Media Mavens

Laura Desmond

By Published on .

MediaVest USA's future was in the balance when Laura Desmond took the reins in 2003 as CEO.

The shop had been on a cold streak. Moreover, a flurry of mergers had left it in danger of an identity crisis. An earlier combination had brought it under the same ownership as longtime rival-and Ms. Desmond's previous home- Starcom USA. The more recent acquisition by Publicis Groupe led to the liquidation of creative sibling D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles.

It was a tough scenario for any executive, let alone one who wasn't yet 40. But by drawing on her proven smarts and management ability, Ms. Desmond led the shop in a rapid clip of massive media reviews-Coca-Cola Co., Masterfoods and Procter & Gamble Co.-that left no doubt MediaVest was a force.

"A lot of people counted Media-Vest out," says Ms. Desmond. Now "it's one of the fastest-growing media agencies out there."

Obviously Ms. Desmond didn't do it alone. But people who know her say she brought the right set of skills at a crucial time: a sharp understanding of media and its evolving role; a clear grasp of clients' businesses and needs; the ability to identify and organize the considerable talent within MediaVest; and an indomitable will and competitive drive. "She'll go through a brick wall," says one former colleague.

Don Miceli, senior VP-global media services for Kraft Foods, first got to know Ms. Desmond as the food marketer was consolidating media in Mexico and Puerto Rico.

"She really had a global view of media," he says, and the role of "media within the context of overall marketing."

Jack Klues, who as the leader of SMG put her in the post, says: "She has a tremendous will to win."

Ms. Desmond rose through the ranks working on clients including Pillsbury, Kelloggs and McDonald's. In 2000 she was named to lead Starcom MediaVest Group's Latin American unit.

Ms. Desmond's success there-including her demonstrated ability to work with different corporate cultures-convinced Mr. Klues she was the right person to lead MediaVest.

The job "needed an individual who understood and appreciated both cultures," Mr. Klues says.

But the beleaguered MediaVest also needed an overhaul. MediaVest was "probably more skewed to the buying side than the planning side," Mr. Klues says.

There have been some bumps-it lost Paramount Pictures last year-but Ms. Desmond has led a successful revitalization on many fronts. Winning plums like Masterfoods, Coca-Cola and P&G (the last two with Starcom), and earlier this year winning Mattel, garnered the headlines. Behind the scenes, Ms. Desmond strengthened the agency's digital practice, stepped up branded entertainment efforts and formed a new print services unit. She also established a consumer context practice for planners..

Ms. Desmond has done it with a delegating leadership style that entrusts lieutenants to accomplish goals without micromanaging.

While "not afraid of rolling up my sleeves" she says, "I'm much more about leading [people] to goals than managing the process," she says. "You've got to inspire people."

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