Inside U.S. Media Agency of the Year Initiative’s Remarkable 2018 Turnaround

The agency went from ‘basket case’ to ‘IHOb’ glory

Clockwise from left: Pele Cortizo-Burgess, chief strategy officer; Mike Storms, chief analytics officer; Kat So, managing director, IPG agency partner; Hallie Johnston, chief client advice and management officer; Mat Baxter, global CEO; Amy Armstrong, U.S. CEO; Stephanie Solomon, evp, HR business partner; Leah Meranus, global chief experience officer; Maureen Bosetti, chief investment officer; Daniel Rubin, global CFO; David Stopforth, chief communications design officer; and Jarrod Martin, global chief analytics officer
Clockwise from left: Pele Cortizo-Burgess, chief strategy officer; Mike Storms, chief analytics officer; Kat So, managing director, IPG agency partner; Hallie Johnston, chief client advice and management officer; Mat Baxter, global CEO; Amy Armstrong, U.S. CEO; Stephanie Solomon, evp, HR business partner; Leah Meranus, global chief experience officer; Maureen Bosetti, chief investment officer; Daniel Rubin, global CFO; David Stopforth, chief communications design officer; and Jarrod Martin, global chief analytics officer
Kevin Scanlon

In 2016, Initiative was on the ropes, and global CEO Mat Baxter knew it.

“It was a basket case,” he admits, with “a dysfunctional culture, not much of a product, if any, in terms of a defined product or a proposition, no real brand or reputation to speak of” and a “relatively dry new-business pipeline” that didn’t include “any prestigious new-business pitches.”

The future did not look very bright. “That’s a challenge, to get back up on your feet,” he notes.

And yet, Initiative did just that.

The agency went from losing 3.6 percent of its revenue in 2017 to a growth rate of 11 percent last year, a powerful resurgence that has earned it the mantle of Adweek’s 2018 U.S. Media Agency of the Year.

Call it a comeback

Initiative began laying the groundwork for its return in November 2016, designing “a world-class planning process.”

“We help clients think differently about their brand,” says U.S. chief client officer Hallie Johnston. “We might be even a bit disruptive in the pitch to help them think about where they can take their brand and their media strategy.”

Notes Baxter, “The one thing that we always hear from clients, whether we win the pitch or lose, is that we were different.”

The agency also instituted its Reverse Upfront, outlining to media partners what clients are looking for.

“I think the Reverse Upfront sent a clear signal to the market that there was change at Initiative,” Baxter says. “Never underestimate the influence of the media owners to influence clients’ perceptions and your own reputation.”

The program completely turned around Initiative’s relationships with media partners, which it now claims as a competitive advantage.

“The clients that do the best work are the ones that tend to recognize they need agencies, and agencies that do the best work are the ones that recognize they need media partners,” notes chief communications design officer David Stopforth.

Initiative also changed the way it works with clients, overhauling its client leadership team, with many new arrivals from client-side backgrounds.

“We want to have a consultative, proactive approach to clients. We’re not afraid to challenge their conventions or defend our POV in the best interest of clients,” Johnston explains.

Ultimately, though, it was “the people who really turned this around,” says U.S. CEO Amy Armstrong. And at the beginning, those people were skeptical about Initiative’s potential.

“Seize the Awkward,” a PSA and influencer campaign with the Ad Council to prevent suicide among young people, saw 214 million impressions and more than 8 million video views.

“[The agency] couldn’t be further from where it was when I walked into the role [in February 2017] versus today,” Armstrong says. “People didn’t want to work here. David Stopforth was my first major hire in April of 2017, and I remember going, ‘Please take the job.'”

“We were selling the dream as opposed to the reality at that point,” Baxter explains.

Together, he and Armstrong introduced a fresh “ethos and cultural perspective” that included biweekly town halls, a practice that continues to this day. The agency also shares information across the company, such as gender pay statistics, which happen to be a point of pride. Initiative claims virtual equity, with women earning more than men at certain employment levels.

The ‘new’ Initiative

Initiative’s culture- and strategy-driven approach tends to attract brands that share those values.

After retaining Amazon in November 2017,  the agency went on to score a series of new-business wins, beginning with Lego later that month. By the end of 2018, Initiative had brought on Converse and Revlon globally and Liberty Mutual, CB2, Halo Top and The Honest Company in the U.S., among others.

The agency also grew relationships with existing clients, claiming organic growth matched its new-business revenue in 2018.

This story first appeared in the Feb. 25, 2019, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

Recommended videos