U.S. Media Agency of the Year: MediaCom's Team-First Approach Landed a Ton of New Business in 2014

Including A-B InBev and Mars

(Standing) Mark Fortner; Savic; Cowdell; Archana Kumar; Adam Komack; (Seated) Steve Carbone; Khartoon Ohan; Stephanie Fierman | Photo: Kevin Scanlon

Last August, during final presentations for Anheuser-Busch InBev's $575 million domestic planning and buying assignment, Sasha Savic took his vow to raise the creative bar at MediaCom to a whole new level. Fittingly, he did so in a pub.

A couple of days before the pitch, Savic and members of his team checked out the site where they would be presenting. "It was one of those corporate board rooms on Third Avenue" in New York, he recalls—a space that was staid, functional and devoid of personality. It represented the antithesis of the dynamic Savic has tried to instill in MediaCom since his arrival as U.S. CEO nearly three years ago.

"We said to ourselves, 'We really cannot tell our story in this environment the way that story needs to come through.' We made a risky decision not to present in that room."

Unbeknownst to A-B InBev, the agency rented the second floor of The Harp Raw Bar & Grill, an upscale Irish pub located across the street from the site of the pitch. The Harp's open-floor plan and decorative appointments give the place a bright, welcoming vibe. That's where MediaCom, one of three remaining contenders in the high-stakes competition that had stretched across three months, chose to make its stand.

On the day of the presentations, Savic surprised the 20 executives representing the client by arriving alone. Since the brief focused on Bud Light, he invoked the brand's slogan. "I told them, 'You claim you're "Up for Whatever," so you need to follow me, and I'll take you to a place where it's more appropriate to do this presentation.'" The war for customers, he explained, wasn't taking place in board rooms but in bars—like the one across the street. "They could have told us, 'No, everybody is doing it here—you're doing it here,'" he says. "And then we'd be in trouble. We didn't have a plan B."

As it turned out, MediaCom didn't need one. After Savic and a handful of staffers completed a two-hour presentation upstairs at The Harp, everyone adjourned to the ground floor, where 50 MediaCom employees who worked on the pitch assembled for an informal meet and greet.

"It was a bold, confident move that worked because it reflected our own corporate culture," says Lucas Herscovici, vp, consumer connections at A-B InBev. "More importantly, it was well executed and perfectly aligned with our company and our brand strategy. That was the moment when we really began to suspect that we'd found a special agency team." 

MediaCom's North American CEO Phil Cowdell (l.) and U.S. CEO Sasha Savic. | Photo: Kevin Scanlon

The brewer awarded its business to MediaCom in October, one of a number of milestones in a year that saw the WPP shop grow U.S. revenue 25 percent to an estimated $162 million. Nearly half of that growth was organic, with expanded mandates from clients including AARP, Audi, Canon, Citizens, Revlon, Shell, Siemens, Strayer University and Volkswagen. Beyond A-B InBev, other wins included Bayer's Merck, Clarius Entertainment, DSW, eBay and A key score came near the close of 2014, when Mars tapped MediaCom to handle planning on its estimated $1.7 billion global business. (ConAgra Foods, Discover and Legacy departed, but the impact of those losses was negligible.) 

That impressive performance—along with a series of innovative campaigns for clients large and small—typify the agency's dramatic volte-face since Savic took the reins in early 2012. "MediaCom was broken then," says consultant Avi Dan, who oversaw a late-2013 review in which the shop won ADT. "He turned it around, and has done it so quickly."

Savic is more modest: "I will never say that I fixed it. In this industry, things are fairly cyclical, and companies go on hot streaks and then go to dark moments of their history."

MediaCom stumbled through a shadowland for a couple of years before Savic's arrival. By all accounts, he joined a dispirited organization that was reeling from the departures of GlaxoSmithKline and Warner Bros. "It looked to me like a real challenge—and a big challenge," says the exec, who at the outset focused on rebuilding the culture based on "how to make a company that will play to win, versus a company that is trying not to lose."

Luckily, Savic was comfortable with change. When he was 22, the Bosnia native helped start the first uncensored radio program in the former Yugoslavia. During a weekend out of the country in 1992, war broke out. He never returned. Rather, he reinvented himself as a planning professional at Universal McCann in Europe and the U.S., and later as a senior manager at Starcom MediaVest Group, where he helped lead the global Procter & Gamble business. In another shift, before joining Havas Media North America as COO in 2010, he studied at the New York Film Academy, making several acclaimed documentaries—among them, A Passion Called Salmon, about a personal passion: fishing.

Every time one strives for reinvention—or even just something different—"it opens up new landscapes for you and the team around you," Savic says. That philosophy dovetails with the changes that have taken place over the past decade in the media-agency business. Today, more information is available than ever to help clients understand and influence consumer behavior. Naturally, MediaCom rigorously mines data, but creating media plans and executing buys are entry points. "Our job goes well beyond numbers," Savic says. Applying insights in ways that entertain and even benefit audiences is paramount, he stresses—and creativity drives both the work and the channels for delivering the message. 

For Pennzoil, MediaCom developed the Breaking Barriers documentary on the National Geographic Channel.

From the start, putting the right team in place was essential, and Savic has assembled a core group of leaders boasting a range of skills that encompass marketing, media and entertainment. Each individual, he says, played a key role in MediaCom's triumphs last year. Khartoon Ohan helped guide the new-business surge. Tapped in mid-2013 from Clear Channel, she embodies the high-energy, risk-taking spirit Savic has tried to cultivate. Ohan recalls that during her first meeting with Savic, he said, "I want to go big, or fail famously." Her response: "Yes! Sign me on board!"

Innovation chief Mark Fortner, who joined the team around the same time, has an impressive pedigree in television, having worked at Viacom and Fox. "I never had any intention of ever joining a media agency—boring!" he says. "That changed the moment I met Sasha." As MediaCom's head of innovation and branded content, he leads a 15-person creative unit, an especially important group given the agency's creative focus. Other key players include strategy chief Archana Kumar (formerly of BBDO), CMO Stephanie Fierman (a former client-side marketer), digital and analytics head Steve Carbone (whose experience includes running Grey's G2 agency) and chief client officer Adam Komack (a MediaCom fixture since 2009).

Perhaps the most intriguing new addition is Savic's boss, Phil Cowdell, who joined in mid-2014 as North American CEO from GroupM, the umbrella organization that houses WPP's media holdings. A Brit who has lived in 11 cities on three continents in his career, Cowdell brings broad experience after holding senior posts at Mindshare, MediaVest and Team Detroit. Those who know him say he is a genius at managing back-office operations to match client needs. He is also described as a passionate agency advocate with a personable, straight-ahead style that plays well both inside the shop and with clients. 

Also for Pennzoil, MediaCom created the Mario Kart event at SXSW. 

Cowdell defines his role as "making sure that MediaCom is properly, deeply connected into WPP assets." When the shop pitched A-B InBev, for example, Cowdell served as Savic's "support and counsel," giving his U.S. CEO timely access to research and personnel from GroupM units like Kantar Shopcom, Millward Brown, KBM and Wunderman. Those shops provided a deep analysis of the "who, what, when, where and why" of the buying cycle. The resulting insights were essential in helping MediaCom set its strategy. "MediaCom's people and approach, backed by GroupM's expertise, was the right fit for us," says A-B InBev's Herscovici.

After playing a supporting role in that win, Cowdell personally led the agency's bid for Mars. (He was familiar with Wrigley and other category brands from his days at Mindshare.) Cowdell even employed some Savic-style panache during presentations, with the agency recruiting its staffers to prepare snacks for the pitch using Mars ingredients. When client reps showed up at MediaCom's London offices, they were greeted with a spread that included cakes, pies and assorted other treats made with Mars and Bounty bars and M&M's. "We asked the client to judge them for us," relates Cowdell—and the Mars execs readily complied.

"It helped show us what role our products play in some of their associates' lives," notes Bruce McColl, global CMO at Mars. "Since these were all personal recipes featuring their favorite Mars products, it was a very heartfelt gesture." 

MediaCom's creative highlights also include VW's digital games, which tied in to Discovery's Shark Week.

At the end of the day, MediaCom has positioned itself as a creative entity, capable of delivering data-driven strategies and contributing to campaigns that drive results.

"Media is in a renaissance," says Cowdell. "I don't believe you can separate content and distribution strategy. Content these days is absolutely vital."

Its work last year for petroleum giant Shell is a case in point. To launch the client's Pennzoil-branded synthetic motor oil made from natural gas, MediaCom hired country singer Tim McGraw to narrate Breaking Barriers, an hour-long documentary about hot rod drivers chasing land speed records. The film was telecast in May on the National Geographic Channel. "It's a good example of turning media from a dry spots-and-dots assignment into strategic, creative, consumer-facing work that gets people excited, breaks through and ultimately drives sales," says Chris Hayek, global brand director at Shell. The film generated 30 million YouTube views.

At SXSW, MediaCom strapped attendees into motorized go-karts that raced around a quarter-mile track simulating the Mario Kart video game. Footage, naturally, was broadcast live via social media. That gambit resulted in 1 billion earned media impressions, with 90 percent of the articles about the program appearing in publications that had never written about Pennzoil before, according to Hayek. The Daily Dot ranked the experience as one of the 10 best SXSW events of all time, and the effort earned Adweek's Media Plan of the Year Award for Best Use of Alternative Media in the $1 million-$10 million range.

The bottom line, as Hayek sees it: "Our sales grew roughly 30 percent in a category that grew about half that rate. So not only did we grow our business but we grew the overall category as well, which was one of our key objectives."

And for Savic, the bottom line is to build the clients' business and to establish MediaCom as an "iconic" industry brand à la Wieden + Kennedy—which would be a first for a media shop.

"I refuse to admit that a creative agency is more creative than a media agency," he says. "We shouldn't be limiting ourselves to any form or any playground that is defined traditionally. Taking that approach opens up new conversations with our clients about content, new conversations about data ... even new conversations about brand meaning."

Putting it another way, Savic adds: "If you don't have creativity and if you don't have curiosity about how to do things differently, you may as well go work in a bank."

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