By 2001 Organic was private again. Omnicom had taken a minority stake in it in 1997, when Nelson went looking for a strategic investor and found that of all the holding company executives he met with, John Wren was the one he was most impressed by; in short order, Wren was elevated to CEO and Nelson had become one of his chief digital advisors, a relationship that has persisted to this day. In 2003, Omnicom bought Organic outright.
Nelson was still chairman, having gone through, as he describes it, “restructuring after restructuring after restructuring. I paid endlessly for real estate woes, because those are long-term commitments.” By 2004, Organic was stable again—it was going to survive, even as many of its competitors had either dissolved or been rolled up into other digital entities (several into Razorfish). During the same period he had also sold off Accrue. Nelson, though, was emotionally spent, mired in a personal malaise that would last for a couple of years. But he says that walking away entirely was never an option.
“Jonathan’s an old soul,” says his friend and former colleague Troy Young, president of Say Media. “The remarkable thing about him is his ability to look to the horizon. Jonathan has an ability to separate what’s important from what’s not.”
Nelson says it was Wren who finally pulled him out of the funk: “John said to me, ‘You look like you’re perking back up. Have you thought about coming across to Omnicom for real, full-time?’” He took Wren up on the offer, at first not even having a title other than chairman of Organic. He was working for the holding company from his base in San Francisco; the job was to be Wren’s chief strategic advisor on all things digital, but it wasn’t an operational role.
“At a certain point, we both came to a conclusion, which is that Omnicom really needs someone to head up digital,” says Nelson. “He said it to me, and I said it to him. And I [also] said, ‘I know I’ve either got to stay, or I’ve got to go.’ And so I stayed.” In September 2009 Wren created a new position for Nelson, CEO of digital for Omnicom, with dotted-line responsibility for all digital activities inside the holding company.
“Evangelist, educator, developing best practices, connecting people together, talking to the media companies” is how Nelson describes his Omnicom role, but he’s underplaying his impact. Inside the company it’s said he has veto power over the biggest digital advertising deals. Digital acquisitions (of both companies and technologies) also fall under his command.
But Omnicom agencies have always been considered the most independent at any of the holding companies, which makes measuring Nelson’s effectiveness difficult. There’s no all-encompassing digital unit, a la Publicis’ VivaKi (which contains both Razorfish and Digitas), and Omnicom has made few major acquisitions in the category recently, despite (or perhaps because of) being one of the most aggressive players in the early Web years.
One of Nelson’s most recent moves, however, points to his influence. He has been able to get the big platform players, including Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, AOL, and Facebook, to appoint Omnicom “ambassadors,” point people who each of its agencies can turn to when a client wants to try something custom or new.
Others question, however, how successful Nelson can be internally. “He’s supposed to be helping all the agencies there [become more] digital? Well good luck with that. Nothing against Jonathan,” says David Kenny, the former head of Publicis’ VivaKi unit, implying that the “strong CEOs” inside Omnicom may not always cooperate in such efforts.
“But he’s clearly committed if he’s still doing this,” Kenny continues. “He’s a real believer.” Kenny also notes the difficulty he had trying to recruit Organic employees in the past because Nelson inspires so much loyalty.
Asked about the extra $60 billion sellers of digital advertising inventory say they should be getting—given the amount of time consumers spend on their sites—from the likes of Nelson and Omnicom’s clients, Nelson says, “The gap is going to close. It just will. And I warn people—and this is just me being around way too long—but in ’94 we all thought people would [understand] addressability, and get accountability, and they’d move their media budgets. But there’s lots of reasons why people didn’t. We’re very conservative as a business. We’re managing billions of dollars on behalf of clients. We have to be super careful.”
But now media consumption and, by proxy, advertising consumption have, in his words, “entirely shifted. That gap will close well within our careers.”
Getting there, Nelson says, will require a shrewd media plan mated with great creative. “And creative, keep in mind, is strategy, design, and technology fused together,” he adds. “When the medium can be so malleable, creative can be a page takeover, a skyscraper, a banner, a keyword, a button, a combination of those. The idea is to insert re-innovation and creativity into relationships.”
On a later visit with Nelson at his Madison Avenue office, he showed me on a computer an example of what he wants online advertising to aspire to—the site created for Arcade Fire called The Wilderness Downtown, an interactive film collaboration between the music video director Chris Milk and Google Creative Lab. Type in the street address where you grew up, hit enter, and the video of Arcade Fire’s song “We Used to Wait” from its album The Suburbs begins to play, segments of it appearing in a series of HTML5 windows that pop up on cue. Soon a window opens with a satellite view from Google Maps, which slowly hones in on the address you entered. The message of the song has been merged with personal information in a way that’s unique to each individual. “Where’s the thing that sends a chill up your spine?” Nelson asks. “There.”