How Group M Unit Busted Silos

Ford Group CEO Enlists Behavioral Psychologist to Foster Collaboration

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DETROIT ( -- "Function is easy," said Phil Cowdell, CEO of Group M's new Ford Media Services, who is charged with not just merging WPP Group's U.S. media shops on Ford Motor Co. but persuading the new entity to think and work differently. "Changing behavior is not so easy."
Phil Cowdell, CEO of Group M's Ford Media Services
Phil Cowdell, CEO of Group M's Ford Media Services

So he hired a behavioral psychologist to help create a more collaborative structure.

Tough job
Mr. Cowdell, an energetic Brit, came to Dearborn, Mich., last July with the prickly task of overseeing the co-location of JWT and Ogilvy & Mather's MindShare media arm with Y&R's Mediaedge:cia for the automaker. He's blended the national planners, researchers and buyers with the formerly separate groups that handled regional dealer ad groups, though the teams are still split by brand for Ford, Lincoln and Mercury.

In the past, planners were split by medium and agency as well as brand. Now, for example, a former Mediaedge print planner who worked only on Lincoln Mercury could be on a Ford Division team previously limited to JWT planners.

Mr. Cowdell said the process has reconnected planners with buyers as "project partners" with shared objectives. So far, print, out-of-home, digital and cinema buyers have joined the media, digital and experiential planning teams. He said this setup avoids the "sequential relay race" of planning, then buying, then analysis in favor of a more collaborative style.

Staffers who worked on data-analysis metrics at JWT, Y&R, Ogilvy & Mather or Wunderman are now on the same floor in the so-called marketing-science unit. Before, they would separately report in some aspects of the marketing mix but vertically report in other areas, such as direct-mail response rates. Group M has broken down the vertical silos in favor of a more cross-disciplinary mind-set.

But Mr. Cowdell didn't break down those silos alone. He turned to Sharon Davis, president of Seda Consulting, who said she met Mr. Cowdell by chance on a plane to New York. Since her arrival, the behavioral psychologist has interacted with the management team and coached other smaller groups "to help orient them to the new vision and how to best use their skills and talent."

Mr. Cowdell said Ms. Davis helped him draft a list of nine "personal commitments," which hangs prominently on every floor and includes "truth-telling" to clients, as well as "open to new ways of working." He said the list sounds old-fashioned, but the core behaviors "gave everybody here a spine."

He credited Ms. Davis with helping him track "the temperature of the group" using anonymous exit polls after monthly staff meetings and advising him when to put more pressure on employees and when to ease off. Mr. Cowdell said she also helped him assess staff progress and learn to increase performance.

"What became apparent rather quickly was who gets it, who gets it with a little pushing and those who didn't get it at all," he said.

Researchers who never met or talked under the old setup now share data. The New York-area dealer association was able to dial up local ads during the "American Idol" finale because national planners informed their regional counterparts about Ford's integration plans for the show.

Low spirits
Still, morale at the new Group M unit has been low, according to three executives close to the matter.

While Ms. Davis didn't confirm that, she said it's not unusual when a company undergoes big changes, and commended Group M for making good progress in its transition.

Murat Yalman, who oversees brand strategies and operations for Ford, Lincoln and Mercury, said the automaker took "a radical approach" to how it works with WPP agencies "to stop the traditional infighting for revenue."


Employees faced with major upheaval fall into three categories, said Sharon Davis, president of Seda Consulting.
  • Scared: Need nurturing, explanations of their roles.
  • "Fearless Forwards": Need to be coached to slow down and given some perks.
  • Wait-and-See-Types: Need clear assignments.
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