GroupM North America CEO Kirk McDonald on fixing media
Ad Age caught up with Kirk McDonald, the former chief business officer and interim head of AT&T’s Xandr ad tech unit who took the helm of GroupM North America as CEO on Sept. 15.
McDonald, who manages $17.6 billion in media investment billings across the U.S. and Canada, replaced Tim Castree, who left GroupM in November 2019, just one year after becoming CEO of the North American operations. In the months between Castree's departure and McDonald's appointment, the North America region was led by GroupM Global CEO Christian Juhl, who was appointed to succeed Kelly Clark last year.
McDonald discusses joining GroupM at a transformative time for the company and the media industry at large, as clients look to get more for less in a pandemic-stricken environment, consumers demand more transparency and accountability in terms of how their data is being used, and all companies strive for inclusivity in the wake of the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. McDonald talks about what GroupM can do to make sure "advertising works better for everyone," the changing needs of clients, and his thoughts on the future of the agency, as well as the industry.
The following interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
How do you feel your background at WarnerMedia’s Xandr ad tech unit has prepared you, or will help, in leading GroupM at a time when media is becoming increasingly complex?
I don’t know if it’s Xandr but my three decades of media experience brings me to a few conclusions. Advertising can do better than it’s been doing. Overall, the advertising industry has gotten an unfavorable rap and some of that is due to us not paying enough attention to all of the different constituents who make advertising work. When it only works for the publishers, it doesn’t work. When it only works for the advertisers, it doesn’t work.
Advertising plays a critical role in helping me, as a consumer, become knowledgeable—knowledgeable on what toothpaste to buy, or investment decisions to make, or which airline to travel. Helping companies engage customers, find new customers; advertising works there. GroupM’s mission statement is ‘to make advertising work better for people.’ Who is WPP and what is GroupM? We are the largest media investment company in the world. As the largest media investment company in the world, we have the kind of scale to truly make advertising work better for everyone.
What does that look like when advertising works better for everyone?
I think the answer to that lies in what parts of advertising don’t work well and what can we do to start solving those things. I would sum it up this way: Advertising is going to work best when ads are are seen by real people in environments that matter; when ads are raising consumer confidence; when ads are safe and delivering to us the things we need. That actually benefits everyone.
There are some general principles around advertising’s use of data—just because you can doesn’t mean you should. We’ve had these data technologies and we’ve been so focused on what could happen with them, we didn’t put enough thought into what should happen. We need to remove the parts of advertising that feel invasive, predatory. In partnership with the industry, content and publishing partners, we can do that. Advertising can be used for good. It can add to moments of cultural or social unrest. We saw it with the first reactions to the pandemic and again with the [racial injustice protests]. The return has been there for brands that reacted to things in the world where it was right for their consumers. Advertising is working better already.
You mention data privacy and obviously that has been a big pain point with consumers. Now with the introduction of the California Consumer Privacy Act, how is GroupM advising clients around new legislation and privacy concerns?
Regardless of the laws that are in effect, ultimately the relationship with consumers is what matters. When you start seeing these laws in effect concern consumers interacting with media, we’re taking on the role of advising our clients around it. We continue to believe a global, more responsible media is a big part of moving forward.
Wondering your thoughts on all the recent leadership changes within GroupM, including Christian Juhl succeeding Kelly Clark as global CEO.
There has been a clearer vision of how we will keep evolving and growing the organization. We have to recognize the world is changing. [WPP CEO Mark Read’s] leadership has led to innovation in different areas. Christian coming on board has led to different thinking. He’s taken robust capabilities and is empowering customers to be more successful with the assets they own, whether it’s data assets or products and services. Christian’s really thought about us being recognized for scaled investment, but what about intelligent investment? These are things I’ve seen working within the organization and I’m excited to be a part of that as we go forward.
How has the pandemic changed the media landscape, and what are clients asking of GroupM?
I think Mark Read captured this well: React, recover and renew, are his three Rs. Essentially, Mark said the big changes have come from the fact that there had to be immediate reaction. There was this moment you had to do something. We learned that a true partnership requires flexibility. The majority of clients wanted to figure out how to be relevant, and they had similar thinking when the protests around injustice and fairness kicked off with the killing of George Floyd. All of our clients have come to us to say, “hey how do I move my messages, either by delaying it or changing it?” These events showed us this year, more than anything else, that we can be nimble; we can move things around. Overnight, we took our entire workforce remote and I’m really proud of our staff’s ability to adjust.
Of course, diversity, equity and inclusion is top of mind for all agencies right now. How are you helping make GroupM and the media industry at large more inclusive?
The United States markets we run here in North America are themselves changing. The audiences we are talking to are becoming more and more diverse. Your [media] efforts can’t just bolt on diversity and inclusion to your strategy or thinking; they have to be native from the beginning and we have to be part of that. We’ve taken on initiatives that have been publicly talked about.
The Multicultural Marketplace [which works to increase diversity within its media buying opportunities and includes more than 300 Black- and Hispanic-owned publishers] is a great example by ensuring that our efforts to invest in diverse leadership and ownership of media is a priority. Where we spend matters. The next part goes back to working with ad partners, where they think about expressing their messages, the audiences they speak to. While we’re not mandating anything, we are making sure [clients] aren’t missing opportunities. We’ve received a lot of positive response on our Multicultural Marketplace.
We’ve been hearing a lot about the future agency model and what that might look like. Do you have any thoughts on what the future media agency, and specifically GroupM, will look like?
I don’t know exactly what the future model will look like but I do want us to be known for more than just scaled investments. I want us to be known for bringing the tremendous amounts of insights we need to be able to solve the big systemic issues preventing advertising from working well. The actual agency model will evolve, as all models do, but I don’t want to get ahead of myself only six weeks in.
How is GroupM thinking about return to work? Any thoughts about consolidating real estate in certain areas or transitioning to a more flexible working model where people aren’t coming in five days a week?
We went ahead and created open access to the office. We’ve been very explicit about this to employees: We are comfortable with every single employee having to do what’s right for them. Their productivity comes from confidence in the ways in which they are working. But we were hearing from the team, as well, that it would be great to have access to the office to come in as they need to. So we’ve opened a couple of our floors in New York and our office in Chicago. We’re learning from what we are seeing in terms of how many people are going into the office and will adjust from that over time. Personally, I have chosen to go in a few days a week but we’re not requiring that for anyone else. Everyone has to use their own judgment.
Long-term? I don’t think we’re going to get back to any of the norms we had [before the pandemic]. We’d be remiss if we didn’t take advantage of the new strengths we’ve [found in the pandemic]. I’m not sure if we all will be working remote one day with four days in the office or four days remote and one in the office. As it turns out, we can sustain high productivity in remote working situations, but I still believe our business benefits when we get together. I don’t have the answer yet but we’re listening to the team more than anything else. Creating open access to the office was a response from employee surveys we did.