4As Management 2006

Zenith's billion-dollar breakout

By Published on .

In 2000, zenith media held its annual Christmas party at a convenient venue just a few blocks away from its Manhattan office.

"We had a very good year in 2000," says Tim Jones, president of Zenith Media, jointly owned by Publicis Groupe and Cordiant Communications Group. "We won Verizon, ExxonMobil and AstraZeneca. We felt as if we were on top of the world. So at the end of the year we had a party. It was at Windows on the World."

In 2001, Zenith started off strong, winning United Airlines in January. "I told everyone let's keep the momentum going and we'll have another party at Windows on the World," says Mr. Jones.

Zenith proceeded to increase its billings by 40% over 2000, acquiring an estimated $1 billion in new business, including work for Boston Beer Co., General Mills, Schering-Plough Corp., Georgia-Pacific Corp. and the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. It won 13 out of 16 pitches in which it competed. Also last year, the shop launched a new division, Zenith Direct; opened new offices in Seattle and Newport Beach, Calif.; hired 165 new employees in offices across the country; did not lay off a single member of its staff of 450; and suffered not a single client loss. All this in the midst of a recession. For this and more, Zenith has justly earned Advertising Age`s designation as Media Agency of the Year finalist.

"We didn't, however, have a party at Windows on the World," Mr. Jones, says somberly of the 2001 holiday celebration.

The famed World Trade Center restaurant was destroyed in the Sept. 11 terrorist attack. The event was witnessed firsthand by the staff of Zenith's New York office from its 10th floor windows that had directly faced the landmark.

"We live down here," says Peggy Green, president of national broadcast. "We saw this building implode. We saw people get killed. It affected us deeply. But we continued to work."

not just a business

Rich Hamilton, CEO of Zenith Media, likes to say that his shop is not just a business-it's a family, made of personalities and human beings who act on an intimate, caring level with each other and clients. According to Mr. Hamilton, it is this human dimension, even more than the agency's proven planning and strategy expertise, that accounts for Zenith's successes. This was demonstrated after the tragedy of Sept. 11, which occurred so close to home that some employees were traumatized and were given time off to recover.

Also deeply affected were clients such as Verizon Communications, which had offices at the destroyed 7 World Trade Center. Zenith's Verizon team couldn't return to their offices on Sept. 12 because downtown was sealed off, so they worked at home around the clock, assembling a critically important newspaper package for Verizon, with ads that dramatically addressed the tragedy, expressed regrets, and vowed to keep phone services up and running.

"We weren't sure we should be doing advertising at first," says Bill McCarron, VP-director of media at Verizon. "The people at Zenith helped us come up with the right approach. Talk about resourceful, they were at Ground Zero and couldn't get into their offices. We had Zenith people working for us out of their homes. The National Guard even evacuated Wendy [Marquardt, president of VmZ, the Verizon media group at Zenith] out of her home-she lives across the street from the stock exchange-and still she got the job done."

"We functioned effectively while dealing with our own emotional difficulties," recalls Ms. Marquardt.

"A lot of this comes from our boss," says Ms. Green. "Rich Hamilton is a good man. As big as we are, we have a personality, and that's what distinguishes us from the others."

HIGH-POWERED GUESTS

Mr. Hamilton also has a rich sense of humor. On a tour of his offices, he recalls a visit from Publicis Chairman-CEO Maurice Levy. Mr. Levy, along with Cordiant Chairman Michael Bungey, last year engineered the creation of the Zenith Optimedia Group, a global media holding company pairing Zenith with Publicis' other media unit, Optimedia. The company claims billings of $17 billion globally, making it the fourth-largest media company in the world.

Mr. Hamilton points to three wall clocks in Zenith's reception area that carry the time in New York, London and Hong Kong. "We changed this clock to Paris time," says Mr. Hamilton. "And when Maurice left, we changed it back to London, just in time for a visit by John [Perriss, chairman-CEO Zenith Optimedia Group Worldwide]."

Zenith's Christmas party in 2001 was held at the New York City Fire Department Museum. Although still at the top of their game, Zenith executives decided to stay down to earth, at a human scale, celebrating their success in a place that paid tribute to the city's heroic fire department. "Yes, we danced, and that's on the record," Mr. Hamilton says. "The party was more subdued than last year's event, but the world is a different place today than it was last year. Much different."

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