By Adweek

Synopsizing the diverse talents of Adweek’s Media All-Stars—an annual celebration of the best minds in the media agency world—gets a little harder every year. And not because it’s hard to write an original introduction every time. It’s because the skill sets and priorities of the honorees are that much more original.

Take our Executive of the Year, UM’s global CEO Daryl Lee. While he’s busy helping the shop land major clients like Johnson & Johnson and Sony, Lee is also quietly championing the representation of women, minorities and the LGBT community among his decision makers.

Then, there’s this year’s Rising Star, Assembly’s newly promoted associate media director Ali Offer, who has succeeded as a media pro in part because she wasn’t a student of media before entering agency land.

The talents of this class of Media All-Stars range from virtual reality to the latest in Periscope usage to scraping influencers’ social profiles in order to hyper-target them. Click on the gallery below to find out how these 12 professionals rained results on their clients and colleagues. —Michael Bürgi

Daryl Lee, Global CEO, UM (Executive of the Year)

A casual conversation with Adweek’s Media All-Stars Executive of the Year, UM global CEO Daryl Lee, reveals the quick intellect and worldliness one expects from an agency chief as he contemplates a client’s business problem. Less obvious may be his grassroots people skills—the personality insights that someone might not even recognize in themselves.

Take UM’s U.S. president Kasha Cacy, for example. Two years ago, after that top U.S. job opened, he and Cacy—then the agency’s global chief product officer—were rushing to a client pitch meeting when Lee gave her a sidewalk ultimatum: He offered her the role, telling her she had until the next morning to decide. Never mind that she had been advocating for another exec to land the job.

“He’s very good at looking out for people and knowing what drives and motivates them,” recalls Cacy, who has worked with Lee three times over the past 15 years. “He’s competitive, but it’s not about personal ambition. He wants us all to be the best we can be. All of his energy is focused on delivering the best possible client solution.

“This industry is ripe for change, and he wants to be part of that change, whether it’s putting more women [or] LGBT execs in management roles,” she continues. “It’s driving diversity not because it looks good but because he wants to create a different kind of culture with different points of views.”

Growing up in South Africa during apartheid made Lee a student of human nature at a younger age than most. From his first post-university endeavor in helping to organize the country’s first general elections in 1994 to his current efforts to create a more diversified culture at UM, the 45-year-old exec has always believed in a multiplicity of voices.

“My first job out of college was setting up democratic elections with a bunch of naive young liberals, and there was an incredible dynamic of change. I love the idea of inclusion,” he explains. “Diversity is half the job, but the real job is to open the culture up to the individual elements you don’t understand. It’s about merit, not entitlement. I grew up in South Africa at a time when cultural separation was so forced. I lived through that and saw the value in creating a more inclusive culture. That’s how companies can remain innovative. You can create a great product, but you also need a great product story.”

In selecting UM as Adweek’s Media Agency for 2015 this past February, Adweek recognized the revenue gains of the Interpublic underdog agency during Mediapalooza—the most competitive new-business year among media shops in recent memory. But that larger result was possible because of Lee’s team building and bolstering of morale during a stressful time of wooing new clients even as the agency defended restless ones.

“The high points of the past year are not the high points [themselves]. From where I sit, it was the low points where they learned to fall and pick themselves up that were more important. Those were the galvanizing moments,” says Henry Tajer, Mediabrands’ global CEO over the unit that oversees IPG’s UM and Initiative networks. “Last year, when a number of pitches were called, before we had won anything, we said, ‘This is going to make us or break us and the latter is not an option.’ Daryl and his team engaged with [Mediabrands] and the rest of IPG in the new-business process. He injected a lot of positivity into the organization.”

Lee’s optimism goes back to when he was recruited as a management consultant by McKinsey & Co. in New York. The English literature student from Oxford and Rhodes Scholar thought he’d end up in academia, but in management consulting he found he could combine his creative interests with a business career. “What I still rely on from management consulting is to shape a problem rather than respond to a brief. We have the ability to bring a lot of analytics and logic to solving a problem,” Lee reflects. “It also allows me to bring storytelling to problem solving. It ties two halves of my mind and world together.”

Lee moved into the agency world, working on marketing strategy for IBM at Ogilvy & Mather before joining UM in a top strategy role in 2006. Later, he moved to McCann Worldgroup, where he served as global chief integration architect and global chief strategy officer at McCann Erickson in 2012. He returned to UM the following year as global CEO.

While he always liked working at creative shops, Lee prefers media agencies today, because they play more into his collaborative instincts. “Media agencies give you more of an opportunity to act as an integrator,” he says. “And now, because of data, we have been able to service client business problems in a way creative agencies can’t.”

Those integration efforts extend to clients. In spring 2014, the agency tied a U.S. Postal Service promotional effort to the release of Sony Pictures’ The Amazing Spider-Man 2. In the multichannel initiative, produced by UM Studios, Spider-Man overcomes all sorts of obstacles to deliver a special package to movie fans.

“Daryl believes in talent and people and nurturing them, creating a work environment where they can grow and thrive. He’s kept the team on Sony stable and collaborative,” says Stefanie Napoli, Sony evp, media and worldwide creative content. “That collaborative spirit extends to clients. He’s also a big believer in bringing us together, which leads to new business opportunities.”

Which helps UM stand out against its larger global network competitors. “Buying is buying—all media agencies are doing the same thing when they’re buying. But Daryl brings a culture of newness, driving passion through his people and analyzing results,” says Jeff Smith, company group chairman, North America, J&J Consumer. “He’s all about the people working on our business. And UM works hard to make sure both sides are equal in building a team that is as passionate as ours and committed to business results.”

But make no mistake. Even with that drive to entrust more responsibility throughout UM’s ranks, Lee is never far removed from the task at hand. His clients certainly have noticed. Says Smith: “They worked hard to win back our U.S. media buying business. Daryl was always front and center.” —Noreen O’Leary