassic World gates at the heavily trafficked Hollywood and Highland shopping complex and the Times Square billboard takeover for animated family flick The Secret Life of Pets, which landed on the Today show.

Sullivan and her team also had a hand in a cheeky promotion for E!'s first scripted series, The Royals. Remember the naked dude jumping out the window of Buckingham Palace? He and his bum made quite an impression.

Sullivan, who opened the Los Angeles office in 2011, has since overseen a quadrupling in billings and new accounts including the NBCU digital business. There's also been a sizeable increase in head count, from 44 to 127 employees.

Sullivan's team also helped Universal break records for the biggest box-office grosses in history in 2015 by bringing "the right blend of arts and science," says the Orange County, Calif., native and veteran of DDB Entertainment and McCann Erickson. "Understanding how people are persuaded," she says, "is the new benchmark."


Shannon Pruitt, president, The Story Lab, Dentsu Aegis Network

The goal was to make a big splash—rather than a big splat—with a live television stunt this summer that had a daredevil jumping out of an airplane without a parachute. Stride Gum Presents Heaven Sent, starring skydiver Luke Aikins, did, in fact, go off without a hitch. Aikins hurtled 25,000 feet without so much as a wing suit, landing in a net in the Southern California desert no worse for the wear.

To Shannon Sweeny Pruitt, one of the architects of the event, it was a tonally perfect match of nail-biting spectacle, irreverent brand positioning and, equally as important, memorable, DVR-proof content.

"The client wanted a tent-pole program for Stride that was about pushing limits, going beyond and being fearless," says Pruitt, president of branded content agency The Story Lab, part of Dentsu Aegis Network. "It needed to be authentic and attention-grabbing."

Outside the July special on Fox, Pruitt and her team developed digital and linear extensions like a live Periscope feed of the free fall and a National Geographic documentary of the training, which contributed to a "robust ecosystem."

"There's no point in doing a blink-and-you'll-miss-it product integration," says Pruitt, a veteran of product-placement groundbreakers Mark Burnett Productions, FremantleMedia and 19 Entertainment. "We had to plant the flag and go all in."

Not every program will be a matter of life and death, of course. Some will embed clients like General Motors into popular entertainment. A season-long arc launched recently for Microsoft in the ABC family comedy Black-ish.

It's part of the custom approach for clients that "always starts with the audience," says Pruitt, who oversees a company that's grown to 65 people, nearly triple the number of just a few years ago, and works closely on Stride's parent, Mondelez International, and Microsoft, among other clients.

Pruitt, an Oregon native who studied Japanese, tells brands to think like programmers whose content—whether Instagram photos, 30-second spots or short films—can make an impact in paid, earned and owned media.

"I'm always looking for the new connection points and how we can leverage them," she says.


Chris Denson, director, Ignition Factory

Talk about leaving a mark on consumers. Chris Denson and his team at OMD's Ignition Factory launched a pop-up tattoo parlor at South by Southwest this spring themed around the DC Comics action adventure Suicide Squad, doling out free temporary and permanent ink.

Thousands of fans—some of them tattoo virgins—walked away with Harley Quinn, Deadshot, Diablo and other characters on their bodies, flesh-and-blood promotions for the Warner Bros. summer flick that became one of the year's highest-grossing releases.

That kind of program comes from recruiting outside the traditional media sphere, says Denson, the agency's director, who looks for "culture hunters" from varied backgrounds like tech, trend forecasting and filmmaking.

"It's the native, unlikely pairing of geeks and creatives that allows us to approach the challenge of engaging consumers from a very different perspective than, say, Madison Avenue or Silicon Valley," he says.

Denson helps put the disparate pieces together to come up with "strategically grounded" solutions, as he puts it. The approach is working so well that Denson has doubled the client base since taking over the top position at the Los Angeles shop two years ago—with a roster that includes Wells Fargo, Pop TV, Hilton Hotels, Experian and Brooks Running.

Among the agency's recent standout work: For the 1970s-set thriller Inherent Vice, the team staged art exhibitions at Ace Hotels and produced a limited-edition LP. And for The CW's comic-based show The Flash, Denson recreated the secret laboratory in a tractor trailer—traveling from city to city, it tested fans' "meta-human" capabilities. Finally, for critically beloved dramedy Jane the Virgin, the team went meta to the max, turning a fake telenovela in the series into an actual novella on Wattpad. Released in English and Spanish in collaboration with the show's writers, the promo broke engagement records on the platform and increased viewership among the target Hispanic millennial audience.

As an "extremely amateur cultural anthropologist," Denson says he sees new tactics and approaches supplanting the old, though there's a common thread: "a basic human need that is being satisfied."


Lisa Herdman, svp, director of national TV and branded entertainment, RPA

A couple of gal pals sneak away to a far corner of the house, don soft robes and sip chilled rosé. Cuddled up on comfy furniture, they can barely even hear the chaos of the household, where everyone thinks the women have disappeared into the laundry room. The joke's on them—no one's ironing shirts or bleaching whites here.

This moment of comedy zen, in the form of a two-minute mini-movie, came from the dealmaking prowess of Lisa Herdman, svp, director of national TV and branded entertainment at agency RPA, who brought client La-Z-Boy and cable network Lifetime together for a branded-content campaign targeted at women.

The Lady Cave—developed by Lifetime's Broad Focus initiative, which supports female writer-directors—rolled out like a movie event, getting its own tune-in promos. It ran during Lifetime original movies this summer, letting harried moms everywhere know that La-Z-Boy speaks their language.

It's part of Herdman's goal to "keep clients' TV budgets working as hard as possible through this cluttered medium," she says. Pairing custom content with La-Z-Boy ads and distributing it across social media platforms added to its overall value.

Herdman, a 23-year veteran of RPA who says the agency has supported her "constant reinvention," knows that national TV buys aren't cheap, and not easy to measure. But she still believes in their ability to build brand awareness—if used properly.

"Keep it relevant," she says. "Yes, TV advertising is a beast and it moves slowly. There's no switch you can just flip. You have to encourage its evolution."

To that end, she has linked client with HGTV for a spinoff of sorts called Apartment Hunters, vignettes based on the net's popular House Hunters franchise. And she brought La-Z-Boy together with digital cable and satellite channel Great American Country on videos that showcased the brand's remodeling projects for Ronald McDonald House charities.

During her time at RPA, where in 2000 she launched one of the early dedicated branded-entertainment divisions, Herdman has worked with Honda and Acura (the agency still handles creative duties for the carmakers), negotiating the first auto sponsorship for Nickelodeon's Kids' Choice Awards.


Brett Whelan, senior director, integrated investment, Initiative

There's a soft spot in Brett Whelan's heart for national television, and he's not about to give up on it just because some naysayers contend that it's a moribund ad medium.

"It's not true that TV's dying—it's evolving in a way that's more useful to us as marketers," argues Whelan, senior director, integrated investment at Initiative. "We're applying a digital mindset to it now, with things like advanced TV and behavioral data, targeting audience rather than content."

That's the approach Whelan and his team took for client Uber, which launched its first major TV campaign last year as a driver recruitment tool.

To be as efficient as possible, Initiative used analytics to figure out the best dayparts and platforms to find potential ride-share workers, making for "a nuanced approach" that proved there was plenty of life left in the medium.

Whelan, who leads a bicoastal team of buyers in digital, print and TV, looked again to television for an all-important pre-holiday program for client Amazon. To supplement an already-heavy ad schedule, he worked with an NBCUniversal specialty division to weave the client's various products into a number of popular series.

There was a co-branded spot during Late Night With Seth Meyers in which the comedian asked Amazon Echo's cloud-based voice service Alexa some trivia questions about the NFL and NBC's Sunday night games. During the Today show, co-hosts Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb ordered packages from Amazon Prime Now on Cyber Monday to demonstrate one-hour delivery.

"It was a way for us to leverage deeper integrated marketing elements at scale," Whelan explains, "and have Amazon show up in places you wouldn't expect to see them."

The program was such a hit that Whelan is working on this year's edition, noting that it must be "bigger and smarter."

Whelan says he is intrigued by virtual reality and plans to keep an eye on how it grows over the next few months as gadgets that enable the technology continue to hit the market. He says he'll stay on the lookout for how brands might be able to use VR—but only "if it can go from being an interesting distraction for the media and tech cognoscenti to being used by everyday people."

This story first appeared in the October 10, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine.
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