A Digital Leader Takes a Hands-on Approach to All Media

Q&A With Rob Norman, CEO of Group M North America

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Making the transition to CEO of Group M North America hasn't been all that difficult for Rob Norman, even though he now oversees more than $30 billion in billings in his dual role as co-head of Group M North America and Global CEO of Group M Interaction.

Rob Norman
Rob Norman
Mr. Norman, who has run Group M Interaction since 2007, replaced former Group M North America CEO Marc Goldstein, who announced he was stepping down in January. Like his predecessor, Mr. Norman oversees Group M's North American operation with Rino Scanzoni, Group M's chief investment officer. But unlike Mr. Goldstein, Mr. Norman's responsibilities also include running Group M Interaction. Group M is the holding unit for parent WPP's four media networks, Mindshare, MEC, MediaCom and Maxus. Group M Interaction brings together the various digital arms and talent within the unit.

Mr. Norman said the invasion of digital into nearly every aspect of media and marketing has made his shift relatively painless. But there have been challenges, such as managing the time spent working on projects, attending meetings and working on budgets.

Mr. Norman recently spoke with Ad Age about what the first six months in his new role has been like and the adjustments he's had to make, the success of some of Group M's agencies and the role the unit plays in new-business pitches.

Ad Age: How has the transition been from a digital role to your new position at Group M?

Mr. Norman: The really good news is that the digital ink has gotten so far into the water that by the time I made the jump there's no senior person in the business who does not believe that the notion of soon everything will be digital is true. In that sense it wasn't a huge issue to switch to the new role. Also, I had a pre-digital career that's always been concurrently digital and analog. I've always been interested in the digital evolution of the traditional sources of news and entertainment as well as the emerging ones and service platforms that go with it. From that point of view it hasn't been difficult.

The range of considerations and number of moving parts is different than what I was used to and that has come with some challenges.

Ad Age: What challenges? And what have you learned during the first six months?

Mr. Norman: The issue is understanding that when you move from a role that is at the leading edge of a client's activity to a role that takes up a lot more meeting time, you can forget just how important some of our clients' core deliveries are.

When you think of the size of our business in national and local TV and out-of-home, and realize how important the continued delivery of efficiency and effectiveness in those mediums, which are still the biggest needle movers of some of our clients, I have to get back into that mindset and make sure I am giving due consideration and that I have the context right. It's easy to get carried away if you're just a digital guy.

So I've tried to work with our CEOs and senior managers to carry on making sure we deliver efficiency and effectiveness in the market. But at the same I'm helping the agencies manage integration of all of the things that are new and ensuring that innovation prospers across the whole of the business because it takes a real partnership to get that done. What I don't do is sit in my office and give orders to our CEOs.

Ad Age: So you still maintain a very hands-on approach?

Mr. Norman: I came in this business to help the company score the goals rather than help them keep score. It's important that I carry on doing that. Group M wouldn't take the digital guy and add to his responsibilities in order to make him an administrator.

Ad Age: Group M has said that making Maxus more of a major player in the U.S. is one of its goals in 2010. How is that going and how far along in the process are you on that?

Mr. Norman: A year and a half ago Maxus would not have been able to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Ogilvy on a global basis and bring the UPS business into the company. What you have to do when you have a relatively small group of people is set good business and client targets for them and give them time to digest it.

We have an active new-business book with Maxus at the moment. And sometimes it worries me in that it might grow too quickly, but so far so good. I'm pleased with the way that team has come together and the way they've developed their offering. You don't build a massive business out of Maxus overnight. But the momentum we are getting globally, like in the U.K. with the recent British Telecomm win and L'Oreal in India, is going to make people sit up, take notice and say that Maxus is meaningful.

Ad Age: One of the projects you have undertaken in the first six months was moving paid search out of Group M Search into the individual agencies. What was the reasoning behind that?

Mr. Norman: We have taken a view of what a media communications company in our sector needs to deliver to its clients. We know we have to increase our abilities in a couple of areas and search is one of them. Business science, analytics, social media and modeling are others.

What we're doing is identifying potential revenue streams in the market that can build out our service propositions to clients. We then incubate that service proposition in order to hot-house talent and build a meaningful and solidified capability. Once we've scaled that capability we then work out how to deliver it most seamlessly into the agencies. There's always a bridge period where you have this meta organization with people allocated from a central service at the agencies, and then you begin the process of hardwiring them into that agency. That's process we have begun within search.

In search we now have [strategists] who are increasingly delivering the whole of the [search-engine monetization] within the agencies largely because paid search budgets can complement other media budgets.

For the time being organic search is being kept separate and we are continuing to incubate it. It's evolving quickly from a link-building and site-optimization business into a digital asset-management business and we're keeping that aligned centrally. We will watch and learn about the degree to which we can push that at the agencies as well.

But for me the most important thing is that clients buy a complete service from each of our agency businesses and that each agency puts its own flavor on that service. Group M must make sure that as these capabilities evolve we deliver as much of it through the agencies in an integrated way as we can.

Ad Age: Some of Group M's agencies have been doing very well in terms of new business, Mindshare in particular, while others have been making less noise. Do you think there's a reason for that and are there areas all of the agencies could improve in?

Mr. Norman: It's true that the headline new-business performance of MediaCom and MEC has been less obvious. But we can't dismiss the fact that Revlon and Travelers are very significant pieces of business that both came into MediaCom this year. And in the case of MEC it recently got the eHarmony digital business. But over the last couple of years MEC has digested AT&T, which is the biggest piece of business in Group M North America and a piece of business in a category that has shown enormous growth.

Ad Age: What role does Group M play in new-business pitches?

Mr. Norman: Group M has a raft of people and resources ranging from implementation to social-media monitoring. And all of those assets go into those pitches but it's the agency's job to understand what the client needs and what the RFP calls for and then to activate the Group M resources to do it. But it would be ludicrous to understate the role of our implementation groups. A lot of agencies, including ours, will talk about the need for creativity and communications planning but the rubber still hits the road in the implementation area.

Ad Age: How are some of Group M's smaller specialist agencies, such as Joule, M-80 and Kinetic, developing and how will you be using them?

Mr. Norman: They remain a very small part of our overall revenue base but they are a great catalyst for other things. Our agency leaders have done a great job of integrating these services into their client offerings and that, I believe, has been one of the biggest drivers of our organic growth.

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