Fast Chat: Monique Nelson

New UniWorld CEO talks about leading a multicultural agency into the digital future

Monique Nelson’s experience as global lead for entertainment marketing at Motorola—where she led the launch of the ROKR in 2005—made her move to UniWorld Group five years ago a natural choice. Agency founder Byron Lewis Sr. built one of the country’s first multicultural shops 43 years prior. He was known for creating successful media properties like the nationally-syndicated TV news program America’s Black Forum and radio’s Sounds of the City as well as launching the American Black Film Festival. When Lewis decided to step down from the top job at UniWorld, the technologically savvy 37-year-old Nelson was his logical choice in bridging the company’s past with its increasingly digital future. Nelson, the new CEO of the company—which has as clients Ford, Colgate, Home Depot, the U.S. Marines, Western Union and CVS—chatted with Adweek about her new role.

Adweek: What advice has Byron Lewis given you in taking over UniWorld?

Monique Nelson: You’re only as good as your people, so take care of them. Keep ideas flowing. Be thoughtful about our industry, our communities and about the depth of these markets and the way we look at them.

What made you decide to leave the client world for the agency side and how did you get to UniWorld?

I had been gone from New York since college in 1996 and I had a hankering to come home. I had a great run at Motorola, traveling the world with them and got a lot of experience under my belt. But since I had focused on a single area, technology, I wanted to see what else I could do. I went to interview with several agencies prior to meeting Mr. Lewis and I was seeking a broader role than what many agencies were structured to handle six years ago. When I went to UniWorld, I thought it was going to be the same scenario: I was going to be put on one brand doing one type of thing when I wanted more of a challenge doing multiple things. But I started talking with Mr. Lewis about my (Motorola) entertainment work with product placement, integration, the fact you can do some exciting things on the ground and push that out to mobile and digital and he really perked up. He said he would love to bring someone in with my level of expertise but UniWorld still needed to make money so he made me a senior account person as well. He was one of the only people I talked to who saw that vision and I also loved the fact I was going to do it for a multicultural audience.

What’s the transition been like in moving from the client side to an agency role?

One thing you don’t see as a client is all of the work that happens before an agency brings something to you. It was absolutely eye-opening and gave me better appreciation for everything my agencies have done for me in the past. There also were certain expectations I have that a lot of people with an all-agency background don’t necessarily have. That’s given me an advantage, especially in dealing with client-facing issues. I don’t know that agencies always appreciate all the pressure clients face inside their companies so those were some of the sensitivities I brought to the table that weren’t necessarily germane here. The one thing I knew, even as I was leaving Motorola, is that there is so much more pressure on an agency to do a lot more for less. So it’s all about being efficient, about having really solid processes and working with your clients as closely as you can to ensure you’re meeting their objectives. I’m pushing my team to spend as much time in the client environment as possible to understand the nuances of their business so we can better anticipate their needs.

What have you done to expand UniWorld’s involvement in entertainment?

Uniworld has always been pushing the envelope; there’s always been a spirit of innovation here. Mr. Lewis did the first teaser on a campaign for the movie Shaft and was the first to talk about releasing it on a phone before the movie came out. Entertainment was always germane to UniWorld but it wasn’t really an integrated part of everything they did. When I joined, I thought this is a great place for entertainment partnership opportunities whether it be with celebrities, film or TV. We are proud of our work with Chris Brown and Ford in my early days here. Chris was just getting his name out and we did a 360 deal with him that included everything from a tour to car placement to an integration on TV. It was one of the first times we had done anything that robust across-the-board. We’ve worked closely with every TV show we could get our hands on from the BET Awards to programs like (the CW’s) Girlfriends, for Home Depot before it was off the air. Most recently we worked on the movie Think like a Man for Ford. We also work closely with a lot of our media partners to do breakout things like the Essence Music Festival and client integrations with media like CBS.

What about digital?

I took that over about 2 1/2 years ago and brought my Motorola experience with digital engagement and CRM. We’ve been thoughtful about keeping that two-way dialogue going and putting more structure around it. We’ve acquired talent in the last 18 months so we’ve been able to build a full-blown innovation department. We’re proud to say that not only can we create the ideas, we can actually build out that vision for clients.

UniWorld was created in 1969 and is a pioneer in addressing multicultural consumers. How is that market evolving and might you also look at more general-market opportunities?

No, I’m not looking at the general market. I actually hope to get even deeper into the multicultural experience. We have the opportunity to bring a really interesting insight across the board with everything from African American consumers to Hispanic ones to Asians to youth as communities of culture. One thing I learned from my global experience is that people absolutely do cluster. They cluster around something that is comfortable for them or some shared experience they have with one another. One of the misnomers with multicultural consumers is they over-index watching TV and that’s enough. But we know that does not take you all the way down the purchase funnel. Your heritage, your geographics, your experiences in your household, provide such color around your purchase actions. We’ve been remiss in not showing more of that. The Hispanics have a leg-up because of language. In the African-American diaspora you have a country-of- origin scenario that needs to be taken into account. There’s a lot more to it and we’re really excited to show how some of that nuance can make a huge difference for brands.