Steady are the hands that guide OMD.
It’s a Monday afternoon in early January, and a handful of the media agency’s top executives are gathered at its headquarters near Wall Street to discuss last year’s performance. “2013 was a really great year for OMD,” says Daryl Simm, CEO of the agency’s parent unit, Omnicom Media Group. “We’ve had some great examples of both client successes and also the development of people within the organization.”
It’s hard to dispute Simm’s point. Last fall, OMD landed marquee U.S. client Disney, to the tune of some $800 million in annual media spending, while expanding its hold on Hasbro’s global business from 11 markets around the world to 55, amounting to some $400 million in media annually. OMD Australia’s work for staple client McDonald’s earned it the Media Agency of the Year award at Cannes, while the broader network hauled in 10 media Lions. Overall, OMD’s global revenue grew an estimated 12 percent to a whopping $2.1 billion. Such key successes have helped OMD earn Adweek’s Global Media Agency of the Year honors, the shop’s second win in three years and third in five.
But the leaders that got it there are not from your traditional New York, TV-centric executive media agency suite. Global CEO Mainardo de Nardis—a native Italian who, prior to taking the OMD job in early 2009, worked as CEO of Aegis Media in London—has an easy repartee with his team, including new U.S. CEO Monica Karo, a near 20-year veteran of Omnicom Los Angeles media operations. De Nardis and Karo first teamed up five years ago, when he took the global CEO post and she was an OMD global account leader for Apple, Visa and Nissan.
“We have an awful lot of fun together,” says Karo. Her laid-back tone belies serious clout as a deal maker. This past November, she played a key role in luring Disney—and some 110 staffers—away from the brand’s dedicated Publicis Groupe agency 4D. News of the win broke just two months after Karo took the reins of OMD’s largest market by revenue. In September, she rejoined the agency after a year and a half as U.S. CEO at sibling PHD. At OMD, Karo succeeded Alan Cohen, who left to launch his own Omnicom-backed marketing startup.
Karo hadn’t even officially arrived at OMD when she started fishing for Disney. She and the brand’s svp of media, Anthy Price, both power players in the relatively small Los Angeles ad scene, connected when OMD formally pitched against Publicis for the business in 2011. This past May, while Karo was still at PHD, she and Price started in earnest their discussions about moving the Disney account to Omnicom. “Part of the agreement [with Disney] is that there will be more senior management hands on,” says Karo. But she’s quick to point out that Simm helped lay the groundwork during the review three years ago, despite his demurral. “That one is entirely Monica’s,” he says. “I had nothing to do with that.”
It’s not quite right to call Karo’s return to OMD a homecoming. Even during her brief stint at PHD, Karo continued her role leading global work on Apple, one of OMD’s largest global accounts. It’s a key responsibility she retains, despite a new title that, according to Recma, more than doubles the number of staffers under her purview to 1,900.
Her role extends beyond domestic borders, which underscores the level of trust de Nardis has in Karo. “Many of our global clients are U.S. based, and it’s very hard to determine what is U.S., what is global, like Visa,” he says. “One day it’s Monica doing it globally, one day it’s me.”
Needless to say, de Nardis is a busy man. Like many modern CEOs, he spends a lot of time airborne, clocking around 200 flights a year. And the agency’s financials—net global revenue growth of some $225 million in 2013—are all the more impressive considering that substantial revenue from wins like Disney and another November coup, Hasbro, won’t be realized until this year. Add to those a slew of regional gains from existing clients like Beirsdorf and Carlsberg.
One can attribute the dramatic spike in revenue to de Nardis’ focus on continually expanding OMD’s hold on existing global clients including Pepsi, McDonald’s, Renault-Nissan, Vodafone, Visa and Apple.
“New business is fundamental to every marketing service organization,” says de Nardis. “But for us, it’s even more important to retain the clients we have, and to constantly expand the remit we have, the scope of work, and perhaps the number of markets in which we work together.”
There’s little question the shop can deliver for top clients across different regions. “About 80 percent of our [global] business is OMD,” says Simon Lowden, PepsiCo’s CMO for North America. “In more developing markets, they bring a level of discipline and scale to our business to enable us to get very efficient media buys across country and region where, by bringing their different clients together, it gives us scale in the marketplace we might not deserve independently.
“They also transfer best practices very efficiently,” he adds. “The work we did with The X Factor in the U.S. is being leveraged in places like Pakistan, where Pakistan Idol has just been launched. So they bring media best practices around the world, which is a very good thing for us and a powerful arrow in their bow.”
Such efforts are working well enough that de Nardis is trying to institutionalize them. OMD last year launched Vision, which it describes as an “operating system” whose core is a global strategic approach supported by an online tool kit. That tool kit connects the agency’s teams around the world so that they may share and grade ideas and insights across markets, and organize their approaches to client briefs against more clearly defined and concrete business goals. In de Nardis’ words, the system exists “to help our clients manage their business and their brands, not just the awareness or the eyeballs or other fluffier marketing measurements.”
Vision played a big role in the competitive pitch brief for Hasbro’s marketing leadership, outlining tools to develop winning approaches for five of Hasbro’s brands across 12 markets. Clearly, Hasbro was convinced.
“Hasbro, operating in so many markets, was really looking for greater consistency, because the interpretation of their brands in different places by different teams doesn’t necessarily all tie back together,” explains Andrew Lazzaro, the agency’s global chief brand officer.
Adds Wiebe Tinga, Hasbro’s chief commercial officer: “OMD demonstrated a strong ability to harness great creative media ideas from around the world and to globalize quickly through their talented team and their unique OMD Vision system.”
This doesn’t mean that every client gets exactly the same thing. As part of its effort to retain the General Electric business during a competitive review last year, OMD restructured its services for the industrial giant. The result was the Grid, a team designed to approach GE’s U.S. media business in a more nimble fashion, with a greater focus on quick digital executions and content production—all very much in line with GE’s broader shift in the market. It worked, as OMD held the U.S. remit.
“We are constantly looking for ideas that reinforce GE as a brand that’s about invention, innovation, science, technology,” says Linda Boff, the corporation’s executive director of global brand marketing. OMD, she adds, “brought real heat in terms of saying, ‘We know you guys are looking for something unconventional, looking to drive impact to drive ideas—and business as usual isn’t good enough. We need to reimagine what an agency looks like that can solve for that.’”
That original thinking was also evident in the partnership OMD forged with hot tech startup Uber to offer San Franciscans free rides, courtesy of GE, in DeLoreans—a concept tied to a Back to the Future-themed ad created by sibling shop BBDO.
Of course, no agency has a perfect year. Hershey’s, an OMD client of some 10 years and a $450 million spender, consolidated its business at Interpublic’s UM following a review. And while GE kept its U.S. business with OMD, it split off global assignments to rival MEC, part of WPP. For his part, de Nardis takes that loss in stride. “The important thing for us was to stay in the game, and to stay in the biggest market where the vast majority of the spend is concentrated,” he says.
In a sense, the focus on content creation that helped OMD retain GE’s U.S. business represents the type of forward thinking the agency aims to apply to all its clients. Last September, OMD held its first Final Front event, arranging an auction at the DreamWorks campus in Glendale, Calif., where a dozen or so OMD roster brands—among them, State Farm, McDonald’s and Lowe’s—could bid on exclusive ideas from content producers such as AOL, Funny or Die and Viacom. The idea behind Final Front: creating a more efficient way to plug content-hungry brands into the right kind of new opportunities early enough in the development process to properly integrate them into budgets and calendars. In the end, a handful of deals sparked at the event are now in development, and at least one has already come to fruition. During this year’s Grammy Awards, an ad aired starring pop star Austin Mahone promoting Aquafina FlavorSplash, a new Pepsi brand aimed at tweens and teens. (DreamWorks-owned AwesomenessTV was creative agency on the spot.)
Pop culture media collaborations have become a sort of calling card for OMD. The shop, working alongside creative agencies Davie Brown Entertainment and TBWA\Chiat\Day, has helped activate efforts for Pepsi brands, including such projects as the wildly successful Uncle Drew viral video series, first launched in 2012, and Nascar driver Jeff Gordon’s hit viral prank ad from last year.
“[OMD execs are] now strategy partners, not just media buyers,” says Pepsi’s Lowden. “We consider them to be the top table of all our brand decision making. Given that media will always be the biggest part of our marketing mix, it’s really important we’re seen to be at the forefront of changes in consumer engagement. Through their thinking and their evolution, they make that happen for us.”
To help ensure that the agency’s standards are maintained in emerging media, Karo shifted chief digital officer Ben Winkler to chief innovation officer, following Jonathan Haber, who joined former U.S. CEO Cohen’s startup. Winkler’s expanded responsibilities include integrating the agency’s social, mobile and gaming work—as well as that of OMD’s Ignition Factory, a 20-person team focused on cutting-edge activations and whose work is increasingly expanding abroad—with the nuts-and-bolts strategies of clients’ across-the-board investments.
Says Winkler: “It’s my job to make it so that eventually my job is unnecessary.”
That’s all part of the same drive toward consistency. Even as de Nardis works to button up every aspect of the global offering, Karo is focused on evening out and bolstering OMD’s operations in the U.S.—a mission that, in addition to Winkler’s new mandate, includes promoting Kathleen Brookbanks, previously president of OMD East, to a new COO role focused on streamlining the agency’s internal initiatives so regional presidents can focus on client business.
And that focus on continuing to improve across the board seems like a fact borne of simple necessity, given how Simm describes his mandate for OMD in 2014 “to keep the momentum going.”