Stewart Set To Fight On A Handful Of Fronts At OMD

When Mark Stewart joins OMD today, he will have three immediate challenges.

The first is to drive growth at OMD East, of which he will have direct oversight as managing director. The second is to re-energize the magazine strategy group, which OMD executives acknowledge has lacked the proper attention from top management. And the third is to help global research director Michael Hess formulate a new set of strategic planning tools to complement the existing proprietary Checkmate process, which is the primary planning vehicle for clients throughout the Omnicom Group media agency, including Nissan, McDonald’s, Cingular, Dell, Hershey, PepsiCo, Universal Pictures and Visa.

The hiring of Stewart, who had been Universal McCann’s chief strategic officer, is a sign that OMD will continue to aggressively expand its strategic planning tools, said OMD North America CEO Page Thompson. In terms of perception, “we’ve always been boxed in as a big buying company,” Thompson said. “We’ve been moving to really expand our strategic and creative areas, and this puts a stamp on what we’ve been talking about and defines what OMD is going to be from here on in.”

Beyond that, said Thompson, “I’ll pick his brain anyway I can” on any number of challenges facing the media agency. The 45-year-old Stewart’s move to OMD has prompted speculation that he is a candidate to succeed Thompson, 55, if and when the latter segues into a new role.

But Thompson isn’t leaving anytime soon, he said last week. “I think that Mark could do this job,” he said. “I think [OMD Midwest managing director] Kathleen Brookbanks could do this job. And I think [OMD West managing director] Monica Karo could do this job.” Throw in Jill Botway, who is shifting from OMD East managing director to managing director of strategic business units, and Ray Warren, managing director of OMD USA, and that’s five qualified internal candidates to succeed him, if and when the time comes, said Thompson. “As far as succession planning goes,” he said, “I think the best thing anyone can do in my position is bring in people who are going to push me and who are capable of doing this job. It makes for a better operation.”

As the new head of OMD East, Stewart will oversee more than one-third of the agency’s estimated $9 billion in U.S. billings, said Thompson. (Globally, OMD has more than $20 billion in billings.) He joins OMD after 10 years at Universal McCann and McCann Erickson. Prior to joining McCann, he co-founded Media First International in 1992 with Richard Kostyra after both had left J. Walter Thompson. (MFI is now an Interpublic Group shop.) Stewart spent 12 years at JWT in his native Australia and in New York.

Stewart, seen as one of the industry’s premiere strategists, is clearly a good get. Thompson said he had been talking with him since “before the holidays” last year. “I have known Mark for 10 years and have always wanted to work with him,” Thompson said. “He will fit in perfectly with what we’re doing here.”

For his part, Stewart said that he and Thompson have talked “on and off for years” about different jobs. “It was really in that last month that it heated up and got serious.”

Asked why he made the move now, Stewart replied, “It was an opportunity to join a team. They have very broad and deep management and want to continue to build it.” It is also a position with direct responsibility for all client services and resources in the Eastern region, “as opposed to a staff job,” he said. (UM, meanwhile, is in something of a crisis, having lost its CEO, its chief researcher and Stewart in two months, while struggling to defend more than $1 billion in U.S. business against Publicis Groupe rivals, from the $600 million-plus General Motors buying review against Starcom MediaVest Group to the $675 million L’Oréal shootout with ZenithOptimedia Group.)

At OMD, job one for Stewart is new business—”an area we’d like to do better in,” Thompson noted. OMD won about $400 million in new accounts in the U.S. last year, but the shop—the largest single media-agency brand in the world—is so big that it has clients in most of the key categories. Stewart said he will work particularly hard at winning additional assignments from existing clients.

On the planning side, OMD has a core process, Checkmate, that will remain in place. What Stewart will do is help global research director Hess develop a new set of consumer-insight tools. “We all know analytics are becoming the price of entry, but areas like consumer insights are critical as well,” Thompson said. “Really digging deeper into the consumer relationship and engagement with media—out of that is going to come real points of differentiation. Creativity and innovation will flow.”

Thompson said the magazine strategy group has been “sort of a stepchild,” with most of the focus on rate negotiation and not enough on strategic planning. “It’s a huge resource that hasn’t been tapped,” he said. Added Stewart: “I’ll be looking at the magazine owners as media companies with other assets.”

Meanwhile, OMD is also taking steps to get clients to be more open-minded about areas they may not focus on, such as out-of-home, Hispanic, direct response and even corporate trade, as part of the effort to extend and diversify client marketing plans. “We need to accelerate this whole area, which is why we put Jill [Botway] in charge of the business units,” Thompson said.

“I’m really excited about it,” Botway said of her new role last week. “Page and I have been talking about this for several months now. What we’re doing is creating a new business model to ensure that all forms of media are fully integrated into the client offering.”