Winning Big Without Losing a Single Client, Carat Is Adweek’s U.S. Media Agency of the Year

P&G, Mondelez wins helped make it 'our best year ever'

Apparently, Procter & Gamble likes to keep Doug Ray waiting. But the two always come together in the end.

The latest such issue of timing happened last summer when Ray, CEO of Carat's U.S. operations, sought to take the agency's relationship with the country's largest advertiser to a whole new level. With his team all set to make its key presentation in P&G's closely watched media review, "We got a call from them saying they'd just executed a multibillion-dollar deal with [beauty product manufactuer] Coty and asking if we could push our pitch off for another 24 hours," Ray recalls.

Those things happen all the time in the new-business game. Still, the Carat team was understandably thrown. "You're rehearsed, people are fired up, the adrenaline's pumping, so there's sort of a deflation there," admits Ray.

For Carat's leader, that scheduling change brought back memories of an earlier instance of delayed gratification involving P&G. In 1992, at Miami University's Richard T. Farmer School of Business, "a number of companies came to recruit," Ray recalls. "P&G was one of those companies, but there was only one position they were going to fill with a Miami grad. I did my best to get the job but ultimately did not." Ray and P&G finally got together a dozen years later when he joined Carat to lead the client's pet-care, snacks and beverages businesses, eventually rising to oversee the entire P&G portfolio.

The delay during P&G's media review last year was decidedly short-lived. Client reps quickly called back, explaining that the Coty news had broken sooner than expected. "So they were like, well, can you come earlier?" Ray says. "I think the actual pitch timing changed two or three times."

Despite the Sturm und Drang, Carat didn't miss a beat. The Dentsu Aegis unit scooped up domestic online and offline buying across P&G's shaving brands, including Gillette, Venus and Braun. It also added buying for the client's portfolio of family-care products. By some estimates, the agency's portion of P&G's U.S. account amounts to $400 million in annual media spend, roughly 20 percent of the company's total outlay. (Omnicom Media Group—like Carat, already a P&G roster resource heading into the review—was the other big winner.)

The P&G triumph was one of several high points for Carat last year. The agency thrived amid the unprecedented wave of reviews known as "Mediapalooza 2015," en route to its selection as Adweek's U.S. Media Agency of the Year. During that span, Carat added several major brands to its roster and expanded its relationship with existing clients, to the tune of $1.5 billion overall.

In extending Carat's mandate, P&G chief brand officer Marc Pritchard praised the agency for demonstrating "superior, proven performance in data and analytics, media planning and buying, and financial value."

Along with P&G, Carat's other huge score was Mondelez. Already a client overseas, the company broadened the scope of Carat's work to include all U.S. buying and planning. In addition, the agency picked up global communications planning for the advertiser's biscuits, gum and candy.

"Carat showed us how we could think about ROI and content monetization in different ways," says Mondelez marketing chief Dana Anderson.

Other key account wins in 2015 from both new and existing clients include Pfizer Consumer Healthcare, LongHorn Steakhouse, GreatCall, Visit California and Massage Envy.

For the year, Carat's U.S. revenue rose 5 percent to $160 million. Notably, given the ebb and flow of Mediapalooza, there were no account losses. What's more, the agency claims to have picked up work in every pitch in which it participated with the exception of Coca-Cola's U.S. media review. (Carat withdrew in the early stages.) Owing to the influx of business, the shop is currently looking to fill about 100 positions, boosting its domestic payroll roughly 10 percent. "It was our best year ever," says Ray. "It's a testament to our clear vision of being the agency for the new media economy."

'The audience agency'

When it comes to an agency growing its business today, mere clout is no longer enough—any shop must demonstrate that it has particular expertise versus other media shops. Carat has its own selling points.

Ray explains, "We are the audience agency. We have always been focused on insights, research and data—and in a world where digital is the dominant economy, the ability to know more about our clients' most valuable audiences through behavioral data gives us the ability to lean in much further" and help create programs that make an impact.

"Behind every data point is a person," he adds. "But, if you're only focused on the numbers, you lose sight of the fact that data's actually just the output of people's behaviors. So, it ultimately does come down to approaching audiences as human beings—as people."

Several campaigns in which Carat had a hand last year put that point of view into action. One such effort was #BestDayEver, created for Chevrolet, a unit of General Motors, one of the agency's signature clients. Employing a cross-device media strategy, the campaign sought to spark a brand reappraisal among apathetic millennials by inviting them to rethink a day traditionally marked by pranks: April Fools' Day. As it happens, April 1 was also the launch date for Chevy's new Malibu and Spark models. Working with creative shops Commonwealth//McCann and FleishmanHillard for social, Carat helped execute a push consisting of "Acts of Awesomeness" ranging from ticket giveaways to surprise performances by Kid Rock and Kelly Clarkson. The entire day was chronicled during an eight-hour livestream on YouTube.

Paul Edwards, U.S. vp of marketing at Chevrolet, says such "highly impactful media placements … help generate significant conversation and interest in the brand," contributing to "unprecedented lifts in momentum, opinion and retail share."

All told, #BestDayEver produced 1.5 billion social impressions, with 3 million consumers viewing the livestream content. Most importantly, during the campaign, Chevy enjoyed its best retail sales month in eight years.

Keeping the client happy and steering an incredibly complex account clear of a media review in the year for reviews is a major achievement by anyone's estimation. "We had a transformational year with General Motors," says Ray.

Macy's presented an altogether different challenge. Locked in competition with retailers like Zara and H&M, the old-school department store sought to entice teens at a time of year when that target is bombarded with ads: prom season. Carat partnered with fashion vloggers such as Mylifeaseva, Teala Dunn and Clevver Style to create Macy's-themed content around topics like "4 Bold Must-Have Dresses for Prom 2015" and "4 Full Prom Looks for Under $199." In addition, a look book via Teen Vogue served up fashion content. The campaign included programmatically supported distribution across teen sites.

"Carat helped us craft this strategy around prom directly from the teen consumer's POV and aligned the media plan across the key moments in a teen's prom journey," says Macy's CMO Martine Reardon. "Their focus on knowing consumers and their approach to planning based on evolving consumer media behavior drove the success of this program."

The push yielded 87 million impressions and a 52 percent new-visitor spike at MyStyleLab on, which served as the retailer's prom destination.

For MasterCard, Carat executed a cause-related brand-building campaign last summer, partnering with other client shops such as McCann XBC, Octagon, VaynerMedia, Ketchum and DXagency. Over an eight-week stretch, the client donated a penny to Stand Up to Cancer whenever a consumer used his or her MasterCard to buy a meal. The goal was to raise $4 million—which meant generating 400 million card transactions. Leveraging mobile and social platforms, the campaign asked its target, working moms, a simple question: "Who do you #StandUp4?"—meaning, which friends or family members with cancer do you support? The audience was invited to share responses via Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. "Carat heavily mobilized these women and turned them into ambassadors," says Benjamin Jankowski, group head of global media at MasterCard.

The campaign ended up delivering those 400 million transactions. During the promotion, MasterCard restaurant transactions grew 14 percent, 50 percent greater than the entire sector's growth.

Catalytic converter

To intensify its focus on the people behind the data, Carat relies on newly promoted evp Justine Bloome, who helms the Catalyst Team, a cross-disciplinary group of strategists engaged in content, creative and technology. The group's goal, she says, is to spark fresh thinking and ensure that the agency makes an impact "at every touch point of the audience's ecosystem."

Catalyst was the brainchild of Michael Epstein, Carat's chief client officer, who says he realized a few years back that such a team would help "infuse a little more creativity in the media plans. We talk a lot about category-to-culture, moving brands from just playing in their category to actually harnessing trends that are happening in culture. Catalyst is driving a lot of that."

How does that differ from the classic planning model? Bloome explains that on any given day, ahead of the traditional planning cycle, Catalyst seeks the input of entrepreneurs, investors and opinion makers, "surfacing trends to anticipate disruption to our clients' businesses" and staying ahead of the curve in terms of cultural connections. "In a world that is increasingly programmatic and automated, Catalyst remains the counterbalance," she says. Other initiatives include intensive learning sessions, including a recent millennial-immersion summit and presentations by influencers like David Shing and Morgan Spurlock.

Catalyst, which has grown from four to 18 staffers, played a key role in Carat's winning pitch for Mondelez. "Catalyst led the development of the strategic platform and creative idea to answer the gum and candy assignment," says Bloome, helping the agency demonstrate "our understanding of strategic e-commerce innovations emerging from Silicon Valley and Silicon Alley."

Ray believes Catalyst will make Carat more competitive over the long haul, in a fast-moving marketplace where changes and challenges abound and an agency's momentum can shift at the drop of a hat. Case in point: Last month, Carat lost a large chunk of Sony PlayStation, the last of the Mediapalooza shoes to drop. After such a positive 2015, Sony's decision really stung.

Still, there's no choice but to press ahead, and Ray is doing just that. He's hyperfocused on U.S. operations after handing over Carat's global president mantle to Will Swayne, formerly Dentsu Aegis' global client leader on P&G, as the year drew to a close. "We're going to be doing a structural change at the agency, reclustering our clients," says Ray, resulting in "clustering clients together so that we are creating centers of excellence by industry to provide—in a nonconflicting way—the opportunity for insight and audience knowledge to flow from client to client."

In doing so, Ray plans to make Carat a more attractive partner for clients old and new. Sometimes, good things come to those who wait—but taking smart steps toward success can make them arrive that much sooner.

This story first appeared in the Feb. 8 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.