Television producer Brian Terkelsen joined MediaVest in October 2003 to run its branded entertainment and programming operations. His very first meeting was the shop's initial strategy session for Coca-Cola's $350 million consolidated media review, in which the agency was the planning incumbent.
Terkelsen's first agency job was going to start explosively. He didn't know it then—no one at the agency did—but the Coke pitch raised the flag on a thrill ride that would completely transform the Publicis Groupe shop.
In a 10-month stretch, from September 2003 through July 2004, MediaVest was one of the incumbents in more than $3 billion worth of back-to-back-to-back, winner-take-all U.S. media consolidations—for Coke, Masterfoods and Procter & Gamble.
It won them all, adding an estimated $1 billion to its existing business from those clients.
"Not many companies have been tested in a way where they have to defend that many big clients in such a compressed period of time," says Renetta McCann, who oversees MediaVest as North America CEO of its immediate corporate parent, Starcom MediaVest Group. "You don't have that kind of success through luck."
Successfully competing in consolidation reviews for two huge accounts would be a pretty good year for anybody—especially when one is the largest advertiser in the world. In all, MediaVest was four out of five in pitches in 2004, adding Sunny Delight and Dos Equis as well. (Its only loss was its only failed defense—the $480 million Paramount Pictures account following a review.)
Even Terkelsen, with no frame of reference on the agency side, can feel the difference the run has created in the shop. "If I could describe the vibe here in one word, it would be 'capable,' " he says. "Nothing fazes these people."
Not that they haven't been challenged. While it has an unmatched pedigree (the shop traces its origins to the legendary Benton & Bowles media department, which produced some of the brightest media agency luminaries in the past two-plus decades and, as TeleVest in 1997, was a pioneer in unbundled buying), MediaVest struggled to redefine itself in recent years. Since it won all of Kraft Foods' $800 million media business in a 2001 consolidation, the shop rarely prevailed, or was even asked to pitch, in new-business reviews. And it struggled to deal with the dissolution of its creative agency partner D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles in 2002, and the sudden death of one of its most respected and famous leaders, Donna Salvatore, in June 2003.
But MediaVest, now with $7 billion in U.S. billings, did more than just survive last year. It emerged as a confident and competitive player in the top tier of media shops.
The turnaround, says evp Bill Tucker, a member of MediaVest's management committee and leader on its $800 million-plus Kraft account, was sparked by more than just review wins. For one thing, "the focus on strategy planning has intensified tremendously," he notes, and there were "people here in key postions who have a tremendous love of the company and a passion for their client's business. That created a clarity and a focus. And we had a management that understood that and was able to give the right organizational messages and commitments to people and kind of fulfill the dream of MediaVest. Plus, you had people who were resilient."
For its ability to cement and expand its relationships with blue-chip clients, its renewed vigor in new business and its success at reinventing itself, MediaVest is Adweek Magazines' Media Agency of the Year for 2004.
The shop has been particularly adept at bringing smarts and strategic thinking from the conceptual to the actual. Under CEO Laura Desmond, who succeeded Salvatore in January 2003 after running sibling shop Starcom's Latin American operations, MediaVest has been among the most successful of the media agencies to rebrand itself from a buying behemoth into a strategic resource—especially in terms of predicting and exploiting change.
A little more than six months after joining MediaVest, Desmond told Adweek she wanted to make the agency more "idea driven." And while she and her team do throw around buzzwords like "activation" and "touch point," in 2004 the agency made clear attempts to walk the walk—even amid its make-or-break, eight-month review whirlwind.
Peter Littlewood, svp of corporate marketing at Masterfoods, which named buying incumbent MediaVest the winner of its $350 million consolidation last February, credits the shop's "vision for what a media agency of the future needs to look like in all aspects. They really are shooting ahead of [where the target is now] in terms of where we need to be. The future is going to be so much about consumer insights and innovations. The competitive advantage is going to be more on getting the planning right and getting planning and buying linked together, not your buy versus someone else's buy. ... Like any great organization, they have the clarity of vision and a group of senior management that makes sure that vision becomes reality."
In each of MediaVest's biggest wins last year, in fact, new ideas like "communication-channel planning" and breaking down the traditional silos between planners and buyers figured prominently. Current clients also respond to the postmodern positioning. (MediaVest now has six media and cultural trend-tracking "consumer context planners"—three on P&G, one on Kraft and two on Coke.)
Don Micelli, vp of media services at Kraft, who has seen the agency evolve through all of its iterations since he joined Kraft in 1974, when its network TV buying was handled by Benton & Bowles, got to know Desmond when she competed in Kraft reviews in Mexico and Puerto Rico as head of Starcom Latin America. Even then, he says, he was impressed with "her strategic thinking and day-to-day tactical approach to the media marketplace." He adds: "Media continues to evolve and very often reinvents itself. As we look at media collectively with MediaVest, we recognize those changes. Not only is innovation critical, but so is an expanded view of media to take into account all communications venues."
In 2004, MediaVest's New York headquarters was the most awarded office within the SMG North America network in the internal Fueling Brand Power product evaluation competition. And last year was also a very good year for recruitment at MediaVest.
In January, MediaCom's Donna Speciale joined as president of U.S. broadcast (after MediaVest's top buyer, Mel Berning, decamped for a cable-network job). The shop also wooed top print buyer Robin Steinberg from Carat in May and Universal McCann's Marston Allen in November to lead business development last year. (In 2004, MediaVest's staff grew by 44 percent to over 500 people).
In May, while competing for P&G's $2.5 billion communications-channel planning account, MediaVest reorganized senior management and appointed four managing directors, each reporting to Desmond: Tucker, Speciale, director of product planning Richard Beaven (also point man on P&G at the shop) and evp and media director Lisa Donohue, who also runs Masterfoods. (Coca-Cola City, the agency's dedicated Coke team, is led by Nancy Mullahy.)
MediaVest has continued to create and maintain solid client relationships and nurture what SMG worldwide CEO Jack Klues calls the agency's "proud and deserved legacy." But in 2004, the industry saw a new version of MediaVest—one that functions as an equal partner with Starcom when both brands pitch jointly as SMG, that can stand alone and win business, and that projects a more aggressively confident image than it has shown publicly in many years.
Furthermore, the agency that traces its lineage back so long and has clients that are so well established is now, suddenly, a very successful young gun. At 40, Desmond is the youngest major media-agency leader, and the four managing directors range in age from 40 to 44. Together they have created a new look for the old-line media shop.
"Walk down the halls," says Tucker. "You'll see an energy—a collaborative, risk-taking environment. A lot of young people. That's new and different."