Meet Today’s 15 Most Innovative Agency Executives in Media Buying and Planning

Adweek salutes the 2017 class of Media All-Stars

Hearts & Science CEO Scott Hagedorn is our Media All-Stars Executive of the Year.
Christopher Gabello for Adweek

The media side of the agency world has both received more attention and grabbed the spotlight on its own by virtue of its growing importance in any campaign—digital, social, mobile, traditional or otherwise. The 15 All-Stars in this section represent the best and most original thinking across all the facets of media. Our Executive of the Year, Hearts & Science’s CEO Scott Hagedorn, apparently was born to be a media czar, and he honed the data discipline that has become de rigueur across the media landscape while attracting both AT&T and P&G—two of the largest advertisers in the U.S. On the other end of the spectrum, Giant Spoon’s Nathalie Con, our Rising Star, put her skills to work helping NBCUniversal score its biggest newbie hit of the season in This Is Us. All our other All-Stars represent the varied skills and disciplines of both independents and holding-company outfits alike. Read their stories of success. —Michael Bürgi

Scott Hagedorn, CEO, Hearts & Science 

Scott Hagedorn took an interest in advertising earlier than most.

By age 15, he had his first summer internship at an agency—a Tampa, Fla., shop called Stokes, Epstein, Moore. But it’s a school paper that he wrote when he was even younger—at only 11—that most strongly suggests he was fated to become a marketer.

“Is there a future for advertising?” reads that sixth-grade essay. “Will there be any job openings in the coming years? Is advertising still a big deal? The answer to all of these questions is yes. Ads are also popping up in new places every day … With these thoughts in mind, a career in advertising sounds very promising.”

Fast-forward some 35 years. As CEO of Hearts & Science, the sparkling new data-driven Omnicom media agency that’s taken the market by storm in just 18 months, winning AT&T and P&G—two of the largest advertisers in the U.S.—and growing to some 900 staffers with $119 million in 2016 revenue—Hagedorn is still grappling with similarly existential questions, albeit in a slightly more refined way.

“We’re in a tough position right now,” he says of the industry at large. “The tools that have been used to plan advertising don’t work anymore. It’s hard to get a straight answer out of Nielsen on what data they really have and what data they don’t have. But by our estimation, they might be missing 40 percent of total video, because they’re missing a lot of the OTT data. They’re missing Hulu, they’re missing a lot of the streaming data … And that’s how people watch content now.”

Add in other factors like the relatively Wild West of social media platforms (Exhibit A: The mass brand flight, including key client AT&T, from YouTube in recent months) and the fact that millennials are racing to consume content in mobile apps like Netflix and Hulu, where the right ad formats have perhaps yet to be invented (interruptive interstitials placed in such environments infuriate those viewers, Hagedorn points out), and the 46-year-old executive is constantly working to figure out how to stay ahead of the curve. That means developing the right tools and services to help brands like AT&T and the agency’s other marquee client P&G reach their audiences effectively and efficiently—by leveraging the abundance of data that a highly digitized and interconnected but deeply fragmented mediascape offers.

“With the pace of change that’s happening now, you’ve got to be able to create and spin up your own ways of doing planning quickly,” he explains. “And you’ve got to learn to be very light on your feet with these data sets to be able to do that.”

Hagedorn’s gangbusters vision for Hearts & Science (Adweek’s 2017 Breakthrough Media Agency of the Year) is rooted in a longtime, long-view prophecy on the collision of customer relationship management tactics—honed through his experience at Omnicom direct marketing shop Rapp in the mid 2000s—with the rise of mobile devices, which allow brands to address customers in more individualized ways using powerful ad technology and analytics. They’re disciplines Hagedorn scaled across the holding company when he built its data platform Annalect in the first half of this decade. To meet this brave new world, Hagedorn—also formerly a top exec at traditional shops OMD and PHD—has created an agency model that puts marketing science experts—quants, really—further upstream, at the center of client planning teams, so that they can help write business rules that better automate targeting. The endgame, of course, is to reach consumers at the times and on the terms that best speak to their mindsets and moods, while also reducing the waste caused by less pinpointed messaging strategies (which might, for example, hit a customer that’s already loyal to a brand and unlikely to change preference).

It’s that kind of persistently forward-looking thinking that’s allowed Hagedorn to thrive throughout his 13-year career at Omnicom. “This is a guy who lives in the future, and it is amazing to be around him,” says Page Thompson, North American CEO at Omnicom Media Group, and a mentor of Hagedorn’s—noting that the younger exec has proven himself a leader repeatedly, “from PHD to Annalect and now clearly the penultimate Hearts & Science.” Adds Thompson, a veteran of the traditional media business, “Sometimes he may be a little far out—but that’s a good thing.” —Gabriel Beltrone

Nathalie Con, associate director, strategy, Giant Spoon

Nathalie Con’s presence at Giant Spoon is much larger than her associate director of strategy title suggests. “She treats our company like it’s her company, like she’s a partner,” says Marc Simons, one of Giant Spoon’s co-founders, who hired Con in 2014, about six months after the company’s start. “She applies that approach to how she works with the clients.”

Case in point: NBCUniversal. “We really are an extension of their team,” says Con. “That’s how we think about all our clients. We want to help them to think smart and stay ahead of the game.”

She helped NBC strategize the marketing push behind This Is Us, the most successful of all freshman series this season. One of her tasks involved figuring out why the series’ trailer resonated so strongly with viewers. “The show launched at a time when people wanted to root for someone, and you had a whole ensemble of characters that people just wanted to succeed,” she explains. The shorter trailers that followed focused on marketing “deeply rooted moments” and the “realness of the story.”

For another direct client, Old Navy, Con worked on the “50 Styles, 50 States” campaign, showcasing clothing that epitomized a more localized sense of fashion. And she led some intelligence efforts at the Consumer Electronics Show this year. On behalf of Giant Spoon and OZY Media, Con and a colleague produced a series of think pieces about various product launches and trends.

Con knew that she wanted to work in advertising by the time she was 18. She was on a team at Chapman University that won the National Student Advertising Competition, which she describes as “the NCAAs of advertising.”

Building communities is something that Con excels at. One of her side projects at Giant Spoon has been the creation of a social recommendation platform called Oh Laud, which is focused on entertainment and pop culture. She also formed a Facebook group called Ask Sheeves, a support forum for 250 women.

On a more personal front, she formed a mahjong club as a way of helping a friend from China feel at home in America—and for Con to feel connected to her Chinese heritage. One of her grandmothers barely spoke English. While they interacted with nods and smiles, “to this day, I wish I knew some Chinese so I could have communicated with her,” Con says. —Janet Stilson

Andrea Millett, president, Havas Media New York; COO, U.S.

“I’ve never worked in what you would call ‘traditional media,’” says Andrea Millett, a self-described digital native who became a media planner at Arnold Boston in 2000 after beginning her career at JWT Detroit. Since then, she has moved steadily upward within the Havas Media organization, becoming U.S. COO and president of its largest “village” in New York nine months ago, just as the network moved through a comprehensive global restructuring amid persistent rumors of a potential merger with Vivendi.

Since assuming that position, Millett has specialized in both internal operations and new business initiatives, playing a key role in a streak of late-2016 wins that ushered in an estimated $700 million in new media spending and spearheading an account team reorganization that helped the agency retain one of its oldest clients, Choice Hotels.

“I get my hands in a little bit of everything, but that’s part of my 17 years here,” she says. “I know how everything works, and I know what doesn’t work.”

“Andrea is truly the reason our whole operation at Havas in New York runs smoothly,” adds Havas Media North American CEO Colin Kinsella. “She’s been at Havas in its various forms for 17 years, and that gives her incredible knowledge, experience and trust from her colleagues and our clients.”

The media sector has changed dramatically during Millett’s time with the agency. She says, “Our job as media partners has really become that of marketing strategists, rising up above the media buying notion. And that’s quite a journey to train and hire talent who can use a much wider lens than they used to.”

Millett describes Havas’ new #Together strategy as an effort to “get out of our own way” in the interest of serving its clients, many of which are attracted to the network’s “scrappy” nature. While Havas Media may not handle the industry’s biggest accounts, it has been participating in larger pitches due, in part, to a business model that tackles owned and earned before paid and “really resonates with clients who may not have $400 million in reach.”

“I’m obsessed with change. I believe strongly in continuing to try new ways of doing things, new models and new iterations in every aspect [of the business],” Millet says. “This is the kind of place where, if you
raise your hand and say, ‘I have a thought,’ lots of people will listen.” —Patrick Coffee

Darnell Brisco, vp of accounts, McBeard

If one of the A-list stars of Captain America: Civil Wars, like Chris Evans or Robert Downey Jr., sent you a personal video message on Twitter, chances are you’d share that with, well, everyone you know. How often does a superhero reach out to a mere mortal, after all?

In fact, the idea was an industry first from digital marketing maven Darnell Brisco, who decided to use the platform’s then-nascent feature, Conversational Ads, to promote the action drama last spring. The program, which came together in only three weeks, produced more than 1,100 customized videos sent via auto-reply to fans who chose their side in the movie battle (#TeamCap or #TeamIronMan).

At launch, the program had an opt-in rate of 83 users per second and snagged upwards of 437,000 auto-replies in 14 days, while it caused a spike of 80,000 Twitter followers and generated 5.3 million video views. The flick was the first to cross $1 billion at the 2016 box office.

Brisco, recently promoted to vp of accounts at McBeard but was senior director at the time, says he put himself in a fan’s shoes when brainstorming the concept. “I thought, ‘What would excite me?’” Brisco says. “What if Paul Rudd [who plays Ant-Man] said my name and spoke directly to me? That would do it. I’d share that with the world.”

It’s not a stretch for Brisco, who was employee No. 1 at McBeard, to act like an entertainment junkie. He’s an admitted cinephile who had such a vast collection of DVDs that he launched a campus rental business from his dorm room at Pepperdine. He’s spent the past several years working on nearly 300 social media campaigns for film and TV properties like Fox’s Deadpool (winner of a Clio Key Art Award), Showtime’s Homeland and Disney’s Star Wars: Rogue One.

Also leading business development and sales for the Fullscreen-owned boutique agency, Brisco added clients Saturday Night Live, Marvel Studios, cable channel TNT and film studio STX last year.

His breadth of knowledge about entertainment and social media “were superior to most other people I had met in the industry,” says Ged Tarpey, head of media and entertainment sales, Twitter, describing his first impression of Brisco five years ago when the two started working on projects together. Tarpey adds that Brisco’s enthusiasm and insight haven’t flagged since: “In a fast-paced, ever-evolving industry like ours, he has managed to stay ahead of the curve in all aspects.” —T.L. Stanley

Eric Levin, evp, chief content officer, Mediavest | Spark

In March 2016, media agencies in the Publicis Groupe network faced a major shake-up. The holding company’s media shops would reorganize and operate under four global brands, which meant some (including employees at Mediavest and Spark, two agencies in the former Starcom Mediavest Group) would be working together for the first time. The task of continuing to deliver great work while two sizeable agencies merged was in fact quite daunting.

For Eric Levin, evp and chief content officer at Mediavest | Spark, it was a welcome challenge and one he navigated expertly after joining the Spark team at CEO Chris Boothe’s request just three years prior.

In the face of change, Levin managed to remain immensely productive. For one, he shifted from managing a team of 10 in Chicago to taking on a staff of over 50 spread across the country. He and his team also contributed to an onslaught of new business wins for the agency, including the $230 million KFC account and Mattel’s $150 million business (Mediavest | Spark shares this account with sister agency DigitasLBi).

“Creativity is always woven in [to pitches] in a way that mirrors the success of our model and ultimately shows the client a different way to approach that we are not just a media agency, but we can bring so much more to the table,” says Levin.

Levin’s theory of making media more creative by infusing data and strategy into every piece of content isn’t merely talk. In his role as chief content officer, he has helped create some standout work from the agency that showcases his core mission. “Eric is an amazing collaborator. He’s very creative, but he is also very data-centric and really digs down,” says Boothe. “When he comes up with an idea, it’s not just here’s an idea. It’s how can this idea live on in multiplatform.”

For a Red Lobster effort, Levin and team formed a strategic partnership with the Discovery Channel, sponsoring TV show Deadliest Catch and creating a series of custom videos starring the show’s most notable captain, Sig Hansen. The videos scored more than 1.5 million social views in 24 hours—a record for Red Lobster.

“The work really stands out across all clients, and we’ve been really proud of a number of the programs we’ve launched over the last year,” Levin says. “It’s also exciting to see the personal growth of those on the team, how much they’ve grown creatively, and the adoption and understanding of the model and why it makes the most sense.” —Katie Richards

Jennifer Dass, vp, media operations, Horizon Media

With a natural affinity for numbers, Jennifer Dass thought as a youngster that she might pursue medicine as a career. But after finding out she couldn’t stomach the sight of blood, she shelved the idea of being a pediatrician and went into accounting and finance instead. She’s sure she made the right call.

Dass, a veteran of ZenithOptimedia and Mediaocean, has spent the past 18 months building the media operations division at Horizon Media, reimagining how the company analyzes data for its media planning and buying and providing clients with up-to-the-minute reporting.

As employee No. 1 and the group’s vp, she’s recruited eight executives who work with her across the media giant’s brand and digital strategy, investment and analytics groups that serve 100-plus clients including Burger King, Capital One and Weight Watchers.

For those who aren’t quite as steeped in figures as she is, Dass keeps a few ready analogies—a retailer that wants to track its inventory for customers, a cellphone that needs programming—to explain the importance of data.

“I enjoy taking it from little details to 30,000 feet,” says Dass, a first-generation U.S.-born daughter of South American immigrants. “Even though data is more complex than it was even two or three years ago, I try to relay it in the simplest form possible.”

Part of her job is ensuring that Horizon gathers the most vital data and makes the best use of it, both internally and for clients. “You want something at your fingertips that’s accurate, actionable and easily interpreted,” she says. She was key in launching BlueSky, Horizon’s proprietary tech platform that structures and monitors metrics.

While the underlying parts of ad tech are getting more complicated and multilayered all the time, “it’s easier to identify anomalies with experience,” she notes. “They jump out at me.”

Armed with her insider knowledge, Dass watches her own digital diet closely, especially on her personal social media, because she’d rather “be under the radar as a user, but when I’m trying to target [as a marketer], I love people who are not.”

“Jennifer’s tenacity and desire to make things better is infectious,” adds Cliff Cree, evp, CIO, Horizon Media. “She challenges those around her to be better and to collaborate to improve every facet of the business. She has quickly gained everyone’s trust and has become the go-to expert on all things digital. Her ability to listen to client requirements and turn those requirements into clear, detailed specifications is truly amazing.” —T.L.S.

Julie Lee, managing director, Maxus Chicago

What a difference a few years—and the right manager—can make.

When Julie Lee took the reins at GroupM’s Maxus Chicago office in June 2015, the unit was reeling from the recent loss of a major client. “As a result,” she recalls, “we had to go from an office of nearly 50 people down to 12.” After finding homes for the disenfranchised staffers within the broader WPP-owned organization, Lee’s focus turned to rebuilding via organic growth and aggressive new business development.

“It gave us the opportunity to redefine the culture of the office, our approach to new business and fully focus on what we all wanted to do next: prioritize collaboration and make Maxus Chicago a building block for growth across the network,” she says.

Under Lee, the outpost has grown billings almost 70 percent in the past two years, with an additional 100 percent forecast for 2017. Headcount’s up to about 35, prompting Lee to consider a move to larger digs.

Since taking over, she’s won significant assignments, including CreditRepair.com, Haribo, TCF Bank and Weber-Stephen. And, at the end of 2016, Mark Anthony Brands, parent of Mike’s Hard Lemonade and Cayman Jack, among others, came aboard for media planning.

That last win illustrates Lee’s style, which stresses teamwork-driven problem solving and building strong bonds of trust to attain shared goals. “We showcased the collaborative capabilities of working with Maxus by inviting the Mark Anthony client to work with us on the pitch,” she says. “By giving them a real-life view of our process, tools, data and resources, Maxus gave them a behind-the-scenes look and helped the Mark Anthony clients understand how they would work with Maxus.”

Indeed, that focus on transparency and cooperation in large part led to the agency’s hire. “She drove meaningful changes to our strategy and thinking by engaging deeply in our business, learning our key levers and providing confident, honest pushback to our conventional wisdom,” says Sanjiv Gajiwala, the client’s vp of marketing.

“She says ‘we,’ not ‘I,’” says Steve Williams, CEO, Maxus Americas. “Clients trust her after the first meeting, and she takes that trust and grows business.”

What’s more, Lee’s been grooming the next generation, with mentoring that resulted in staffers Sara Bailer and Catherine Brady honored as rising industry stars by Cynopsis in recent years.

“She has a creative, interested and interesting team around her who are a real reflection of her incredible qualities,” says David Gaines, chief planning officer, Maxus Americas. “Julie is one of those people who is truly a leader because everybody chooses to follow her.” —David Gianatasio

Lee Beale, managing director, Crossmedia

Redbox is more than just a kiosk version of a Blockbuster store. In fact, if you ask Crossmedia, an independent, alternative creative media agency, Redbox isn’t about renting DVDs at all.

Lee Beale, Crossmedia’s managing director, helped design the shop’s Redbox analytics system to communicate to clients with complete transparency what their media buys can accomplish. Beale wanted to design an analytics program that would be immediately recognizable to any CMO who started using it and put the client’s mentality at the forefront of its design. “I saw a disconnect between the engine and the tires of the ad industry,” explains Beale.

“We’re not here to give lip service to clients, and some of the time we end up optimizing ourselves out of the job,” he adds. “We break down the silos of data processing and visualization and business strategy.”

Crossmedia’s Redbox system, and the analytics team that works on it—overseen by Beale—helps clients think of and measure media as a consumer journey. “The problem with industry silos is you end up creating a fake world of human beings and you forget about environmental factors that impact every channel,” says Beale.

This system has been put to use for recent clients including U.S. Bank, Jägermeister, Fordham University and Nordstrom Rack. With its own programmatic unit that has placed some $350 million in media spend, Crossmedia’s tech- and client-focused strategies are pitched as ways to help companies save money on their outlays. “In theory, the industry is more measurable than ever, which is a blessing and a curse,” says Beale. “The digital world can be a black hole of fraud, but we’re here to diagnose what’s actually happening.”

“Lee has helped us navigate a sea of unstructured marketing data,” notes Kelly Colbert, vp of social marketing for U.S. Bank, “and has architected dashboards that are a compass for campaign success.”

Colbert appreciates Beale’s approach to data and technology, as his commitment to delivering decision-making information in a digestible format helps clients choose the right media buying path.

“Lee has a unique approach where he creates a fascinating narrative derived directly from the data,” adds Colbert. “He’s humble, modest and alarmingly bright. He’s a storyteller and the data creates the plot line.” —Sami Main

Liliana Caro, global CMO, Kinetic

As the progenitors of neo-punk, Green Day wouldn’t want much to do with something as bourgeois as a slot machine. But late last year when Warner Bros. launched the band’s new album, Revolution Radio, the one-armed bandit became a major marketing tool—digitally, at least. Posters pasted up across all of Germany’s major cities encouraged passersby to scan the image of a flaming boom box on their phones via the CEE app. Once they did, a slot-machine game appeared on their screens. The first prize (three Billie Joe Armstrong heads) won the lucky player a trip to a concert.

Think about what just happened there. The practice of papering city walls with advertisements dates back to Gutenberg’s press in the 15th century. But it’s the added interactive component of the mobile phone that’s revolutionized that trusty old idea, turning it into an interactive medium that can be targeted, customized and measured. Kinetic Worldwide is the agency at the forefront of this movement, and its highly creative activations (like the Green Day exploit above) are the vision of CMO Liliana Caro.

Having earned her stripes at IPG and Havas Media, Caro came to Kinetic in 2015 with a stated imperative of making out of home “sexy” again. Skeptics may have chuckled, but Caro meant it, and through a program she calls Active Journeys, she and her team have turned out some of the cleverest (and measurably successful) OOH executions in the segment.

Last October, riders on New York’s subway encountered a black billboard with the enticing message “What happened last night?” beside a Snapchat code that unlocked a promotion for the film The Girl on the Train (which ended up grossing $173 million). During Chinese Valentine’s Day, Kinetic mounted a huge digital billboard for Calvin Klein, equipped with QR codes that let pedestrians below share selfies via WeChat. A lucky few saw their photos on the LED, but everyone received coupons and directions to the nearest Calvin Klein store—where traffic rose 50 percent over the prior year’s volume for the same day.

Kinetic secured a 6 percent increase in billings last year, thanks in large part to Caro, who is “a communication and messaging guru,” according to Kristien Turner, vp, marketing strategy for client HSBC. “Liliana always sees the thing no one else sees,” adds Kinetic CEO Mauricio Sabogal.

“Out of home has existed forever,” Caro says, but through the addition of mobile, it’s a new medium. Today, it “can actually help close the loop from online to offline, and take advantage of the space … you’re in—and I think it’s sexy.” —Robert Klara

Neil Goodspeed, director, consumer engagement, senior partner, Carmichael Lynch

A 12-year agency veteran, Neil Goodspeed has served as director, consumer engagement for Carmichael Lynch since November 2014. During that time, he has presided over campaigns for a range of clients and introduced Carmichael Lynch’s “Office Hours” concept to the media planning process.

Goodspeed likens Office Hours to a college professor who may help at various stages of an assignment. He says it allows for an “always-on mode of thinking” which “frees up partners to get after game-changing ideas” and opens up a “continuous conversation.”

“We’re open to whatever level of detail an idea is developed to and try to kick it around to make it bigger and better,” he adds.

“His business-first approach is a rare quality, not just in the media world but the broader marketing industry,” explains Carmichael Lynch CEO Marcus Fischer. “No matter what position you put him in, he’s unflappable. He’s always been a strategic rock.”

Goodspeed says Carmichael Lynch’s “Love” campaign for Subaru is all about connecting with the brand’s owners “at the right time, with the right message.”

Over the course of the campaign, he claims the client has nearly doubled its media spend, while sales have increased by between threefold and fourfold.

“We’re proud of that media success story,” he adds.

Another success story for the agency is Jack Link’s, which has grown from a fledgling brand to a category leader. Goodspeed says the IPG-owned agency recognized the brand’s “unique tone, feel and heritage from the beginning,” leveraged that to further sales via connecting with the “adventurous spirit target” and becoming “part of that culture.”

“We had a clear vision of where the brand could go and the tone it wanted to take and we connected it to environments where the audience would expect to see something from one of their friends,” Goodspeed explains.

Speaking to the broader media landscape, Goodspeed says he believes brand safety will “continue to be part of the conversation,” adding that it’s “not a new thing for those of us on this side of the desk to be concerned about” but has received more press recently, contributing to a heightened sensitivity to the issue. —Erik Oster

Lynn Lewis, East Coast region president, global CMO, UM

Coming up with a new approach to media planning is no small feat. Implementing and customizing that approach across every piece of business that your media agency runs? Seems impossible. But that’s what Lynn Lewis, East Coast president and CMO of IPG Mediabrands’ UM, has been doing since she helped craft the data-driven, moments-based planning tool and dedicated shop, J3, for Johnson & Johnson in 2011. So far it’s led to a slew of new business wins, including Accenture, Hulu, GoPro, Fitbit and even Coach. At the end of 2016, UM’s year-over-year revenue increased 9 percent globally and 12 percent in the U.S.

“The product that Lynn piloted on J3 is the product that is UM’s global media capability now,” says UM’s U.S. CEO Kasha Cacy. “We modeled everything we did off of that J3 model and that’s the model that brought in Coke, that brought in any of the wins we’ve gotten in the past three years—they were really grounded in the work that she did at J3.”

Adds Cacy: “Lynn is a pioneer and she’s a strategic thinker, but she can actually make it happen, which is so important.”

Lewis has been with UM since 2003 when she made the switch from the creative side (she came over from IPG sibling McCann Erickson) to media agency account management. Now in her role as East Coast president and CMO, she has roughly 600 employees under her. “If you think about how unbelievably connected consumers are today—they are adapting to new products, new technologies, new media platforms faster than they ever have before and faster than brands can adapt to—that sort of consumer adoption is creating a sea of unconnected data,” says Lewis. “It requires marketers to essentially become more intelligent for brands to be able to connect.”

While Lewis has worked to implement UM’s J3 strategy for the likes of Coca-Cola, H&M and Sony, she’s been tasked to define the shop’s brand positioning and its corporate philanthropy efforts. She’s also taken over UM’s awards program, which has seen something like a 200 percent increase in major awards, shortlists and recognitions across UM’s global markets.

“I’ve never met anybody who has worked with Lynn and come out of it not raving about the experience they had because she’s the most generous partner and the most wonderful collaborator I may have ever met,” says Cacy. —Kristina Monllos

Michael Solomon, managing director, OMD

Technically speaking, McDonald’s media business wasn’t on the menu last year when the fast-food giant held a review of its U.S. account. Even so, Omnicom’s ability to bring buying and planning strategies to the table—managed and articulated for half a decade by Michael Solomon at OMD—helped the holding company gobble up the assignment.

“We laid down the data-driven foundation, enabling the new level of insight and understanding about customers that was at the core of the overall Omnicom solution,” says Solomon, who’s overseen McDonald’s media at OMD since 2011, and worked on the business for more than a dozen years.

During the review, Solomon helped “define the role of data in the new agency model,” says Anja Carroll, McDonald’s senior director of global media and digital marketing. “His thought contribution went well beyond paid media to content, CRM application and even talent and process.”

In other words, the client was lovin’ Omnicom’s deep media insights. “OMD had spent the better portion of the five years prior to the review demonstrating how we wanted to future-proof the role and accountability of the agency” to deliver cutting-edge solutions, Solomon says. In just the past year, such efforts included rolling out the “All-Day Breakfast” campaign across TV, digital and social, and harnessing geo-location data to boost restaurant visits by 10-25 percent—without increasing budget.

Page Thompson, CEO of Omnicom Media Group North America, says Solomon “has led the progressive integration of digital analytics on the McDonald’s business from the corporate level to regional, to the individual store level, drilling down to hyper-local data that allows owner-operators to know precisely where their sales are, and how to trigger transactions through customized content.”

Since the pitch wrapped last summer, Solomon had a hand in setting up We Are Unlimited, Omnicom’s dedicated McDonald’s agency, striving to ensure that media and creative staff “are working together so closely, they are finishing each other’s sentences.”

Moving forward, “I point to two changes that are most relevant to me and what we’ve built with McDonald’s,” he says. “First, it’s about the talent. The diversity of skill sets and the expertise is an amazing evolution. We needed to bring talent and resources together to solve business challenges that traditionally weren’t the media agency’s accountability.”

The other major change, he notes, “is the pace and sense of urgency. With every win and successful initiative, we fight against complacency. That means to me that we can never sit still, and our McDonald’s clients hold us to it.” —D.G.

Shreya Kushari, svp, search marketing, paid social and performance media, New York/Atlanta capability lead, DigitasLBi

Over the past decade, Shreya Kushari has not only observed but also had an active hand in the evolution of search and social since long before Google ever set up an auction.

Kushari, who oversees media for the New York and Atlanta regions, along with search and paid social for all of North America (with clients that include Delta and American Express), spent her early years at Morpheus Media and Reprise Media before joining Digitas in 2013. She and her team of more than 100 people have witnessed another recent shift in what clients are asking for and what’s working: These days, it’s all about the audience. “It is a much deeper conversation with your audience and a much longer journey that they go through before they make a purchase or a decision,” she says.

While that of course takes shape in different ways, it can sometimes mean taking both an upper- and lower-funnel approach to search and social. As an example, Kushari brings up a campaign for American Express last year that aimed to increase product awareness. Instead of targeting people with the product itself, Kushari and company decided to instead address the life events around which customers might need that product—targeting for device, demographic and interest in order to create somewhat of a push-and-pull tactic. “People don’t go in and look at American Express cards immediately,” she explains. “They look for getting a job, having a baby—and these are the things that boil down to your decision to look for a credit card.”

While data is finally becoming more transparent, performance is becoming more important. When it comes to data, “if you don’t need it, don’t buy it,” Kushari says. “But if it helps you, it makes you have a more informed decision, which is what democracy [of data] is all about.”

For another client in the travel industry, Digitas in 2016 helped the brand realign its efforts with “micro-moments” and specific needs for users planning a trip. Kushari created audience segments and included other factors like weather, seasonal holidays and travel-related news to reach users in real time. The campaign resulted in more than 150 percent growth in revenue beyond flight ticket sales while hitting performance goals three months ahead of schedule.

According to Clint Simpson, chief media officer of DigitasLBi North America, Kushari has the ability to understand any brand’s complex needs across channels. “She uses a forward-thinking approach to digital across teams and leverages search data and insights to drive game-changing results for clients,” notes Simpson. “Her talent for balancing innovation and pragmatism has transformed our agency’s media capability.” —Marty Swant

Travis Johnson, global president, Ansible

While other agencies have spent the past few years catching up with the colossal move from laptops and desktops to smartphones, Travis Johnson is keeping IPG Mediabrands’ dedicated mobile shop Ansible not just squarely ahead of the competition but flourishing. Instead of focusing on mobile media—primarily controlled by behemoths Facebook and Google—Johnson and his team are taking clients like Kia, Coca-Cola and Johnson & Johnson to the next level by busily building next-generation voice apps, chatbots and virtual reality.

“Because we are so multifaceted, we’re growing where others who are just doing mobile media are getting absorbed by trading desks,” says Johnson.

Longtime IPG vet Johnson took over control of Ansible as global president in July 2015 with the challenge of growing the agency’s global footprint from 70 employees in two offices located in Australia and the U.S. and has opened 25 offices staffed by 450 people in 17 countries including India, Mexico and the Philippines. (By the end of the year, Johnson expects to have 30 offices.) Moreover, Ansible’s revenue has tripled in the two years under Johnson’s tenure with 50 percent of business coming from direct clients outside of the IPG network.

“If you look at a country like Indonesia or a lot of Latin American countries, they’re mobile-first countries—they haven’t gone through a generation of desktop or laptop computers … everything is on mobile,” explains Johnson. “The spend on mobile in those markets is really tiny because the local agencies don’t understand where things are headed—they don’t have the apps and technologies available to be able to help clients.”

Ansible has also won 60 awards in 18 months and inked a global deal with mobile creative platform Celtra to power interactive ads for 500 clients. After realizing that “many clients are still not understanding the potential that mobile presents because they’ve had ‘bad results’ from previous campaigns,” Johnson set up a massive study with YouGov. Called the Mdex, the study analyzed 180 data points from 2,000 brands’ websites and apps to determine how “mobile-ready” brands are, requiring more than 5,000 hours of work for his team.

Johnson expects Mdex to be an annual undertaking, and plans are to launch an Asian-focused version of the study next year with 4,000 brands. “The main thing clients want from us is understanding the new consumer experience for their brand, and typically a lot of those elements are going to be related to mobile,” he notes. “The way that many people discover brands is still on television, but the first thing they do is go and research while sitting on their couch.”

According to David Schoonover, senior manager and head of digital, social, CRM and .com for Kia, that approach is why he trusts the agency to handle everything from web design to newfangled tech like chatbots. In November, Ansible created a Facebook Messenger bot to explain the features of the new Niro car and later used the chat app to unveil this year’s Super Bowl commercial starring Melissa McCarthy.

“What Travis recognized was that he needed to grossly expand Ansible’s service offering [to] not just be mobile exclusive,” says Schoonover. “That’s the key thing that Travis changed within the organization. By doing that, that opened up the ability for his clients to begin working with them more on advanced technology solutions.” —Lauren Johnson

Adam Potashnick, chief growth officer, MediaCom USA

Adam Potashnick loves sports and his father was an attorney, so he thought his destiny was to be a sports agent. He idolized Jerry Maguire, the hard-charging agent played by Tom Cruise in the 1996 Cameron Crowe film, and like Maguire, he prides himself in never giving up, and often applies sports metaphors to agency life.

“Jerry found love in the win and the game and the fight, and that’s what I do on a day-to-day basis,” Potashnick explains. “I want MediaCom to be more distinct than every other agency. If there’s a wall, I’m going to run through it. If there’s a problem, I’m going to get us around it.”

He helped land nearly $2 billion in media billings from new clients including Walgreens Boots Alliance, Whole Foods, Electrolux, UNIQLO and PlayStation, for which he finalized a pitch in early 2016 during a huge snowstorm in New York.

“There was no stopping me from getting to San Francisco, and meeting with the client for that final meeting,” he recalls. “I made it on the only plane out from New York that day and helped close the deal.”

Potashnick joined MediaCom in 2006 after previously working at Carat, where he helped Pfizer launch Zoloft, Viagra and Xanax. He was named head of new business for MediaCom in 2015.

“He was a perfect fit to take on the new business role,” says Sasha Savic, CEO of MediaCom USA. “He has an amazing ability to build positive, deep relationships with people around him, and clients. When we go to industry events together, I always hate walking around with Adam, because every three minutes, there’s somebody who knows him and will stop us.”

Those relationships and his sales savvy have paid off: Potashnick created a real-time sales model for Dell that increased ROI by 700 percent and reduced production costs by 83 percent.

“‘No’ is not in Adam’s vocabulary,” adds Dina Gowar, chief of staff for global digital marketing at Dell Technologies. “He’s both a creative thinker and skilled negotiator at the same time.”

According to those he works with, those negotiating skills might even be on par with Jerry Maguire’s. “He likes challenges—the more difficult, the more he wants to prove that he can do it,” Savic says. “He also can simplify the essence of media strategy and explain it in a way that makes clients say, ‘I want to work with these people, and this agency.’” —Christine Birkner

This story first appeared in the May 8, 2017, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.