In the latest chapter of ‘The Media Men’, Dominic Proctor reveals how a party in 1979 started a journey which would see the creation of the biggest media agency group in the world.
The Mindshare Story
My career in advertising started at a party.
Like a lot of people who went to university in those days, I didn’t really have much of a clue what to do with myself once my finals were over. It was 1979. Margaret Thatcher had just been elected on a promise of fundamental reform, markets were weak, and the energy crisis was biting. But none of this seemed to matter much. I met Nick Walford, a student friend (and subsequently a colleague of 20 years) at a party in London and he told me that I should just get a job in advertising like him.
I’ll admit to how effortlessly convinced I was by his pitch, which went along the lines of: “It’s great fun, the girls are good looking and everyone loves a drink after work. And sometimes at lunch.” It was a London version of Mad Men, although we didn’t know it at the time. The next Monday morning I picked up the Yellow Pages (for younger readers, this was a bit like a paper version of Google Search), and wrote to the top 10 advertising agencies listed in alphabetical order. Two weeks later, I ended up getting a job with an agency called Everett’s, which has long since ceased to exist.
I wasn’t really prepared for what was to come. It was part naivety, maybe a hint of arrogance, and partly that wonderful casualness which seems to keep youth such great company. I simply assumed my role to be concerned with writing ads. Yes, I was slightly bewildered when I turned up on the first day and found on my desk what was later revealed to be a computer (or rather, an extremely thickset calculator), as opposed to a pen and a blank pad.
The agency explained that I would spend a bit of time in each department and described – to my relief – what each department was. It’s odd in some ways when you compare it to the thoroughness of today, when undergraduates do so much work and put so much preparation into the planning of getting a career, and how much their prospective employers prepare the ground as well. It was remarkably informal in those days; mine was an interview over a few drinks in the local pub which eventually led to a role in the media planning department. To this day I still reckon that I was offered the job because we only talked about rugby and never mentioned the job.
“JWT was absolutely a revered name in marketing and I’d grown up working in rather more casual, small agencies which had less going for them by way of reputation”
After roles at Everett’s, ABM and BDG, I joined JWT in 1986.
I suppose the thing that connects my agency employers before JWT is that they all went out of business. Thank goodness that JWT has just turned 150 years old and therefore bucked that trend! It was quite a daunting move. JWT was absolutely a revered name in marketing and I’d grown up working in rather more casual, small agencies which had less going for them by way of reputation. JWT London was even called the “University of Advertising”, which made it all the more intimidating and rather scary to figure out as a business. But you learn the ropes, you learn the rhythm of the agency and you join in. Pretty soon it’s like working in other agencies, but it certainly wasn’t what I was used to.
It was there – and not through any particular planning – that I made the jump into management, eventually becoming CEO. I joined as media group head with a few big accounts which were important to the agency, giving me much greater exposure to the senior management from an early point. Rather surprisingly, I moved up the ranks and ended up running the company. One of the things that went in my favour was that I was working for a guy who was super-bright and he kept on getting promoted, unceremoniously dragging me up with him. That is just the way it worked out. I suppose it was quite unusual – and still is, for that matter – for someone in media to end up running a creative agency. At 35, I was fairly young for the job by the standards of those days, so it was a bit intimidating but not too burdened by the weight of expectation!
Actually, it raised a lot of eyebrows. Not just eyebrows, in fact, but some voices and tempers as well: it was an unconventional appointment and I was seen as a bit of a risk. I remember several uncomfortable conversations with senior directors who took it upon themselves to lecture me very early on about the company and how to run it. They had been there for a very long time and had a fixed and wonderful view of the agency and how it should be looked after; they were very proud of it and I suppose, quite nobly, wanted to protect it. I thought that was fair enough. After all, the agency didn’t have my name above the door. Jeremy Bullmore told me: “You should just aim to leave the agency in rather better shape than you found it. You are keeping the seat warm for the next boss.”
What about the ‘cultural’ dissonance within a full-service agency?
“Creatives, planners, media specialists and management all under one roof? That must have been a warzone!” The truth is that there was always a struggle, and that was almost always a good thing. Struggles were things that we promoted. We tried to keep a bit of a lid on it so as not to make it too factional or hostile, but I think the agency was always at its best when on the one hand it was at ease with itself, but on the other there was a healthy creative tension between the creatives and the planners, the media strategists and the account managers. Each had their own angle.
But things were quickly changing and market pressures were mounting. There were the beginnings – just the beginnings, but nonetheless rather obvious beginnings – of the technological revolution, the digitalisation of media and media buying based on clout. Other companies began setting up to take advantage of this and there were a handful of vigorous, noisy independent competitors beginning to get into our space.
JWT, meanwhile, had been a very traditional agency, and I mean that with great respect and affection. It was traditional in the sense that it was built on the belief that the best advice to clients was born from a company that could look at the whole gamut of marketing services but do it from a single, integrated platform. So when media professionals started setting up their own agencies, we did look at that probably as more of a passing fad rather than a major threat to the business.
When I took over the running of the business, despite the fact that I’d cut my teeth in the media department, I too shared the view that separation was a phase that would come and go; and that we would soldier on and maintain a full-service ethic. For probably too many months and even years, I stood like King Cnut on the beach saying: “Don’t worry, it will go away.” But of course the market forces tell you something different entirely.
“We and other full-service agencies started losing some media accounts to the new media independents and it eventually became clear that we had to do something about it”
Actually, our dark little secret was that media departments were never going to be the priority for investment in full-service advertising agencies. When we had a choice about whether to invest heavily in new copywriters or new computers, inevitably the decision swayed in favour of the former because our point of distinction were the ads on the screen and the wall, not what happened to them. Media would always play second fiddle.
Hence, we and other full-service agencies started losing some media accounts to the new media independents and it eventually became clear that we had to do something about it. You can’t argue with the market, it just won’t listen. Sir Martin Sorrell (just plain “Mr.” in those days) agreed that this really wasn’t just a phase; it was a fundamental shift in the structure of advertising. We had to move on.
That’s when the plan emerged for what ended up being Mindshare.
Our then-competitors – the independents and the networked volume-buying businesses of Carat and Zenith – were known to be extremely sharp on the buying and transaction side. To a large extent that was their calling card. They went to market to clients with the assertion that they could force down the clients’ media prices – not a bad proposition!
So we felt that, as relatively late entrants to the game, to just ape the first wave would be wrong. We started by saying “We’ll sell a broader company” – a company that brought with it analytics, econometrics, content, communications planning, sponsorship, sports marketing; the whole spectrum of media planning services rather than just the buying. We called it ‘The House of Media’ (courtesy of Mandy Pooler).
While this certainly differentiated us, it also made it far more difficult to execute and was met with a lot of internal resistance. The industry could see the wisdom and logic of splitting out media buying, but the idea of also disuniting the media planning, research and the other value-added services was controversial. They contended that these “insight” assets were more naturally appropriate within the advertising agencies, informing the creative process, not just the media plan.
“Rupert Murdoch said: ‘Mindshare is the right thinking at the right time.’ That felt good!”
But we knew volume and clout were not enough; we needed to be clever, too. Our point of difference was in the intelligent application of scale. Campaign magazine at the time neatly summed up the shift:
The media networks are positioning themselves even closer to the centre of the communications decision-making process and edging further into the clients’ boardrooms. Mindshare launched with a positioning which promised a communications solution, tapping into the resources of its WPP parent. It has established an enviable position from which other networks are working to [sic].
Rupert Murdoch said: “Mindshare is the right thinking at the right time”. That felt good!
Indeed, before long the industry followed our direction. The big networked media agencies were trying hard to add brain to their brawn; and the detached, rebadged media departments of the standalone American agency networks certainly hailed from an intelligent heritage, but lacked the muscle, geographical spread and point of difference, so they struggled. We were clear that we wanted, and could achieve, both scale and intelligence.
I had a very strong opinion about the positioning of the company: choosing our own distinctive name, going strong on the branding, clearly stating our own ambitions, our own business plans, our own vocabulary, our own culture, our own look and feel. We tried to establish from day one a kind of cultural norm that would become a global one rather than just let it happen in a haphazard way. I’d learned the value of the “company brand” at JWT.
“We were teased relentlessly for the name ‘Mindshare’ because it didn’t have “media” in the title and people thought we sounded like a bunch of tree-hugging hippies”
I also learned at JWT the value of consistency around the world (allowing and promoting the nuances and customs of different regions, of course). The real value of having a consistent global agency offering and positioning was emphasised by our founding clients and, as a service business, we were very happy with that.
We were teased relentlessly for the name ‘Mindshare’ because it didn’t have “media” in the title and people thought we sounded like a bunch of tree-hugging hippies – bleeding-heart liberals in a world of tough buyers. To be honest, the more people laughed at us, the more convinced I was that we had found a point of difference, although it was a bit uncomfortable for a while.
The name fits in so very well with the industry narrative now and I’d love to say that it was all planned, but it was also rather fortunate. Sampson Tyrrell – one of WPP’s agencies – had worked on the branding and produced a long list of potential names, which I condensed down to about 30. I sent the list to all the stakeholders who could claim to have a legitimate point of view and asked their opinion. Nobody bothered replying, so I boiled it down further to a shortlist of 10 and sent the list around again. Again, nobody responded.
Exasperated (and now even questioning my decision to become the company’s first and only employee), I sent yet another memo to the group, telling them that, in the absence of responses, democracy would be relinquished, and that I would make the decision myself. The Asia-Pacific team wrote back almost immediately – or as immediately as was then possible – declaring that they liked none of the 10 I’d picked, but were quite keen on one they’d found on the original long list. That name was Mindshare.
I looked at it again and agreed. It spoke to a number of things we were trying to establish; it was different, it was about mind, it was about thought, and it was about sharing, which implied open source collaboration. It fitted the bill and, since they were the only people to offer an opinion, I thought, “Let’s go for it.”
I guess the thing that eventually stood out about the rest of the branding was the colour purple. No great mystery there – our original logo was red and blue. It was an ugly and clunky nod to the colours of our parents – the red of Ogilvy and the blue of JWT. I was on a plane back from Singapore going through some documents and getting very irritated at how much I didn’t like the logo. So, before getting to Heathrow, I just merged the two colours and got to purple, showed it to a few colleagues on the Monday morning and we just went with it. Good decision.
We started in Asia Pacific in the autumn of 1997. I’d taken the job that September and my secretary and I rented some space in JWT’s offices in Berkeley Square (I remember doing the rent deal with myself!) and spent a couple of months plotting the way forward. We launched the business in Asia simply because that’s where the greatest enthusiasm was and where the lines of resistance were at their weakest.
I remember paying a visit there in early October 1997 and talking to all the stakeholders, beginning to think about who might be the leaders of the company, looking at things like new client prospects, positioning and real estate. I got a call about a month after coming back to London from the Asia team asking if I could go back again before Christmas. I said I could. They replied: “Good, because we want to launch.”
“We had a big party in the Conrad Hotel in Hong Kong and filled the ballroom with people who were mainly there for our free Mont Blanc pens. But we were off and running”
It was that quick because – as is so often the case with the Asian business community – they were very much quicker on the uptake of new ideas and they just wanted to get on with it. Because it was a long way from both London and New York, we were given a fairly free hand and had some very supportive agency stakeholders. We had a big party in the Conrad Hotel in Hong Kong and filled the ballroom with people who were mainly there for our free Mont Blanc pens. But we were off and running.
We were very fortunate in that both JWT and Ogilvy were already big players in the region and provided us with great clients and a very rich pool of talent in an area where that was hard to find. We grew the business very quickly: within a few months, we had 12 Mindshares in the region and had established ourselves as one of the biggest and best agencies. To be fair, the competition wasn’t very well organised there at the time.
Our next piece of good fortune (or maybe not just fortune) was that we started to win some major independent accounts that weren’t already held by Ogilvy or JWT. I think this is when we became truly viable and valuable.
No sooner had we launched in Asia than, in early 1998, most Asian economies went into a really tough recession which was seriously scary. Did we panic? Yes. We were a new business, just a few months old, and now in the middle of the worst economic downturn in years. But, in hindsight, it actually ended up working in our favour. We had scale, we’d made some noise in the market, and a lot of clients were reassured that as they we were going through the storm, they were in our fairly big and safe boat. Not only did it keep our competitors away, but also we actually gained a lot of market share during that recession, so when Asia emerged a year or so later, we were all the better for it.
“Our ambition was always to complete our network geographically in order to win more global business”
Thus emboldened, we went into Europe and then Latin America. Our ambition was always to complete our network geographically in order to win more global business. Right from our very first business plan, we assumed that the globalisation of marketing would stick. The plan was to start in Asia and then move quickly, ending up in the US. We knew that the US was going to be the toughest launch, and I felt that, if we could prove that Mindshare was a proper, well-regarded, profitable and well-run enterprise rather than an abstract theory on some overhead slides, then this could break down the barriers to the American market. By the time we came to market in the US, following successful launches in Latin America and Europe, we had shown that we had a business that was both performing well and, especially, appreciated by clients. It would be harder to reject.
By this point, we were inclined to believe that the market (ie clients) would decide in our favour and we hoped – rather vocally, in fact – that the business wouldn’t ignore the market’s advice when it arrived. Much of the resistance was internal, as expected. We were reinventing the structure of our advertising business, and that is a tough task. But, as we predicted, the market kept on voting with its feet. More and more clients were hiring us and our direct competitors over the full-service agencies. Indeed, whilst all the debates and wrangles and conferences were discussing the wisdom of what we and others were doing, the market was busy buying into it.
We always knew that it would be an enormous help in cracking the American market to hire the ‘Mr. Big’ of US media – so Irwin Gotlieb joined as the boss. There were some bloody battles along the way, but under Irwin the business got launched and the network was nearly complete. The whole global roll-out had taken three years.
Thriving as part of WPP
I think that, as a group, WPP has always been a very collaborative environment internally. Sir Martin speaks a lot about how there’s still more work to be done in the area of collaboration, and he’s right: you can never have too much. But we have more than others.
There is no doubt that the beginning was very tough and sometimes hostile but, after a few years, the collaboration was strong, once we had got over the original hurdles and had proven that we had a robust business. We understood (out of necessity) that the breadth of different types of agencies within WPP, even 18 years ago, was a competitive advantage. Arguably not as much of it was reaped as could have been, but we certainly harvested more of it than others. We were blessed with the advantages of being part of a large, broad collaborative and supportive parent company in WPP and, yes, we knew it. We even got a bit ahead of ourselves and tried to position the business as a “portal” into WPP.
For a while, we didn’t always get on well with our advertising agency partners. Having left home and created a lot of noise down the road, it wasn’t going to be easy. But in the march of time, our businesses became more collaborative; we started to see ourselves as a much more conciliatory and complementary practice, and relations reached a fairly healthy level of mutual respect. Management teams changed and evolved to the point where nowadays the people managing the media agencies and the creative agencies on the ground have never known anything else. They have always worked in this structure, so it isn’t such a big deal.
“We wanted to shake things up, have people think in a different way, get them out of their comfort zones and act as if they were brand-new again”
The media environment today is totally different to when we started the business in 1997 (a year before Google and six years before Facebook!). Internally, the defining challenge has to be to keep pace with that – constantly to restructure the agency and re-energise and repopulate the agency with people, products and strategies that encompass that new world. Keeping pace with the change is our biggest challenge because a major part of our job – arguably the major part– is keeping clients abreast of what’s going on out there and how changes in the media environment can affect their brands. This is usually the number one item on the to-do list.
Nick Emery – at the time our chief strategy officer, and subsequently my successor as CEO of Mindshare in 2012 – always maintained that to thrive, we must “constantly destroy and rebuild the company”. In 2008, for example, Nick did just that. We flattened the hierarchies and rebuilt the business into four key function groups: Client Leadership, Business Planning, Invention, and The Exchange.
This redefinition of roles was fundamental to developing the business. Each group consults with the others in providing solutions to clients’ needs. We wanted to shake things up, have people think in a different way, get them out of their comfort zones and act as if they were brand-new again. We liked to think that we’d broken the mould eight years before; this was an attempt to repeat that advantage of being new while becoming old.
From the start, it was always our ambition to get higher up the food chain to enter clients’ structures at a higher level, and clearly what we needed to do was to be seen as a business partner as well as a marketing and media partner. The restructuring addressed that issue and reframed our thinking to allow for this new role. I think it was largely successful. I’m glad we did it and I’m sure it’ll happen again under Nick’s leadership when he gets grumpy (quite soon, then).
GroupM – the fulfilment of a strategy long in the making
We’ve always taken the view that the only area of marketing services that really and obviously benefits from big and consolidated scale is media. If you look at the creative agencies or design agencies or PR agencies, these don’t require scale to be excellent. Media investment management does.
Because of the massive data requirements and technology investments, as well as the benefits of buying power, media agencies need scale. It was always thought that, as the business grew, we needed to put a structure in place that allowed that scale to work coherently. There is no point in having scale if it is not joined up. GroupM was thus born as an internal holding company, for want of a better phrase, whereby the aspects of our business that benefited from scale were joined up. So Irwin left Mindshare with colleagues from all our group agencies to set up GroupM.
What we’ve always been clear about is that we want the best of both worlds. We want to have very strong agencies in the market, but we want them to collaborate and be joined up where it benefits clients. We happen to think it’s a simple and obvious strategy. It is very difficult to execute, because it requires all 25,000 of us to work in a collaborative matrix. Not everybody is comfortable with that, but it is the only way.
“It’s an industry that does make a difference to clients, and that is something that we don’t speak about enough: the importance of what we do”
I was lucky. I stumbled into the business, as so many people do, and I honestly felt comfortable with it from the start. The fact is that it’s a very broad type of business and has many diverse types of people, from the heavy-duty scientists to liberal arts creatives; there’s a really interesting mix of people that makes it incredibly interesting. We have room for iconoclasts, scientists, creatives, investment specialists, mathematicians, film producers, managers, finance wizards and IT experts – and many others – all working together in teams. This has always been a great business to be in. It’s an industry that does make a difference to clients, and that is something that we don’t speak about enough: the importance of what we do. When we’re at our best, we are vital, valuable and fun.
The most important things (by far) were to get a plan, stick to it, and pick the right people to get it done. So many people (far too many to list) took the risk and joined. And the majority of the senior management who started the business are still in the company or the broader group. That is an amazing testament.