Anyone who has met Ernie Simon could be forgiven for thinking he’s a brand guy at a big client instead of the head of planning at an advertising media agency.

Simon, president of strategic planning for MindShare North America, and Mediaweek’s 2006 All-Star for Planning, is a change agent; someone who can think like a suit while motivating his team to think creatively. He talks like a client, espousing all the requisite platitudes about branding and marketing and strategizing and executing, while inspiring 600 employees who are spread across 11 offices and serving more than 35 accounts to think differently about how to create a media plan.

When he was named to his post in April, 2005, Simon immediately saw the need to rethink the way MindShare’s research operations were organized. To a large extent, research, which is the stuff upon which media plans are built, has not changed much since the days of the full- service advertising agencies such as J. Walter Thompson and Ogilvy & Mather, whose media departments formed the underpinning of MindShare when it was formed in 1999.

“Media research was an amalgam of a little bit of quan, a little bit of qual and a lot of Nielsen,” says Simon, using shorthand for the words quantity and quality. “It was trapped in its own inertia. It had very good people. It was very efficient at answering questions.”

But it was not shedding much light on the rapidly changing consumer environment. Simon was beginning to realize that traditional media does not deliver the weight it once did, and he needed his team to start thinking differently. “There are a lot of things that get lumped into research,” he says. “There are dozens of things to be done, but only one or two of them can be done really well. By giving people fewer things to concentrate on, they will be able to think about things more deeply.”

With that in mind, Simon set about determining a new structure for research. “If you don’t go out there and find something new, you’re not really adding value over what already exists,” he says. “We still do have to look at efficiencies—cost always matters. But what are the integrating ideas?”

The answer became a new way of organizing the media agency’s research operations. Three separate units were created. The first unit, dubbed MindShare Research and Development, “looks at all the information that’s out there in the marketplace,” Simon says. That would include Nielsen, MRI, Simmons, Arbitron, ABC and all the traditional surveys of consumer behavior that go with them. The second unit, MindShare Insights, “looks for stuff that doesn’t exist. How do we [create] it—focus groups, panels, surveys? That’s really where the competitive advantage is.” The third unit, which sounds more like the kind of research unit full-service agencies use to develop campaigns than it does a fixture in a media agency, is called the MindShare Advanced Techniques Group. “I need to understand my competition,” Simon explains. “It’s not just competitive reporting. How does our competition work?”

The new structure was conceived to insinuate the media process into the very beginning of the strategic planning stage of the advertising campaign. “Instead of coming in in the last five minutes of the game, we’re there right at the start,” Simon says.

This is when he really starts sounding like a client. “The brand itself is more of a concept. People want to be able to participate in a brand. The more I can personalize the brand, the more powerful that brand is going to be.”

To that, Anita Newton, vp, media and digital marketing at MindShare client Sprint, agrees. “I would say he’s incredibly strategic,” says Newton. “Agencies are notorious for telling the client what they want to hear. Ernie tells you not what you want to hear but what you need to hear. That’s what a good partner does. Ultimately, you get better answers.”

Marc Goldstein, president and CEO of MindShare, has much the same thing to say about Simon, who has played a key role in the agency’s 2006 account wins, most notably Sprint. “Cutting-edge strategy is key to any agency’s planning operation, and this is one of Ernie’s most valuable strengths,” he says. “I don’t think I’ve ever worked with a more forward-looking, strategic thinker. His ability to identify a brand’s problems and hone in on solutions for current clients as well as potential ones has been critical to our agency’s success.”

Simon has seen the wholesale upending of ad-agency media in his nearly 20-year career. A native of Buffalo, he started at Young & Rubicam after graduating from Cornell University with an agriculture degree. He originally wanted a career in fine arts, but once he met enough people “with safety pins in their noses,” he started thinking about the creative side of advertising. But the only jobs he could find in the New York agency business in 1989, amid a spreading economic recession, were in media. He eventually found a home, and after Y&R, he worked for Averett Free & Ginsberg, Grey Advertising and the Campbell Media Alliance at True North before joining J. Walter Thompson in early 1998.

“Within our specific business, the role of planning has finally been raised,” he says, recalling the days when planners who were lucky enough to meet with a client had to have “four or five account-management chaperones. Now we’re one-on-one.”

Simon lives in New York, but on weekends heads with his wife to their country home in Bucks County, Pa., a farmhouse that he says is in need of his attention. This means that he does not have much time to consume media, not that he is complaining. He no longer sees media salespeople, which, he says, allows him to think more strategically. “There is tactical planning and there is strategic planning,” he said.

He’s now knee-deep in the strategic kind, which suits him just fine. As it does the brand people at Sprint. “He’s a really good communicator, and he’s really responsive,” says Newton. “He’s helped us a lot.” Bill Gloede is former editor of Mediaweek.