How MediaCom Rebounded From Losing a $2 Billion Account to Score Its Best Year Ever

Adweek's Global Media Agency of the Year rallied after crisis

Sasha Savic, U.S. CEO; Deirdre McGlashan, global CDO; Stephen Allan, worldwide chairman, CEO; Toby Jenner, worldwide COO; Helen Brown, global chief HR and talent officer. Sasha Maslov for Adweek

On a Friday in June 2016, MediaCom CEO Stephen Allan got the call no agency leader ever wants: The shop had unexpectedly lost the global business of Volkswagen, a client since 1996 that was one of its top three revenue generators with an annual marketing budget between $2 billion and $3 billion.

“You feel completely sick over the weekend,” he says, looking back. But by the next week, Allan was emailing the agency’s leaders around the world and tasking them with drumming up new business prospects. “VW has now happened,” he says, summarizing the missive. “We have to move forward. New business is going to be the most vital thing.”

In the 18 months since, “Project Fight Back”—as the recovery effort came to be known inside the WPP shop—has yielded impressive results. Amid an industry landscape fraught with digital pitfalls and cost-cutting clients, MediaCom bounced back to collect a string of wins. Altogether, they amounted to $4.6 billion in gross annualized billings, making 2017 the agency’s most successful new business year ever.

For its resilience in the face of unusually strong headwinds, MediaCom has earned Adweek’s Global Media Agency of the Year designation.

“MediaCom has invested heavily in data and infrastructure to drive more data and analytics-based approaches to planning and investment to help us better connect with our consumers,” says Marc Pritchard, chief brand officer for Procter & Gamble, in explaining why his company continues to partner with the agency.

Last spring, the fast-moving consumer-goods giant awarded the agency its consolidated business for Germany, Austria and Switzerland, worth some $237 million in billings. MediaCom, which was defending part of the business, is now handling the assignment through Twentyfive, a new joint venture with local shop Pilot Hamburg.

REVENUE $1.3 billion

WINS $4.6 billion, including Groupe PSA ($860m), Opel-Vauxhall ($400m), Richemont ($400m), Uber (U.S., $400m), Walgreens Boots Alliance ($300m), P&G (Germany, Austria, Switzerland, $237m), AB InBev (Latin America, $220m), Bose ($150m), Falabella (Latin America, $100m), 14 new clients in China ($650m); 400+ total pitches worldwide at 66 percent conversion rate.

LOSSES $1.7 billion, including AB InBev
(U.S. and Australia, $630m), P&G (Northern Europe, Japan).

CURRENT PITCHES Mars ($1.4 billion)

STRATEGIC MOVES David Beale promoted to global chief data officer; Yaron Farizon promoted to CEO of MediaCom Russia; Jeanne Descour promoted to global account director leading Richemont; Peter Peterman hired from Carat as chief strategy officer for MediaCom China; 600 staff relocations to 29 markets around the world, as part of effort to spread insights and expertise across offices.

Survival streak

Over the year, MediaCom, which is one of the largest players in WPP’s GroupM network, grew its annualized revenue by 10 percent or $120 million to roughly $1.32 billion worldwide, according to Adweek estimates. But in the wake of the VW news, Allan’s rallying cry to regional leaders emphasized both the need to act quickly—MediaCom had six months before revenue from the automaker dried up—and the need to be “hunters” in their pursuit of new business while keeping current clients happy. “Because the last thing we could afford to do was lose more business out the back door,” he says.

By January, the returns had begun to show.

MediaCom nabbed 14 new clients in China totaling $650 million in billings.
Sasha Maslov for Adweek

MediaCom started off 2017 with a bang, winning the $300 million global assignment for pharmacy and pharmaceutical giant Walgreens Boots Alliance. By June 2017, a year after the VW loss, MediaCom had plugged the car-shaped hole in its roster, beating out French holding companies to win Groupe PSA (maker of Peugeot and Citroen), an account worth $860 million. Then, in July, it picked up Richemont, the Swiss luxury conglomerate whose portfolio includes iconic names like Cartier, with an annual $400 million spend.

“We are a luxury group of 20 different brands, so [our business] is quite complex,” says Franck Sineau, group media director at Richemont Holdings France. Going into the pitch, his team knew MediaCom was strong in categories like FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods) and automotive, but had doubts about its grasp of the nuances of luxury. “After the six or eight weeks we gave them to work on strategic cases, we were really amazed by the work they had done,” he says.

Sineau says MediaCom stood out for both its digital thinking and for the talent it brought to the table—especially the trio of Allan, global chief operating officer Toby Jenner and Jeanne Descour, the New York-based international accounts veteran who helped reel in Richemont. Descour is now based in Paris leading the agency’s 25-person core team on the brand, which oversees the work of some 500 MediaCom staffers in 40 markets.

Think globally, act locally

While MediaCom’s business performance has traditionally been strongest in Europe, this year, the agency’s gains created a new map.

In China, for example, where VW is a major spender, the shop picked up 14 new clients worth $650 million in billings, including dealership work for Dongfeng Peugeot Citroen, which has locations in 200 cities. MediaCom’s operations in the Asia-Pacific region overall grossed some $960 million in new billings, to North America’s approximately $1.3 billion, $320 million in Latin America and around $2 billion in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

Gillette "Bachelor of Shaving" (India), a career counseling program, boosted Gillette Guard razor sales by 40 percent

Jenner, who oversees global business development for the agency and coined the phrase “Project Fight Back,” sees a few common threads in the company’s wins such as simplifying complex data and technology questions. But he emphasizes that the real key is the people, like Descour, who are in the room spearheading the pitches and leading the agency’s efforts on each piece of business. “Clients want to work with people they believe in and trust,” Jenner explains. “I think we really got those teams spot-on.”

In the U.S., MediaCom suffered another blow in October, losing Anheuser-Busch InBev’s $600 million domestic account.

Again, the agency bounced back, winning five pieces of business in the subsequent months, including ride-sharing company Uber, expected to increase its spending to some $400 million this year. Those built on U.S. victories from earlier in 2017, like Whole Foods and Uniqlo, to help the agency finish the year strong. “We win because we don’t answer the brief,” says U.S. CEO Sasha Savic. “In this ever-changing media world, reframing challenges and opportunities is sometimes very much connected to [your] ability to be successful.”

Hangry down under

A prime example of MediaCom’s most innovative work, meanwhile, comes from the other side of the world. Snickers’ “Hungerithms” campaign—Adweek’s 2017 Media Plan of the Year Best in Show winner—saw 7-Eleven stores down under drop their prices in real time when social media mood trackers found online users getting angrier—cranky from low blood sugar. The cheekily helpful promotion took home 21 Cannes Lions last year.

“MediaCom has helped us to transform our media capabilities and ensure media is always at the center of our growth agenda,” says Andrew Clarke, global chief marketing and customer officer of Snickers’ parent company Mars, which has worked with the shop for almost 30 years.

Snickers' "Hungerithm" (Australia) promotion won 21 Cannes Lions, drove 67 percent spike in sales, is expanding to the U.S. this year

“They have contributed significant value in operating as our global planning agency since late 2014,” he adds, including “by being audience-driven [and] focusing media on where the growth for our category and brands will come from.”

On the horizon

Mars, for its part, has launched a global review of its media planning and buying assignments, as it looks to consolidate a $1.4 billion business currently spread across MediaCom, Starcom and OMD. MediaCom is eagerly participating in the pitch process, expected to conclude by the end of 2018. Meanwhile, Savic says the agency is still courting auto marketers for the U.S.

But it’s also helping its current clients, like job-search giant Indeed, expand their business—sometimes rapidly.

“Indeed has grown dramatically over the last four or so years that we’ve been working with MediaCom,” says Paul D’Arcy, global chief marketing officer at the job-search firm. It posted $476 million in revenue for the second quarter of 2017, a 60 percent year-over-year increase, and also now works with the agency in more than a dozen markets. “They’ve scaled really well in helping us from when we were a much smaller company and a smaller team to today, when we’re doing much larger-scale media investments all over the world,” he says.

As for MediaCom’s own roll, CEO Allan has no plans to let up in 2018. “You have to be relentless,” he says. “We’re not stopping.”

This story first appeared in the Feb. 19, 2018, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.
@GabrielBeltrone Gabriel Beltrone is a frequent contributor to Adweek.