Michael Epstein wasn’t sure he was ready to be a CEO when he took on the role for Carat in February 2017.
“No matter what you do, you are not necessarily prepared to be a CEO when you become one,” Epstein says. “It takes a little while to get your feet underneath you” and “make something your own without forgetting about all the wonderful things that were done before you.”
Shortly after his arrival, Carat went through several unsuccessful pitches, which forced the agency to evolve its approach.
“You learn more from your failures than you do from your successes,” Epstein says. “A lot of companies don’t recognize the gift they’re given [through failures].”
Following a turbulent 2017, Epstein led a rebound for Carat, beginning with the retention of Microsoft in May, followed by Intel, United and Philips new business wins and an expansion of Carat’s relationship with Procter & Gamble, ending 2018 with an increase in overall billings of 25% from the previous year.
Epstein says cultural evolution and refocusing Carat’s product offering are ways he has shaped the agency.
“We finally got to a place that demonstrated the value of personalization and people-based [marketing] to our [current and prospective] clients,” he says, citing the hire of U.S. chief strategy officer Angela Steele as a pivotal part of that transformation. Steele helped incorporate Dentsu’s data platform, M1, following Dentsu Aegis Network’s acquisition of performance marketing agency Merkle.
Epstein, who serves as global client president for the agency’s Microsoft business, notes the brand’s retention was a “seminal moment” and his most significant accomplishment of 2018.
“It was a very competitive pitch,” he says, adding that in addition to being a large advertiser, Microsoft is “not afraid to try new things” and “allow our teams to be innovative in what they do and how they allow us to approach things.”
Epstein also cites the expansion of the agency’s relationship with P&G as vital and stressed that “keeping your current clients is equally as important as those you are winning.”
The expansion of P&G’s relationship with Carat came as P&G created a new media model that involved splitting its North American media business between in-house teams and agency partners across seven categories.
Epstein explains that P&G was “interested in exploring new ways to go to market.”
“We were open to having those conversations,” he adds. “I view every conversation with every client as an opportunity to collaborate.”
Epstein says the agency’s progress toward greater diversity was also crucial to him. Under his leadership, Carat has made great strides toward gender diversity and inclusion, with a 60% female staff as of December—and women represent half of Carat’s leadership team, including the CFO, CSO and recently hired COO Louisa Wong, a new role at the agency.
He also recently introduced the new leadership roles of svp, human resources and CMO at Carat, hiring Diane Harrison and Robert Schwartz, respectively.
“Our greatest asset is our people, and we are surrounded by a lot of smart and hard-working people in this organization,” Epstein says, noting that Carat has “invested in our people around helping them have better marketplace skills, particularly in the digital space” via internal training, agency partnerships and an external vendor hired to curate online training.
Carat is also launching a series of talent initiatives this year related to mentorship, diversity, inclusion and corporate social responsibility, a topic introduced at a leadership conference in March and extended to all agency employees to determine “what our purpose should be and what they want from a CSR perspective.”
Epstein explains that a proviso of his taking on the CEO role was that he continue to play an active role in working with clients, an aspect of the business he especially enjoys.
Disney vp, customer engagement Emmanuel Marques says Epstein has “an extraordinary sense of client service” and is helping move Disney to a more consumer- and data-centric approach to media.
“For all his qualities and accomplishments, the thing that really stands out when you work with Michael is his honesty and compassion for people,” Carat CMO Robert Schwartz says. “Lots of leaders talk about the importance of people in our business, but Michael truly lives it. The agency as a whole always knows where it stands with Michael and knows he’ll be there for them.”