For U.S. Media Agency of the Year UM, Making Cannes-Worthy Movies Is Just Part of the Job

Projects like the documentary 5B help it keep pace with clients' ever-changing needs

Group picture UM
(L. to r.): Brendan Gaul, Karen Hunt, Eileen Kiernan, Kate Weiss, Chris Wilhelmi, Dawn Reese, Jon Stimmel, Hamish Kinniburgh, Scott Russell, Lynn Lewis, Karen Stutenroth, Neena Koyen, Deidre Smalls-Landau, Lynne Reilly, Chad Stoller. Not pictured: Huw Griffiths, Joshua Lowcock, Josh Bock.
Heather Sten for Adweek

In late 2018, a gripping documentary called 5B came out that told the story of nurses who were on the frontline of the AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s. The movie was screened at the Cannes Film Festival last year and covered by the likes of NPR and The Washington Post.

The film originated from an unlikely source: UM. A media agency that makes movies? For UM’s executives, projects like these help Adweek’s U.S. Media Agency of the Year keep pace with a diversity of clients and their ever-changing needs—whatever those needs might be.

“We are here to solve our clients’ business needs. They evolve over time, all the time,” notes Eileen Kiernan, UM’s global CEO. “If we have the skills and the wherewithal to solve that need and step up with a valuable solution, we will.”

In the case of 5B, longtime client Johnson & Johnson came to UM with a conundrum: It was looking for a way to reinforce its commitment to nursing and to squash stereotypes around the profession that harm recruitment efforts. Through UM Studios, the agency’s original content arm, the idea for 5B was born.

5B | Created by UM Studios, the documentary tells the inspiring stories of nurses who worked at the country’s first HIV ward in the early 1980s. The documentary was commissioned by Johnson & Johnson as a way to shine a light on the important work nurses do every day.

“Johnson & Johnson had a very open mind to whatever solution came up,” Kiernan says. “It could have been a 30-second ad, it could have been a two-minute YouTube video—it could have been anything.”

5B ended up winning the Cannes Lions Grand Prix in Entertainment last year, proving that UM has both the resources and talent to pull off far more than what’s typically expected of a media agency. Kiernan says the documentary is just one example of UM’s innovative spirit and willingness to “race towards” disruption rather than shy away from it.

Kathy Widmer, Johnson & Johnson’s company group chairman, North America consumer division, says the agency’s “readiness to embrace disruption and pivot towards change” is one of its biggest strengths.

“It’s very much an organization that sees a client need and then creates a product or capability around it,” says Lynn Lewis, U.S. CEO of UM. “UM has an incredibly entrepreneurial spirit and backbone to it.”

Spotify is another client drawn to UM because of its vanguard ways, naming it global media agency two years ago.

“We wanted a partner that would always be pushing the envelope in terms of innovation with regard to media,” says June Sauvaget, Spotify’s global head of consumer and product marketing. “I feel like we’ve been able to challenge each other openly and evolve together.”

Finding new ways to unlock growth

UM’s client roster in the U.S. is a mix of old and new: Iconic brands such as American Express and Coca-Cola sit side by side with streaming platforms like Hulu.

“We’re working with both types of businesses in unique and complementary ways,” Lewis says. While UM approaches each client differently, the common thread is the agency’s obsession with “future-proofing” the businesses it works with.

This approach helped deliver the New York-based agency an incredible 2019. UM picked up accounts like CVS, Energizer, Levi’s and TGI Fridays in the U.S., without suffering any client losses.

Ensuring its clients are prepared for the future takes many forms. For instance, the agency spent much of the year building up its shopper marketing unit. In addition to promoting Amie Owen to svp, head of Shopper, UM invested in proprietary tools in this space, brought in new hires and retrained employees internally to bring them up to speed.

Statues of limitations | Ahead of Season 3 of The Handmaid’s Tale, UM helped Hulu drum up excitement for the series by placing 140 female statues in New York City. The stunt aimed to address the glaring disparity between the number of male and female statues in New York.
Getty Images

“I lovingly refer to it as our best-kept secret,” Lewis says in reference to the agency’s shopper marketing practice.

This story first appeared in the Feb. 24, 2020, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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