Wunderman Is Stepping Out of WPP’s Shadow in 2017 With New Hires and Clients

Adds execs from Microsoft, Mastercard, Zillow

In the traditional holding company hierarchy, creative shops bask in Cannes glory and media agencies handle the big budgets while the utility players labor away, largely unnoticed by both the public and the trade press.

WPP's Wunderman belongs in the latter category, but the agency—which has 18 offices in North America alone—hopes 2017 might serve as its moment in the sun after a 12-month period that saw approximately $50 million in new revenue across the continent and a growing role in WPP's new, data-focused global offering [m]Platform.

The network made a similar pitch in 2015 after hiring Jamie Gutfreund away from Deep Focus to serve as its new CMO. So what's different about this year?

In addition to all that new work, Wunderman has been on a hiring spree involving big-name talent from outside the ad industry. Microsoft executive Robbee Minicola left the tech giant to lead the shop's Seattle office last month; Zillow's head of measurement Marc Sanford became svp of data and analytics for Seattle in August; Prasad Iyer left MasterCard after more than a decade to fill the same position in New York.

Wunderman also poached two Merkle executives and hired R/GA veterans Matt Tepper and Robyn Tombacher as North American chief strategy officer and head of operations, respectively.

North American CEO Seth Solomons worked at R/GA as well before rejoining Wunderman 15 months ago after an abrupt exit from his role as president of the IPG network. He says the "most aggressive change" during his tenure to date concerns Wunderman's culture. "There hasn't been a tremendous amount of 'I'm here to clean house,'" he tells Adweek, adding that the agency has achieved the aforementioned revenue boost, in large part, by expanding its remits with existing clients and playing key roles in projects headlined by other WPP shops—like Y&R's contract with the U.S. Navy.

Solomons positions 2016 as a year in which the agency built up its internal teams and its creative and data products. "Pivoting to 2017, we have many client opportunities to drive conceptual creative work, and chances to bring data to clients more aggressively on the analytics front," he says.

Regarding the new hires, Solomons says, "After six months we delivered two strong quarters to WPP, and they were much more open, given that trajectory, to support investment on the talent front."

What sort of work will Wunderman do with its newly stocked team? 

First, the network is handling all experiential work for the Navy, which spends approximately $84 million on paid media each year. Wunderman Health also won a considerable portion of GSK's business when the pharma giant consolidated its U.S. agency roster over the summer.

"We've seen growth of around 13 percent among our 20 largest existing clients," Solomons says. Much of that work is below the line for clients like T-Mobile, so it escapes public notice while paying dividends for the larger WPP organization. "We have close to 80 clients for whom we've built their data infrastructure," claims Solomons, adding that Wunderman has expanded its contracts with companies like UnitedHealthcare and Air Canada by "transitioning into an analytics and marketing relationship."

In short, Wunderman managed to boost revenue without the risk of too many new business pitches. Solomons says, "We're doing everything we can not to wait for the brief," and the agency doesn't hesitate to bring clients ideas "that might be a little bit scary" in the interest of helping them move toward "a different flavor of modern marketing" with a greater focus on automation and artificial intelligence.

"We like to say our culture is creatively driven and data-inspired," Solomons says, and he has big, unspecified creative ambitions for the agency that go beyond such recent projects as client Xbox's 2016 "Year in Review." But you might have to wait until later this year to see the fruits of his labor.