MullenLowe Mediahub Went From Underdog to Industry Heavyweight in 2017

Adweek's U.S. Media Agency of the Year won 14 of 16 pitches

The MullenLowe Mediahub team, from left: Laurel Boyd, svp and director of the R+D Lab; Keith Lusby, executive director of Boston; Sean Corcoran, executive director of the Americas; John Moore, global president; Erin Swenson Gorrall, svp and director of communications planning; Carrie Drinkwater, svp and director of integrated investments; and Jon Turner, svp of modeling strategic market analytics.
Sasha Maslov for Adweek

Whether by choice or by fate, IPG’s MullenLowe Mediahub has long played second fiddle to larger, more recognizable networks. But the little agency that could has spent years building its capabilities in the hope of becoming a formidable industry player, and in 2017 those efforts finally paid off. The shop won an impressive 14 out of 16 pitches, and it did so by adding its own innovative, largely digital edge to the influence of parent company MullenLowe.

“We always say we’re the challenger agency for challenger brands,” says Keith Lusby, executive director of Mediahub’s Boston headquarters.

Over the past year, that mentality helped Mediahub win several major accounts, chief among them: Ulta Beauty, Chipotle, Lenovo, Staples, MTV and BET. It also led to the network’s first Cannes award for media, a silver Lion picked up for Netflix, its client of the past two years.

Mediahub’s ability to deliver on the promise of its underdog approach to media strategy has earned it the title of Adweek’s 2017 U.S. Media Agency of the Year.

REVENUE $50-75 million

WINS Mediahub prevailed in 14 out of 16 competitive pitches, landing clients including Chipotle, BET, Staples, Trulia, Lenovo, Ulta Beauty, Pearson Education and MTV.

LOSSES The agency lost one account, Fage yogurt.

STRATEGIC MOVES Carrie Drinkwater promoted to director of integrated investments; Erin Swenson Gorrall shifted from leading MullenLowe’s communications planning department to doing the same at Mediahub; Laurel Boyd tapped to lead new Radical + Disruptive Lab; Mediahub doubled its L.A. office with key hires such as Betsy Rosenbloom as senior media content creator and Ben Abt as group media director.

To the gamers go the spoils

For a better sense of Mediahub’s magic, rewind to the weeks leading up to the March 2017 launch of Marvel’s Iron Fist series on Netflix. The agency had a tough brief in appealing to hard-core gamers, a notoriously hard-to-reach group that also makes up Iron Fist’s core audience. It lured them, via Twitter, to unlock a well-known Konami Code through which they could access an exclusive clip of the upcoming series. Then came the kicker: After checking out the new content, viewers were redirected to gaming platform Twitch, where they could watch a highly anticipated, livestreamed match between rival gaming stars Justin Wong and Daigo Umehara. Not only did their contest drive 215,000 views on Twitch, but Iron First also became the most-binged Netflix drama in the streaming service’s first quarter.

The gamers didn’t know at the time that they had just played a key role in the “Earn Your Power” campaign produced by Mediahub’s new creative division, the Radical + Disruptive Lab. Hatched last year, R+D Lab has a singular raison d’être: challenging the traditional ways brands interact with consumers. To that end, the Iron Fist campaign proved an unqualified success.

“Gamers can be tricky and, in some cases, cynical,” says Shauna Spenley, vp of marketing at Netflix. “So, we did a lot of iteration and cycled through dozens of ideas before we ultimately landed on the ones we felt would stand out and not draw the ire of gamers.”

To gain momentum around the series launches of Marvel’s The Punisher and Iron Fist on Netflix, Mediahub cleverly hacked the niche hard-core gamer community, resulting in a 28 percent engagement rate for The Punisher and leading Iron Fist to be the most-binged Netflix drama of the first quarter.

To understand what Spenley calls the “good rhythm” that Netflix has established with Mediahub, one need look no further than the agency’s “Black Mirror, Season 3: Unblockable Ads” campaign. The work, which launched in November 2016, also happens to be Spenley’s favorite.

Black Mirror, a sci-fi show popular with tech-savvy millennials well-versed in the ways of ad blocking, cleverly churned out a cryptic message for its fans ahead of the third season that read, “Hello ad blocker user. You cannot see the ad, but the ad can see you. What’s on the other side of your Black Mirror?” Partnering with Mashable, The Next Web and Slate, Mediahub built the native content message directly into these sites’ CMS systems, thereby blocking the ad blockers.

“It’s really important to create things that don’t just look good on a flow chart. They [must be] actually meaningful to people,” says Laurel Boyd, Mediahub svp and director of R+D Lab. She was named to Adweek’s Creative 100 list this year, thanks, in part, to her work for Netflix.

You can get there from here

Mediahub global president John Moore says the shop began questioning itself after a lackluster 2016. “We all sat around a table and said, ‘We might not be pitching the right business,’” he recalls.

At the time, Moore and his team knew that they wanted to take more risks and attract clients, like Netflix, that were interested in taking those risks with them. This insight led to the birth of R+D Lab. Tasked with adopting new capabilities like the proprietary research tool Scout, the lab built up its in-house analytics team to uncover data beyond standardized studies while the larger agency expanded. Mediahub doubled the size of its office in Los Angeles, where R+D is based, to better support West Coast clients.

Word of the agency’s buzzworthy work spread quickly.

Jack Pan, president of global marketing at indie film studio Global Road Entertainment, says that seeing Netflix on Mediahub’s client roster played a part in the company choosing it as its agency of record in January.

To Moore, last year marked the moment when Mediahub finally matured into the agency he always knew it could be.

Regarding new and potential clients, he says, “We’re not the safe choice. We are going to be more unconventional.”

“American Beauty: Dispatches From a Country United,” a 10-part multiformat series that followed Rolling Stone correspondents riding Harley-Davidsons across the country, boosted relevance scores by 23 percent following 10 years of declines, and at no media cost to the brand.

Mediahub just feels different

That sentiment is embedded in the shop’s DNA.

“A lot of us come from big media and creative agencies,” says Sean Corcoran, Mediahub’s executive director of the Americas. “They all look very similar. And I have a lot of respect for them from a competitor’s perspective. But this place just gives you freedom to actually take a different approach than maybe you would if you worked at a strict media agency.”

It starts with the pitch. “When you sit through a creative pitch and that creative director gets up and reads that creative manifesto before they show the work, everyone is levitating off their chairs,” Moore says. “We want that exact same thing at a media pitch.”

Ulta Beauty, which hired Mediahub as media AOR last November amid an aggressive U.S. expansion effort, credits the shop’s creative core with helping to push it ahead of 12 agencies and four finalists in a hyper-competitive review.

“We’ve been on a real journey in building the Ulta Beauty brand,” says Shelley Haus, Ulta’s svp of brand marketing. “Mediahub is such a creative powerhouse. Having creativity at the heart of a media agency is really special.”

Mediahub’s close-knit relationship with its creative partner, McCann, didn’t hurt either.

“We knew Mediahub had worked with McCann on other accounts,” says Haus, “so we knew they had a seamless relationship already. The integration of the teams is the best I’ve ever seen.”

Despite its relatively small size, Mediahub now finds itself regularly competing with much larger agencies like Havas, MediaCom, Mindshare and Horizon. Moore believes that one key factor is his agency’s ability to give its clients the full attention they seek and deserve—something the media behemoths often promise but fail to deliver.

Jim Berra, Royal Caribbean’s CMO, says the level of honesty, credibility and trust the agency brings to the table has kept their relationship strong long past “the honeymoon phase” that began in 2015.

Looking to the future

Moore is confident that 2018 can be even bigger than last year for his enterprising shop. After building up its Los Angeles office, the agency is looking to increase its footprint in New York. Up next: London.

Meanwhile, the reviews will keep coming. And while some shops fret over big accounts in play, Moore revels in the challenge ahead.

“We believe that our bicoastal scale positions us as a strong player for many high-profile media pitches in 2018,” says Moore. With a laugh, he adds, “We’re going to pitch them all.”

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