How 'Odd Choices' Led a Creative Vet to the Methodical-Media Side

Basics Q&A: 'Scary' Transition to Media Agency Work Pays Off

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Jim Elms has worked in the media-agency world for about two-and-a-half years, but it was his long career at creative shops including Grey , Goodby and Wieden & Kennedy that helped inspire a recent promotion.

Jim Elms
Jim Elms

Formerly chief strategy officer at Interpublic Group of Cos.' Universal McCann, Mr. Elms is now global chief strategy officer for IPG MediaBrands, the parent company for UM, Initiative and new agency BPN.

He talked to Ad Age about the benefit of creativity in the more "controlled" and "methodical" media agency environment, the "very scary" transition between worlds, his plans to boost Initiative and a career path that was anything but calculated.

Advertising Age: What does a chief strategy officer for a media agency holding company do?

Jim Elms:: I will have several different functions, but the biggest job will be helping our agencies create new tools and looking at new ways of developing insights for major clients globally. For example, while at UM we developed an "archetyping" consumer-insights tool that distills thousands of data points around target segments into a one-page narrative of their life. That's the type of approach we'll take now with Initiative and BPN. One example at Initiative is a tool to help us better interpret what's happening in youth culture so we can apply it to ideas.

Ad Age : Initiative has not had the best past year in terms of retaining and winning business. How will you and your new role help move the agency forward?

Mr. Elms: That's the focus of probably the next year. It's been a few weeks since I've taken this role and I'm already involved in a couple of pitches with Initiative . One of the things we're looking at now is the process. Like most agencies, some of the exercises we do are rooted in the past. Initiative is looking at a rapid approach to ideation, which is more in line with today's world. We're looking at a more-streamlined and still-rigorous, but a little faster-paced, perspective on linking tools for things like insights, modeling and analytics and getting more people to be more collaborative throughout the process.

Ad Age : Tell me about your creative past.

Mr. Elms: I did not have a deliberate plan with my career at all. I've made some really odd choices -- I was at Goodby, but in the mid-'90s, when they were untouchable, I went to a little family shop in New Orleans [where I had attended Tulane at one point]. That was culture shock on every level. I stayed there 10 years. Matt Seiler [who was at Goodby with me] was like, why? Jeff Goodby couldn't make sense of it. I said, I like it down there; I won't be there long. ... In a really weird way it's like these little bizarre moves built me for what I'm doing now.

Ad Age : What was the transition to the media-agency business like? How does creative talent supplement media?

Mr. Elms: The transition was very scary. I had a really hard time transitioning from an environment that 's totally out of control in terms of creativity and ideas -- ideas are sometimes hard to ground. In media, it's much more process-oriented, mathematical and methodical but not nearly as creative as I'm used to.

It took several months to adjust to that , but I found that people like to be free if you let them and show them they can be crazy and fun. In a way, we began building that type of environment. [Media agencies] have the budgets and research and they're able to invest in tools and joint ventures, so it ended up being the perfect place for me. In our industry we have all the room to be as creative as any business, including the music and film businesses, so it's up to us to push that . There's an opportunity for the agency to become more creative in terms of channels, partnerships, sponsorships and more programmatic ways of using media.

Ad Age : I hear you asked teams to write haikus during a pitch? Can you explain?

Mr. Elms: We were in a giant regional pitch and struggling with the platform insight. I said let's get away from that bullshit and try to do the briefs in haiku; it might uncover interesting territory.

We made up a few on the spot. I knew [my team] was stressed out, but I think it worked because it got the stress off of the assignment which freed them. Ultimately it shifted thinking in such a way that we recast the category and product and what they had to do and came up with an interesting way to increase share and do marketing. We didn't brief markets with haiku because we couldn't agree [on any one poem], but the journey was the reward. We ended in a brilliant place.

Ad Age : Did you win?

Mr. Elms: Yes.

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