NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- In the past couple of years, MPG's North American operations have had a lackluster track record. It was in late April that the head of the region, Shaun Holliday, exited and the agency -- in what it said was a demonstration of the importance of improving its U.S. business -- formally appointed Maria Luisa Francoli, its global leader, to also head its North American division.
It's been only three months, but she claims cultural and strategic changes are in motion that are having a positive impact on the attitude of people within the Havas agency. For her part, Ms. Francoli is intent on making her presence felt.
"Since 2007, I have been getting more and more involved in the U.S. operation, but I was doing it in a more behind-the-scenes role," she told Ad Age. "Now I am more out front and taking charge in a very direct way. I'm spending more time with the U.S. team and U.S. clients and figuring out ways to make our work more effective and efficient in North America."
While vacationing in her native Spain, Ms. Francoli took some time to speak with Ad Age about changing the culture at MPG in the U.S., becoming more competitive and changing competitors' perception of MPG as a non-threat when it comes to new business pitches. She also addressed what a potential Aegis deal would mean for the media shop.
Ad Age: What are some of your areas of focus since taking on the leadership role for MPG's North America operations?
Ms. Francoli: One of the main things I'm focusing on is the culture of the company around service to the client. That is something we have been working on more and more over the last few years. Secondly, I am working to change the culture of the company in hopes of making it a more collaborative culture. We spend a lot of time at work, and we need to make it a place for communication, collaboration and fun. We want it to be a place where people are excited to come to work everyday. I'm meeting with all of our teams and giving them the platform and forums to discuss their main concerns and ideas that they want to see put into action.
Ad Age: Do you think that type of culture was slipping away at MPG's North American offices over the past few years?
Ms. Francoli: Compared to other offices in our network, we could elevate the level of that type of culture in the U.S. office, yes. I wouldn't say it is slipping away, but we could enhance and increase it. After all, it's a people business, so if you listen and empower your people and make it possible for them to contribute, you get much better results. We have over 400 brains working for us in the U.S., and it's good to provide a way for them to contribute their best. We will be a better organization if we do that.
Ad Age: What types of things did clients and employees feel was lacking when Shaun Holliday was running the North American group?
Ms. Francoli: It's not so much lacking as it is a difference in the way I like to do things. Client contact is the key to our business. Knowing what our clients are thinking, feeling and what their challenges are is the key to being successful and delivering effective strategies to them. We can help clients in two ways. One is being closer to the client themselves, and the other is my being closer to the teams that are working with the clients on a day-to-day basis. That intimacy and closeness is what allows you to bring the right solutions to the clients. This is something that I'm changing and something that I didn't do all that much when I was in my global role. I was meeting with clients that were doing more global work and not so much the North American-centric clients.
Ad Age: Was meeting with clients something Mr. Holliday wasn't doing?
Ms. Francoli: That wasn't his main area of concentration, but it is mine.
Ad Age: The belief among a number of your U.S. competitors is that MPG isn't seen as much of a threat when it comes to new business. Do you think that's a fair assessment?
Ms. Francoli: No, I don't think so. However, if they are saying that, they may have felt that in the last few months we were not as competitive as we have been, but we will take note of that, and we are concentrating on new business now.
Ad Age: What can you do to change that perception?
Ms. Francoli: The best thing to do to change that is to win new business, and we are making a very concentrated effort towards doing that. We have some wins in the past year or so that may have not been as well-publicized like LVMH and Panasonic and some other smaller wins. But perception is reality, and the best thing we can do is to go out and win more new business and make sure people know that we won it.
Ad Age: What are the biggest challenges for MPG in North America?
Ms. Francoli: There's a combination of challenges, and some impact all of us as an industry, like the changes in technology, changes in how consumers use that technology and how that dramatically alters the way consumers interact with brands. Coming out of the recession has been a huge challenge to the way we work with our clients as well as the way we deal with our own internal affairs. In our case, since we are a smaller company compared to some of our competitors in the U.S., I like to believe we have an advantage in terms of it being easier to bring everybody in on major decisions that need to be made. Sometimes that smaller size isn't perceived as an advantage, but I think it is an advantage when it comes to rallying your employees behind one cause.
Ad Age: You currently handle media duties for Reckitt Benckiser in India, which recently caused a stir for charging media agencies a fee to take part in an agency review. Why did you decide not to take part, and what are your thoughts of this idea of charging agencies a fee to pitch?
Ms. Francoli: We declined to participate because we didn't feel the fee the client was asking us to pay justified our taking part in the review. Advertisers are free to set the conditions they want whenever they call a pitch, but I personally don't agree with this approach. But, as agencies, we are free to accept or not accept these conditions that advertisers put forward.
Ad Age: Rumors of Havas Chairman Vincent Bollore eventually acquiring Aegis continue to make the rounds. If that were to happen, in your opinion, what could that mean for MPG?
Ms. Francoli: If both Aegis and MPG are smart and manage it well, there could be opportunities for both companies. We are fine the way we are, but if that eventually happens and brings opportunity, I'm sure we will be smart enough to make sure we don't miss the opportunities that could benefit both companies.
Ad Age: What's in store for MPG over the next 12 months?
Ms. Francoli: I hope we have a couple of very interesting new business wins to discuss. And afterward, if you ask our competitors about us, the story will have hopefully changed, and they will realize how much of a threat we are.