MediaVest Is the U.S. Media Agency of the Year

Major account wins and a 30% revenue surge

The biggest phone call of MediaVest’s phenomenal 2013 began, curiously enough, with Honda’s Mike Accavitti chitchatting about the weather and asking MediaVest U.S. CEO Brian Terkelsen how his day was going.

While Terkelsen welcomed the small talk, given that MediaVest had just pitched Honda’s $800 million media account a few weeks earlier, it did seem aimless, particularly at the end of a long day. I really don’t know where he’s going, Terkelsen remembers thinking.

Finally getting to the point, Accavitti, the carmaker’s svp, automobile operations, explained that as a high-touch guy, he was personally calling review finalists to let them know if they were out. Terkelsen couldn’t help but wonder whether he was one of those getting bad news that day. That’s when Accavitti spilled the beans: MediaVest had outstripped Horizon Media and PHD to win one of the biggest and most coveted accounts of the year. As it turns out, Accavitti was just being coy with a call every agency CEO wants to get.

“I had to call all the other people and tell them that they lost,” says the Honda exec. “So, it was finally my time to smile.”

The welcome news on that rainy New York night in March capped a hard-fought three-month review and helped propel Publicis Groupe’s MediaVest, Adweek’s U.S. Media Agency of the Year, to 30 percent revenue growth in 2013. The Honda win was also the biggest since Terkelsen became U.S. CEO in June 2012, expressing a desire for more significant growth. The outcome proved that the new boss and his team had come a long way in nine months. “We were just suffering from a lack of growth,” says Terkelsen, who rose to the top job after running LiquidThread, the branded content arm of the larger Starcom MediaVest Group. “We needed to double down on product. We needed to double down on who we were as a business and our culture. We needed to double down on more aggressive growth.”

Other major wins last year include Otsuka America Pharmaceutical, the maker of Abilify; Nike’s Converse brand; and three new assignments from Mondelez following the $35 billion snacking company’s spinoff from Kraft. The snacks giant was just one of many existing clients that expanded their relationships with MediaVest. Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble, Bristol Myers Squibb, Aflac and Post Foods all handed the shop new assignments, largely in the realm of search marketing and data and analytics. Revenue growth also came from late 2012 wins like the TriHonda Dealer Group and Travelers.

MediaVest ended 2013 with an estimated $254 million in domestic revenue, up 30 percent from $195 million in 2012. By comparison, revenue grew half as much in 2012.

MediaVest also stood out strategically and creatively, helping SMG strike a deal with Twitter that gave MediaVest and Starcom clients an early look at new ways for marketing brands in social media. It also forged a mobile partnership with Apple. In addition, MediaVest won a silver social media Lion at Cannes for its role in the popular “Oreo Daily Twist” campaign. But the growth in business trumped all, beginning with the expansion of the Mondelez relationship in January.

Even before Mondelez spun off from Kraft in October, it started to review its agency relationships in the U.S. and abroad, with an eye toward consolidating assignments at fewer shops but also changing its strategic approach toward top-selling global brands like Oreo, Cadbury and Trident, says Lisa Mann, then vp of North American marketing services and now an svp in the global gum category.

That strategic shift gave rise to a new global communications planning assignment Mondelez divided between MediaVest (candy, gum and biscuit brands) and Carat (chocolates and coffees). And in the U.S., where MediaVest already handled most media buying and some planning, the agency added planning and digital buying for gums and candies from Horizon. All told, Mondelez spends about $180 million in media domestically each year.

Casting and transparency were key factors in MediaVest’s win. To manage the pitch, Terkelsen deployed two account veterans who were new faces to Mondelez: Jon Halvorson, who previously worked on P&G, and Francis Pessagno, a leader on Comcast. Mondelez executives also got to meet account leaders on individual brands in a daylong series of face-to-face meetings. “It was like speed-dating, one at a time, to understand the people who’d really be touching our businesses, how they feel about MediaVest and how they are being trained to change for their clients,” Mann says. “They were open to making us feel that they were the right company, and they did that by being very open.”

The Mondelez windfall came just as Honda’s review of both creative and media responsibilities heated up. For decades, American Honda Motor Co. had bundled all of its business at RPA, but now, given the explosion of new media channels consumers use to shop for cars, Accavitti needed a specialist in media. “Better targeting, better tools to target—that’s really one of the glaring areas that we were looking to fix,” he explains.

MediaVest, meanwhile, had fresh insights into the consumer purchase cycle, thanks to exhaustive research SMG commissioned after General Motors left Starcom in 2012. That research, which involved analyzing 10,000 online conversations about cars for one year, set MediaVest apart from other finalists, and cogently laid out the reasons behind what Accavitti had already seen in the marketplace. A key finding: If people aren’t talking about your car brand in social media when a potential buyer is in the consideration stage, the buyer rarely chooses your brand. “The output of [the study] was great and very useful,” Accavitti says. “But number two, it demonstrated the forward thinking of the operation, which was exactly what we were looking for.”  

Lettering: Jeff Rogers

Beyond the consumer insights and strategic ideas MediaVest presented, Accavitti and Terkelsen just plain clicked. As the marketing chief says, “It makes it just a more enjoyable experience if you can get along with the people you work with, and I get along with Brian.”

As the year wore on, MediaVest continued to gain new assignments from existing clients, often without pitches. All told, about half of 2013’s revenue gain came from marketers already working with the agency, according to U.S. COO Tim Castree, who, like Terkelsen, assumed his role in the summer of 2012. Many of those marketers had worked with MediaVest for years.

Expanding existing relationships is “about having a real strong point of view and vision about where our clients’ business is going, a real understanding about where the media marketplace is going and consumers are going, and then working to make sure we have the right product set,” explains Castree, a former head of account management at Bartle Bogle Hegarty in New York. Adds Christine Merrifield, president of investment and activation: “We focus heavily on organic growth and getting our clients to go into that next generation, cross-channel, cross-screen” world.

While MediaVest handles major accounts like Walmart and P&G, sometimes it just likes to get a crack at a cool brand. Such was the case with Converse, which doesn’t spend a lot in media dollars and needs to stretch them further. Also, Converse sees media as a creative outlet. So, when the brand called a pitch, MediaVest jumped. “They exercised the pitch because they really wanted to go deeper and see more creativity in the media as opposed to it being ‘the tail on the dog,’” says Terkelsen. “They’re like, Why can’t media be the dog and why can’t creative be the dog? We just want a tailless dog.”

The final pitch took place the same week in October as an off-site meeting for MediaVest’s top executives. So Terkelsen held the off-site not too far from the city, as he and others would need to return to prepare. The group ended up at a conference center owned by the Girl Scouts of the USA hidden in the woods of suburban Briarcliff Manor, N.Y. The relaxed environment facilitated free-wheeling discussions on everything from programmatic buying and changes in the agency structure to redefining media planning around content, says strategy chief Richard Hartell. One night, some execs even gathered around a fire pit to relax and share personal stories about the first concerts they saw and their first movies. The atmosphere was reminiscent of one of MediaVest’s biweekly executive committee meetings—less structured, a bit out there sometimes, but also a lot more open. 

Back row, from left: Castree; Katie Ford, president, managing

director; Coleen Kuehn, president, planning and strategy;

Terkelsen. Front, from left: Merrifield; Kramer; Richard Hartell, 

president, strategy; Pam Zucker, president, marketplace ignition

and innovation. | Photo: Christopher Gabello


That change in dynamic is “creating a different kind of vibe inside the organization,” says client services president Sarah Kramer, who joined the agency in 2001. “I see people contributing, talking and dialoguing more than in the past, and I’ve been in the organization a long time. I think that comes with a leader who’s willing to let their guard down.”

Certainly, an environment of give-and-take seems natural for Terkelsen, a former creator of TV shows and business partner of Mark Burnett who also worked in investment banking. In fact, Terkelsen’s first media agency job came 12 years ago when he signed on to lead MediaVest’s Connectivetissue, which later rolled up into LiquidThread. Indeed, he is not your father’s media agency CEO.

After the two-day confab, Terkelsen and his team pitched Converse and two weeks later found out they won the business, beating Horizon Media and OMD. The moral of the story: You can have your off-site and win business, too. In fact, the bonding in the woods may well have made for a more relaxed and confident pitch.