In the latest chapter of ‘The Media Men‘, MEC global chief executive Charles Courtier recounts the agency’s beginnings, from the merger of Young & Rubicam Media Europe with The Media Edge.
Autonomy and power: the rise of media independents
While the media agency model had been established, it wasn’t until the early 1990s that it began to impose itself. The evolving European Single Market had bestowed upon these independents a responsibility to be networked – to be international – and almost overnight they became very real challengers in the industry. These networks had recognised the benefits that bulk buying afforded them in a global media economy and were using these cost savings to win big-name accounts.
In an effort to compete, advertising agencies pulled out their media departments and began operating them independently. MEC sprung from this very pursuit when US advertising agency N.W. Ayer & Son unbundled its media capability and rebranded it The Media Edge. When Ayer prepared to sell its holdings to the MacManus Group, The Media Edge would be forced to resign its prized AT&T account. It was given permission to annex selected clients and position themselves for acquisition. Young & Rubicam Inc. duly obliged and bought the business in July 1996.
I was named European media director of Y&R in 1999 and, following three years of embedding and then unbundling The Media Edge into Y&R’s own media operations in the US, I was tasked with rebranding Young & Rubicam Media Europe to The Media Edge.
“The marketplace at the time was awash with strong media agencies, but our model broke the mould”
When Y&R – along with The Media Edge – was acquired by WPP in 2000, it split perspectives and objectives even further. I had confidence that Martin Sorrell – a guy who understood media – would bestow upon us a greater level of autonomy, power and opportunity. And the benefits of a strong media-buying group were not lost on Martin, who quickly established the founding blocks of GroupM, comprising the combined media departments of Ogilvy and JWT: Mindshare, and The Media Edge.
The marketplace at the time was awash with strong media agencies, but our model broke the mould – we pioneered the concept of group trading. This collaboration for the benefit of our clients collectively remains a crucial component of our industry, and absolutely instrumental to our success. WPP was definitely our ticket to thrive.
MEC begins and a culture is sparked
When WPP bought Tempus Group in 2001, it was on the understanding that the newly acquired media agency – CIA – would merge with The Media Edge.
On paper, the agencies were well matched: The Media Edge was very strong in North America, and underdeveloped in Europe; CIA, meanwhile, was established in Europe and weaker in the US. Both were developing in Asia Pacific and Latin America.
Individually we were finding it harder to compete with global pitches because we weren’t big enough. We needed greater power, evenly spread globally. Even before WPP’s acquisition of Young & Rubicam, I had a great deal of admiration for CIA and investigated a potential alliance. My global head of communications, Nathalie Haxby, remembers her to-do list the day she joined The Media Edge; the first thing I’d asked of her was to arrange a call with Mainardo de Nardis, then chief executive of CIA. We needed each other, and we knew that very early on.
The context in which the two agencies fused was harsh. In fact, WPP had applied to the Takeover Panel in the UK for leave to back out of its agreement to purchase Tempus at 555 pence, invoking a little-used provision to drop the bid on the grounds that there had been a “material adverse change” in Tempus’s prospects since the 11 September attacks in the US. The application was turned down.
“The whole industry simply looked at MEC and said, ‘God, what an ugly duckling. It’s never going to survive.'”
So, this indeed was a difficult merger, albeit the first of its kind for WPP, and firmly set against a precarious economic backdrop. We were trying to merge two global businesses within an industry which was in free fall. The whole industry simply looked at MEC and said, “God, what an ugly duckling. It’s never going to survive.”
To my mind, that was the catalyst which has defined us as a company internally ever since. We were forced together by the chaos of our environment. We were stuck in what was clearly a difficult situation, and that created a culture of perseverance – we had nothing left to do but work together and succeed.
What was created as a result, and has been nurtured ever since, is a very different way of thinking. As Campaign magazine once noted: “MEC has a more local, less homogeneous, more entrepreneurial spirit.” We grew together as a collaborative network. We knew that we had one job and one job only: to be our clients’ most valued business partner – to grow their business by exploring all possible opportunities in the communications landscape and to make them thrive.
And that can only start with our people; with a culture, a spirit and behaviour that allows our people to grow and develop. That demands more of ourselves by setting higher standards and raising the bar in the work that we deliver.
Growing up: reinventing the industry and the role of the challenger
The launch of MEC in 2002 ultimately allowed us to be different; it gave us license to be a challenger. We had to reinvent ourselves and this came at a time when the industry itself was on the cusp of change.
We positioned ourselves as the “communications planning and implementation agency”, which – despite sounding incredibly mundane now – was at the time a trailblazing move. It meant walking through the doors of the agency every day thinking “consumer, consumer, consumer,” rather than “TV, newspapers, radio”. That was a big mindset switch.
We realised just how important our role could be. That period was an extraordinary purple patch where we reinvented ourselves as a communications planning agency, putting strategy at the very heart of everything we did for clients. And, while we certainly weren’t the only people in the marketplace talking about the consumer journey, we were very early proponents in terms of using real investments to drive it deep into the heart of the business.
A real moment of clarity came very early on. In 2003, we made an acquisition in the US: a sports-and-entertainment company called The Leverage Group, based in New York. This was a business that did entertainment marketing and sports sponsorship properly and MEC’s stake marked the first time a media agency, rather than a holding company, had made a play for that space. (Amalgamated with various other sponsorship businesses acquired in the network, this ultimately became MEC Access, which we drove out around the world as a global sports-, entertainment- and cause-marketing agency within an agency.)
“It proved to the press, the industry and – crucially – ourselves that this approach toward communications planning wasn’t just words on a page: it had teeth”
How ordinary it now seems for that capability to sit within media; yet, at the time, this was a brave move. It proved to the press, the industry and – crucially – ourselves that this approach toward communications planning wasn’t just words on a page: it had teeth. After that, we started to feel very different. We had put our money where our mouth was. We were an innovator and a true challenger agency with a very real strategic offer, backed up by the scale of GroupM.
Forthwith, we made another acquisition in New York to open, build and create MEC Retail. Through this investment, we accessed capability, research and software which empowered us to manage retail as a media platform. Our combined skills afforded us the potential to define the value of media in the retail space and, for the first time, to compare a dollar spent there with a dollar spent in television.
The offer was always very small, but it defined us differently and we won new business around that time because of it and our belief in raising the bar. It was this winning streak and these initiatives and innovations that attracted a huge amount of attention to MEC. That’s when Ad Age and Ad Week both made us Global Media Agency of the Year for two years running in 2006 and 2007.
Breaking out of the last 10 minutes
The digital revolution has proved that it’s impossible to separate the content from the channel. Indeed, after years of dissent between media and creative, I do think the industry is reintegrating.
While it’s unlikely to go back to the old full-service offering (mourned by some), we must successfully collaborate in order to offer an integrated product to our clients. What’s needed now is an equal set of specialists around the table to guide the process. We all have to be genuinely client-centric, which means organising ourselves in a way that suits the delivery of our client’s business rather than our own personal silos.
Now, we’re getting to a much better place where the communications plan is built, the role of all media – old and new – is established and the central idea, the engagement and the strategy are developed before we finally decide on the content.
Our process is more respectful and conciliatory: the creative gene within the industry really revolves around ideas and these are recognized as coming from anywhere and anyone, and on new and existing platforms upon which to build superb communication. To me, creativity has always been about the ability to tell a really good story and drive active engagement between a brand and a consumer.
“That’s how the media agency got as powerful as it has: not just through buying power or economies of scale, but through genuine strategic leadership”
This thinking formed the cornerstone of MEC Momentum, our proprietary approach to understanding and qualifying how consumers make purchase decisions, helping brands to find new ways of reaching them.
It gets under the skin of how people make decisions, unpicking their beliefs (preconceived or not) about brands and how these influence behavior. Ultimately, though, MEC Momentum is a paradigm for MEC’s ideology. It broadens the scope of communications, challenges assumptions and changes the behavior not just of consumers but of businesses too. It forces a more complete view of the value communications can provide.
To me, that is incredibly creative, but it’s creative in a game-changing kind of way which pays respect to the enduring importance of strategy. That’s how the media agency got as powerful as it has: not just through buying power or economies of scale, but through genuine strategic leadership.
Most creative campaigns (just like most media plans, by the way) are not game-changing. But with a self-starting culture that encourages curiosity and innovation you’ll get a spark of alchemy like MEC Momentum which has the potential to move the industry forward, challenging assumptions about media and consumers, and creating real business value.
Finding our future
The future of the industry undoubtedly and indisputably lies in people, with the new generation who fuse technology with creativity. We’re still in this revolution where digital and creative skills just incubate throughout the business world. Every time we hire a new person they are indelibly digital, because that’s how they’ve grown up. They don’t see the difference; they don’t see the join.
I believe the traditional polarity – that creative/strategic struggle which has pervaded the industry – to be an affliction that struck at the beginning, in childhood.
When I was at school, we would say to each other: “Well, either you’re the arty one or you’re the logical, practical one, but you’re never both”. Now we have young people who have a combination of those skills and I think that’s dynamite. That’s why my personal mission is to ensure that this rising young talent has a seat right at the top of our company and a voice there that will shape the future of MEC.