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OMD Is Ad Age's Media Agency of the Year

Boasting Marked Growth in Digital and Mobile, Shop's Fierce Efforts to Diversify Talents and Abilities Pay Off

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A robust new-business story is a traditional indicator of strength in the media-agency space, but the best shops couple that with a track record of innovative media strategies. OMD had both last year.

The Omnicom Group shop ended 2011 with revenue up 14% and more than $1.9 billion in fresh billings, including from eHarmony, French dairy Bel, Chobani yogurt and several Frito-Lay brands. Notably, it won two of its biggest new accounts -- Activision and Warner Bros. -- without reviews.

Digital work from Toys R Us and Levi's contributed to 15% growth in digital billings. Of the 250 staffers in the digital group, one-fifth are new hires focused on the innovation, gaming and mobile divisions. Revenue from mobile tripled.

The growth is the result of an aggressive attempt to diversify capabilities and talent, part of what OMD North American CEO Alan Cohen calls a "broader strategy to make sure that everyone is digitally infused."

The return on investment is evident in the agency's ability to regularly generate such ideas as the GE incubator program: a contest in which OMD partnered with General Electric to give six handpicked college students the task of coming up with the best startup concept for the company.

Nearly 20 more OMD clients want to sign up.

"Some of the functions we created before have really blossomed -- like Ignition Factory," said Mr. Cohen, referring to OMD's media-innovations unit. "We also beefed up our content area. All these new areas help us get deeper tentacles with our clients to make media more important."

For example, the agency worked with its key Apple client to create a three-hour class that has helped train 1,100 employees.

OMD also brokered a sponsorship deal between client Showtime and video-game maker Ubisoft. The network underwrote a sneak peek of "Ghost Recon," a game based on a Tom Clancy book, and promoted it through GameSpot, a unit (along with Showtime) of CBS. The promotion seeded the game and pushed Showtime's "Homeland" -- both in the espionage-thriller genre.

"It was one of those ideas that breaks through the clutter," said George Debolt, Showtime's senior VP-media promotions and partnerships. Ignition Factory has approached him with as many as "a dozen out-of -the-box" ideas, he said.

Last year, the Ignition team was largely responsible for the Interactive Foursquare Billboard, an initiative to promote Showtime's summer series, "The Franchise: A Season with the San Francisco Giants." Using the open Foursquare API, the group engineered an application that physically pitched balls to fans who checked in at the interactive promotional billboards.

In response to requests from clients -- including McDonald's and State Farm -- that wanted more direct interaction with the innovation team, a Midwest division of Ignition Factory opened last year.

Marketers that work with OMD praise it for being proactive about its organization and not hesitating to put new units or talent in place.

"They saw the role that Silicon Valley was playing and put fire behind Ignition Factory," said Shiv Singh, head of digital for PepsiCo Beverages. He credits OMD with playing an integral role in the strategic planning and execution of its "X-Factor" integration. "They saw how important mobile was becoming and built up their mobile arm," Mr. Singh said.

Pepsi also tapped into OMD's relatively young Content Collective division, run by Chief Content Officer Claudia Cahill, who joined in late 2010.

"They really understand how the physical works with the digital world," Mr. Singh said. "We used them in 2010 for all digital-media planning and buying. We used them in 2011, and we're using them in 2012."

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