Universal McCann Is Ad Age's Comeback Agency of the Year

Formerly Viewed as Just a Media Arm, Aggressive Approach Landed Shop a Host of New Business

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- BMW North America's nine-month-long media review was one of the longest and most-drawn-out of the year. Patrick McKenna, manager-marketing communications and consumer events at BMW, said there were a few reasons for the holdup. One one was Matt Seiler, global CEO of Universal McCann, the agency that eventually wrestled the business away from four-year incumbent GSD&M Idea City.

BMW: Universal McCann's aggressive approach helped win account.
CEO: Matt Seiler
CLIENTS: BMW, Dyson, Charles Schwab, Applebee's, Chrysler
The automaker says it was "very happy" with GSD&M but decided to review the business because of the ramifications of the economic downturn on the media market. "It was a case of us just going to market to see what the market would provide," Mr. McKenna said. What the market wrought, he said, was a one-man crusade for BMW's business.

"When I say 'crusade' I mean two-page unsolicited e-mails on Sunday night at 10 o'clock about his passion and commitment to the business, what [Mr. Seiler] would do to secure the business and then back that up with his plans for the brand," Mr. McKenna said. "We loved his passion, and ultimately [Univeral McCann] prevailed."

And Along with the $200 million BMW account, Universal McCann also notched its belt with wins from Dyson, Charles Schwab, Applebee's and Chrysler.

The parade of new business coming through the doors must have been the equivalent of culture shock for those who had been at Universal McCann before Mr. Seiler's arrival, because for a few years before -- and even for a little while after -- he left Omnicom Group's PHD to join Universal McCann in July of 2008, the agency hadn't won much new business. It didn't help that UM was largely viewed as just the media arm for creative giant McCann Erickson and unable to land accounts unless they came through there. But in 18 months, Mr. Seiler helped turn Universal McCann into a powerhouse using an aggressive approach much like he took with the BMW review.

And Mr. Seiler last week was tapped to join the new management structure at Mediabrands, Interpublic Group of Cos.' umbrella unit for its media agencies, called Office of the Chairman. This new management group, which will report directly to Interpublic CEO Michael Roth, also includes Richard Beaven, CEO of Initiative; Tara Comonte, Mediabrands' COO and CFO; and Matt Freeman, CEO of Mediabrands Ventures.

Mr. Seiler's desire to create an earlier and more strategic relationship between media agency and media owner on behalf of his clients is unusual, as is tapping someone with no prior agency experience, Jacki Kelley, as North American president.

While Mr. Seiler's immediate and significant problem was fixing Universal McCann, his vision is to more broadly rethink the media-agency business. "I've always believed the media portion of the industry needed to be rethought ... to think about what the hell we offer our clients and how to differentiate ourselves from other agencies," Mr. Seiler said.

Ms. Kelley has helped carry out Mr. Seiler's vision for a more strategic relationship with media owners. "As a former media owner, it wasn't news to me that Matt's concept would add value because media owners have been frustrated for years with agencies that provide limited information and very short time tables for ideas that have never been done before," she said. "Seeing someone on the buying side that would actually change the way they were structured in order to really alter the way the agency engages was radical." One of those restructuring efforts includes hiring media-owner-relationship managers for North America.

Becky Saeger, exec VP-CMO at Charles Schwab, tapped Universal McCann in July to be its media-planning and -buying agency. Ms. Saeger said the company was looking for a media partner that was willing to do more than plan and buy media and push it to ensure the company wasn't looking at things in a compartmentalized way.

"They did a great job from a tactical perspective in terms of buying and executing but also brought great perspective on the digital landscape," Ms. Saeger said. "They have a good knowledge of the market, and over the six-month period they have learned a lot and every time we have gotten together, there has been an obvious cumulative impact of the knowledge. "

BMW's Mr. McKenna has also been so pleased with the agency that he gave Universal McCann his blessing to pitch the Chrysler media account, which had many in the industry screaming conflict. Mr. McKenna said after a "very open and candid conversation" with Ms. Kelley about how the agency would not pursue it without BMW's blessing and how the shop keeps the J&J and L'Oréal accounts separate and firewalled, he was comfortable there would be no conflicts.

He also sees the increased buying clout from Chrysler, which it won, as a benefit to BMW. "It could help us from an overall buying-clout standpoint, the tide lifting all boats so to speak," Mr. McKenna said.

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