Media Q&A: A Conversation with Laura Desmond

Mediavest’s new CEO on boosting morale, changing the planning process and telling the agency’s story.

A conversation with

Q: At 38, you’re one of the youngest leaders of a major media agency in the U.S. How did you get here?

A: I didn’t plan it, but I learned a long time ago that if you find the intersection points between what’s good for you and what’s good for your company, you can have a nice career.

One job in particular stands out: In 1993, when you were at Leo Burnett, you spent three months as General Motors’ media-services director while the client was on maternity leave.

Yeah, I had an opportunity to work with [GM executive director of media] Mike Browner and look inside the client’s world. It was great. I got a chance to work with seven agencies, and I saw seven different ways of doing things, including those of my own agency. That’s how I met major media agency figures like Rino Scanzoni and Irwin Gotlieb and those guys.

When you got to New York in January, you had to cope with morale issues, particularly Publicis Groupe’s decision to kill off MediaVest’s creative partner, D’Arcy.

We spent a lot of time in internal communications. I instituted a new program called First Fridays, where 25 staffers are invited to have breakfast with me, and they can ask any question they want and I answer it. That was the task of the first two or three months: to communicate a vision of the place that was strong and enduring. I had to show our folks that I believed in them and [Starcom MediaVest Group] believed in them and their clients believed in them.

And then Donna Salvatore, your predecessor, died in June.

That was incredibly sad and hard for this organization. It touched everyone very deeply.

Two pretty hard blows in less than a year.

Yeah. But we’re not only standing, we’re still fighting.

You’re a planner by background, and you seem to place the traditional Burnett/SMG emphasis on strategic thinking.

Numbers don’t drive business. Financials don’t drive business. Product drives business. The first thing we did when I came here was look really hard at how we could be more idea-driven. We put together an internal review committee and changed our planning process and created a philosophy we call “innovation that works.” We’ve created a new discipline called the consumer context planner. [CCPs] work upstream with media planners, buyers and clients to identify consumer insights and brand behavior. We added one to the Kraft business and three to the Procter & Gamble business. We are intentionally going after people who are much more strategically and planning focused.

You have brought on people with traditional account-planning backgrounds, MBAs, Internet experience and so on. Isn’t that what every other media agency claims to be doing and tries to distinguish itself by?

Everyone’s talking about it. Few are doing it. You can call it a rap—that everyone’s one click away. But who is really doing it? I challenge we are making real steps into consumer planning.

One of the problems your predecessor faced was that MediaVest had been living in the shadow of Starcom since the formation of Starcom MediaVest Group in 2000.

I don’t believe the characterization that MediaVest was Starcom’s conflict shop was fair. I think one of the reasons [the perception] did exist was that we haven’t done a good job of telling our story. Our heritage has never been to be front and center in the press. And that’s not what we’re trying to do now. But we do need to tell the world what we’re capable of.

MediaVest has added more than $150 million in new billings this year. You’ve doubled your Procter & Gamble planning business to 85 percent of that $2 billion global account. You haven’t lost any accounts. How important is new business in your growth strategy?

Growth is a byproduct of great product, client relationships and people. First and foremost, it’s important that we’re getting organic growth. That tells you what you’re doing is on the right track.

Still, new business has been sluggish at MediaVest during the past two years. Has that been a factor in the shop’s low profile?

First of all, there haven’t been that many media reviews. And again, I want our current clients to feel all their needs are being taken care of, not that I’m out making the next new-business pitch. Still, we understand that incremental growth is important. We made the finals of XM Satellite Radio and lost by a hair. We were thrilled to partner with Fallon on Six Flags. It didn’t break our way, but I believe in our product. We had the DirecTV planning business, and as they prepared to be taken over by a new parent, they gave us the shot and we won all of their business. We consolidated the UBS Warburg business. We successfully defended Activision. These are things, again, that don’t get big press, but this is nice stuff.

You mentioned teaming with Fallon. Do you want to—and does Publicis encourage you to—partner with agency siblings?

If it makes sense. That’s one of the advantages of [no longer being] directly linked to a creative shop. We really enjoyed working with Fallon. We’ve worked with Publicis. We partnered with Kaplan Thaler on the Federated Department Stores review.

Where does MediaVest go now?

I really think the goods are here. I prefer to tell our story by doing it and making it real versus talking the talk. And that’s the slower road. But we’re committed to walking the road right.