U.S. Media Agency of the Year: Universal McCann

For much of the past decade, Interpublic’s Universal McCann was one of the most beleaguered media shops in the industry, having lost huge accounts like General Motors, Coca-Cola and Lowe’s.

By 2008, the agency was stable again, thanks largely to the efforts of then-worldwide CEO Nick Brien and his team. When Brien was promoted to CEO of IPG’s media management arm, Mediabrands, he hired Matt Seiler to succeed him as UM’s CEO in August 2008. The stage was set for UM to complete its turnaround and Seiler delivered in 2009, his first full year running the company.

Seiler revamped the management team, hiring media company veteran Jacki Kelley in April to run North America. Seiler and Kelley immediately went to work on the offering. The biggest change: a new approach to working with media owners in a bid to maximize those relationships. In May, the wins started coming in quick succession—Dyson, BMW, Schwab and others (see chart), capped by the the Chrysler account in December. All told, UM added nearly $1 billion in new business (excluding Chrysler, which takes effect this month) and an impressive 11 percent revenue gain to $191 million.

For completing its turnaround with its best winning streak in seven years—without a single loss—new management and a fine-tuned offering, Universal McCann is Adweek’s U.S. Media Agency of the Year for 2009.

Adweek: A lot of things went right for your shop in 2009. What was the most important lesson you learned?

Matt Seiler: The criticality of getting the team right. And that when the team is right it shows in everything that you do. From a new business perspective, there is nothing more appealing to a prospect than a team that is absolutely consistent. At least as important is that we really like each other. It’s very seductive to a potential client, I think, to see how much the agency team has confidence in each other and likes each other. It makes the client feel comfortable and happy and liked.

Other lessons?
The power of momentum. It’s that “when you smile, the world smiles with you” thing. Once we had the team right, it felt fantastic. The first exposure the team really had to a prospect was Dyson and after that BMW, and immediately after, Schwab. It feeds on itself.

What was the biggest surprise last year?
The whole thing. I keep pinching myself because I can’t quite believe how much this team accomplished in a year. The adopting of the new positioning, the esprit de corps, picking up nine new pieces of business.We retained all our existing business and grew in lots of different directions with existing clients.

What’s the best decision you made in ’09?
Hiring [North American president] Jacki Kelley. [The fact] that she comes from a media-owner background is part of what makes her a phenomenal leader for the agency. And she reflects the promise of what partnering with a media owner is. She sort of represents the other side of the table in everything we do. The [Media Owner Relationship] team underneath her is all about that.
 
Describe your management style.
Hopefully trusting. I absolutely believe that the people of UM are beyond capable of delivering. I believe that Jacki [Kelley] and I are here to empower people to do what they’re great at doing and not to stand in their way.
 
Who are your mentors?
[Bewitched’s] Darrin Stephens is my mentor [laughs]. I don’t think that’s a very rich vein for me, sadly, and I really should analyze that. I haven’t had mentors. I’ve had a few really terrific bosses and without pandering [current boss Mediabrands CEO] Nick [Brien] is the best that I’ve had, but it’s a little late in my long-toothed career to be considering Nick a mentor.
 
Any missed opportunities?
We have not yet hired the head of the team that will oversee our Media Owner Relationship team. That kind of troubles me. I’m very anxious to do that.
 
Did you have someone in your sights?
There’s been a couple of people we liked a lot. It’s a really critical hire, though. It’s a big statement to the media owners, the clients and the people here. So the importance of the individual is great.
 
Would you call that your most innovative move in 2009?
Yes, and it will be the most innovative thing we do [this] year.