Starcom MediaVest Group Spins Off Spark Into Third Agency Network

Chris Boothe Tapped as CEO

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A correction has been made in this story. See below for details.

Publicis Groupe 's Starcom MediaVest Group is tripling up on the new-business front with ambitions to turn Spark, its small and quiet media offering, into a viable third shop.

At the beginning of March, Starcom Chief Operating Officer Chris Boothe will become CEO at Spark. He'll be responsible for growing the agency, as well as transitioning a handful of Starcom clients and account teams into the firm.

Clients moving to Spark from Starcom include Sara Lee, Hanes, Stanley Steamer and Bass Pro Shops.

"The ultimate ambition is that we grow Spark quickly into a top-10 agency, and we're not that far off," said SMG Global CEO Laura Desmond. "We want to build on the strength of Starcom and MediaVest to make Spark strong. It's not about shifting resources. It's really about making sure they're all strong at the right time."

Spark had revenue of $13 million in 2010, according to the Ad Age DataCenter, and Ms. Desmond said that it has grown about 30% over the past few years. It also added E-Trade, Purina and Dairy Queen in 2011. The goal is to build on that and in three years have three SMG media networks in the top five.

The move comes on the heels of GM's global consolidation in January, which cost Starcom one of its biggest U.S. clients. But Ms. Desmond said that the timing of the Spark push "is completely unrelated" to the loss of GM. The leadership team started planning for the move last fall, she said.

For SMG, in an industry rife with conflicts it also creates new business opportunities within the overall SMG network.

"Part of the strategy here is not only to grow and build Spark, but build upon new opportunities and spaces inside Starcom," said Ms. Desmond. "It's all about growth. We think it's the right time to add a powerful third brand to the SMG network."

To jump-start the growth strategy, the firm added the mix of retail and CPG clients to its roster of consumer, food and financial brands. "It was a really good way to strengthen what Spark already has and diversify it," Ms. Desmond said.

So how did Starcom persuade clients to move over to Spark?

Anticipating clients' hesitance to transfer to a smaller firm, the team emphasized Spark's creative and digital capabilities and culture. Digital billings account for a greater percentage of overall billings there than at the other SMG media shops, said Ms. Desmond.

But a fresh digital culture wasn't enough on its own, at least not for Sara Lee North American CMO Monty Pooley.

"The first thing we talked about was what does this mean relative to the [SMG] network," he said, referring to SMG's buying power. "If this compromises the benefit of scale or removes us from being able to take advantage of the myriad of tools, it's a nonstarter."

The SMG team quickly put him at ease. "We felt comfortable that [the SMG network] was part of the proposal," Mr. Pooley said. "If you look at the size of our business and the attention we get from Chris and his team, we believe that it's going to be that much more intense. That for us feels like a worthwhile endeavor."

While Sara Lee will now be a bigger fish in a smaller pond, that doesn't mean it will wield smaller budgets, Mr. Pooley said. "We want to be in a position where we can continue to increase our investment." In 2010, Sara Lee spent $123.3 million on domestic measured media.

Mr. Boothe, a 25-year SMG vet who started his media career at Leo Burnett fresh out of college, will continue to work with Sara Lee and will be tasked with growing existing accounts and new business. Spark President Ken Zasky will report to Mr. Boothe. "A lot of what I learned has been here at Starcom, and I've had different experiences throughout," Mr. Boothe told Ad Age . "That's why I'm so excited about Spark. It's something different."

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CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story suggested Publicis would now be free to pursue Unilever business. Following publication of this story, Starcom Mediavest Group said it is not currently pursuing Unilever business nor does it have any intentions of doing so in the future.

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