Peak Performance

Two signs hang outside the New York office of Wendy Marquardt, president of Verizon Media @ Zenith, the team that handles the agency’s largest client, Verizon. “No surprises,” says one. The other: “Prom ise realistically.”

Sounds just like Marquardt’s boss, Rich Ham ilton, CEO of Zenith Opti media Group, Americas—courtly, soft-spoken and committed to service.

Most media chiefs tout their network’s size, its re sources, its clout. Not Ham ilton. He talks about Zen ith’s ability to build relationships. “The development of trust is the most important thing in business, advertising, relationships and life,” he says.

Steve Sturm, vp/marketing for Toyota, has worked with Zenith since 1995. “They have an attitude that’s really client-friendly,” he says. “The focus is always on making sure the client’s needs and expectations are exceeded.”

It’s a philosophy that has kept existing clients satisfied and brought in a stream of new accounts. In 2001, a tireless new-business machine run by Tim Jones, president of Zenith Media USA, reeled in $975 million in billings, including United Airlines, Schering-Plough Laboratories, Schering-Plough HealthCare, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Boston Beer Co.

As the incumbent, Zenith retained General Mills’ $450 million account and Georgia-Pacific following reviews. And the agency lost just $9 million—and that from a client, Carter-Wallace, that it shared with Bates and lost due to a client acquisition.

The bottom line was consequently rosy: Total billings were $5.3 billion, up 32 percent from 2000. Revenue was up 36 percent, to an estimated $75 million.

For its ability to create a client-service culture that truly does what it purports to, for its remarkable and sustained new-business run and for its ability to compete with media agencies that, in some cases, are more than three times its size, Zenith is Adweek’s 2001 Media Agency of the Year.

Media Edge, Initiative, OMD, Horizon Media, Carat, MindShare and Media Vest all went head-to-head with Zenith in media reviews last year, and all lost. In all, Zen ith triumphed in nine of 11 media-only reviews. (Starcom, our 2000 Media Agency of the Year, beat Zenith in the Walt Disney Co. media review; and Universal McCann won Sony’s media account.) The agency muscled its way into the Disney finals, in fact, largely on the strength of references from current clients. It was the only nonincumbent to get that far.

Zenith, 75 percent owned by Publicis and 25 percent by Cordiant Communications, has attained top-notch status in just two years. Since 1999, revenue has soared 70 percent. In 2000, the shop added more than $500 million in high-profile wins with the Verizon review and consolidation contests for AstraZeneca and ExxonMobil.

“It’s all focused on getting things done,” says Marvin Davis, vp of advertising for Verizon Wireless, of the culture at Zenith, which he terms “casual, but aggressive and candid.

“They’ve got great leadership,” he adds. “And I think they’ve got a real good feel—almost like a sixth sense—for where the market is going and where the opportunities lie.”

Hamilton was named to his current post in October, from his position as CEO of Zenith Media North America. At the same time, Jones was promoted to president of Zenith USA from his post as evp/director, client services and business development; head buyer Peggy Green was elevated from evp to president of national broadcast.

Much of Zenith’s record can be attributed to Hamilton’s patience, which borders on relentlessness—a trait that belies his gentlemanly manner. Once he establishes a relationship with a client, Hamilton never lets go, even if the client does. That’s how Zenith won the $140 million Schering-Plough Laboratories business last year without a review. Zenith was a finalist in a review in 2000, and after the client decided to stay with former agency Lowe, Hamilton kept in constant contact.

“A lot of agencies say new business is what I do when I finish my normal job,” says Jones about the shop’s attitude toward business development. “Frankly, that’s not good enough. What you have to do is make sure your best people are given that priority without detriment to your current clients.”

Until he got to Zenith, Hamilton spent his entire career within Benton & Bowles or its successor shops, except for a brief stint at Ketchum in San Fran cisco in the early ’80s. B&B was a veritable media school, a service-driven shop that produced some of the most notable media-agency names in the industry, including MindShare’s Irwin Gotlieb, Media Vest’s Donna Salvatore, former MediaVest CEO Mike Moore and former General Motors marketing head Phil Guarascio—the first ad executive to interview a young Hamilton fresh out of Princeton in 1974.

“They are classic Benton & Bowles media guys,” says a rival media-agency head in reference to Zenith, “and it shows in their culture.”

Hamilton left D’Arcy, where he was media director of North American operations, in 1997 to take the helm at Zen ith, where he faced a tough challenge. For one thing, Zenith had no direct media-only business (now, 75 percent of its billings are client-direct). For an other, it was seen as a buying arm of its then-sisters Saatchi & Saatchi and Bates, and lacked a distinct identity of its own. And Hamilton, in typical Benton & Bowles fashion, believed that “we couldn’t go after new business unless we were doing excellent work for current clients.”

“I had never been the CEO of anything, and you only get the chance to be a CEO for the first time once,” he recalls. “So it was important that a tone be set and a culture created that would last a very long time … [one] that recognizes that teamwork is far more important than individual achievement.”

Green, a former Saatchi executive, is the only employee at the agency who dates back to its opening in 1995. “Many media people only talk about how good they are or how big they are or how smart they are,” she notes. “Rich brought the ability to listen well to what clients’ needs are and satisfy those needs.

“We don’t really have to use a recruiter,” she concludes. “People want to come to work here. That’s how you know you’re doing well.”