Want to be agency of the year?

March 28, 2019 | blog | By Aimee Bove
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On February 24, Adweek crowned this year’s top Global, U.S. and Breakthrough media agencies with the headline, “What Does It Take To Be One Of Adweek’s Media Agencies of the Year?” According to the subhead, “fearlessness was key” to winning. But as I thought about it, that struck me as a bit hollow. While it’s certainly advantageous to be brave in the media business, that alone couldn’t begin to explain the success of this year’s winners, or the hundreds of firms that were in consideration.

Fearlessness is vital to being a leader and remaining agile in a media environment that seems to change daily. But to build and maintain a media firm, an ad agency, a digital shop, or a brand with sustained excellence? That takes an honest, transparent understanding of who you are, an authentic willingness to change what’s not working, and complete fidelity to building a culture of safety, vulnerability, and purpose.

Not surprisingly, as I read the Adweek articles about Global Media Agency of the Year winner OMD, U.S. Media Agency of the Year winner Initiative, and Breakthrough Agency of the Year winner Essence, it was clear those three pillars form the foundation of each one of those firms. In large part, those three things are why these firms are excelling above thousands of others worldwide. But they also represent ways we can make seismic shifts in our own companies.

Initiative – U.S. Media Agency of the Year

According to the Adweek article, Initiative was circling the drain in 2016. Even CEO Matt Baxter admitted that, at the time, the firm had a dysfunctional culture, no real business proposition, and a brand that lacked any real definition. In 2017, revenue was down 3.6 percent and to survive Initiative needed to drastically change just about everything. And that’s what they did. They changed how they worked with clients. They improved how they dealt with their media partners. And, internally, they overhauled their entire client leadership team.

According to Initiative’s U.S. CEO, Amy Armstrong, it was “the people who really turned [Initiative] around.” In 2018, with a new culture-and-strategy approach in place, the agency went on a tear, retaining Amazon and winning new work from Lego, Converse, Revlon, Liberty Mutual, and others. In all, the agency grew revenue by 11 percent for the year

Know who you are. Make the necessary changes, even when they’re difficult. Build a great culture that your people will embrace. What a difference those things made for the U.S. Media Agency of the Year.

OMD – Global Media Agency of the Year

Like Initiative, perpetual global media giant OMD found themselves in unfamiliar territory in 2017 — losing clients and revenue — except in OMD’s case, the losses mounted to $1.8 billion. That’s billion. With a B.

A year later, OMD is Adweek’s Global Media Agency of the Year and back on top, winning 15 of 18 local market reviews and winning work across the globe including Kimberly-Clark Mexico, Tourism Ireland, Britain’s government media, the U.S. Army, Daimler Mercedes, and a global defense of the McDonald’s business. How did they do it? The same way Initiative did.

“I think a lot of people have forgotten that we do not have a natural right to exist,” noted OMD Global CEO Florian Adamski in his company’s Adweek profile, adding that OMD as a business cannot, “try to hold on to a model that does not seem viable anymore.” Adamski and his leadership team recognized they needed to make “better decisions, faster” and that’s what they delivered for their clients.

They took a hard look in the mirror and admitted to themselves that $1.8 billion in revenue didn’t walk out the door because their clients were fickle, or their demands were unreasonable, or for any other reason that sounded like an excuse. They identified the issues, quickly formulated a new plan to address them from the ground up, and recalibrated their culture to support it. It’s as though they have their foundation back. Just ask Adamski.

“I could walk out of that door tomorrow and OMD would not feel the effects,” he said, “because we have built something up from the bottom that is in our substance now.” It’s in their substance. Their culture. Get that right and everyone believes. One of the largest media companies on the planet completely retooled themselves in less than a year. What does that mean for the rest of us? We have no excuse not to get better.

Essence – Breakthrough Media Agency of the Year

For most agencies, media or otherwise, winning 10 pieces of business would constitute a really good year. Winning 15 would be extraordinary. In 2018, Essence won 23 new pieces of business and defended Google, an account they’ve held for the past 13 years. No great surprise they were named Breakthrough Media Agency of the Year.

“We’re fundamentally a data analytics agency that does media and creative,” said Essence North America CEO Steve Williams in Adweek’s BMAOY profile, “and I think that is a really competitive proposition for the clients we have come in.” With 23 wins in a year, it must be. But it also begs the question, how do you weather that much growth and not lose who you are?

According to the Adweek article, in 2018, Essence onboarded 500 new people from a 2017 merger and added 800 new hires on top of that, all while retaining 80 percent of its staff. How? By knowing who you are, staying flexible, and having all 1,300 newbies lean into an extremely strong culture.

“Essence had a very curated culture from the early days,” said Essence Global Chief Talent Officer, Jennifer Remling. And despite the rapid growth from the past 12 months, it’s a culture that’s clearly thriving. And Kyoko Matsushita, CEO of Essence’s Asia Pacific region noted, “it lives here in a way that I’ve never seen in an agency.”

Planning for greatness.

Elite agencies and fantastic results don’t just happen. They’re planned for. To use Essence’s word, they are curated. Good or bad, the best media firms, agencies, houses, and shops have a strong, naked, honest understanding of who they are and what needs to change to keep moving forward. They understand that change is inevitable.

Ours is not an industry that ever stands still and that means we’re always moving. Hopefully, it’s forward. But if not, we have to muster the courage, the resolve, and the fearlessness to change — even when it hurts. And most of all, we have to build great cultures in our organizations so our people feel safe, so they feel heard, and so they feel connected to a purpose bigger than management and bigger than themselves.

Do that, and any one of us could stand where these firms do now.

AIMEE BOVE is media director at LOOMIS, the country’s leading challenger brand advertising agency and a top Dallas advertising agency for digital, social, mobile and user experience. For more about challenger branding, advertising and marketing, leadership, culture and other inspirations that will drive your success, visit our blog BARK! The Voice of the Underdog and catch up on all of our posts.

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Aimee Bove

at LOOMIS, the country’s leading challenger brand advertising agency

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