Fresh from landing the country’s biggest media-buying account, UM chief executive Fiona Johnston has started overhauling her agency’s culture, banning PowerPoint and long meetings.
The problem with PowerPoint and lengthy slide presentations is that they are symptomatic of wider challenges in the media agency world, explains Johnston, as the transparency debate, fuelled by headline-grabbing contributions from high-profile American chief marketing officers, refuses to die.
“We still struggle as an industry to keep it simple. I’ve told my team I don’t want to see any more PowerPoints by the end of the year. No more agency credentials on 50 million slides,” says Johnston in an interview with Media.
“I want to be able to talk to our clients in a way that is meaningful, articulate and simple. And that doesn’t mean dumbing it down.”
Not that long ago, in a simpler media environment, a single media agency would buy commercial airtime on TV shows, place ads in newspapers and organise co-ordinated brand campaigns.
Now, in an ecosystem of multiple media vendors, specialist agencies and middlemen, advertisers might work with many unrelated entities and even several agencies within one ad agency holding group.
But the wisdom of so many different players to improve the level of service and achieve greater efficiencies is questionable at best.
Added complexity has overwhelmed clients who are coming to agencies for clarity about the digital ad world, says Johnston, a former marketing consultant and one-time executive at ad giants WPP and Publicis Groupe. Where complexity once helped to boost the level of service, it eventually reduces it, she argues.
“What I’ve been talking to the team about since I joined is joined-up thinking. We need to offer simple client solutions. We still add too much complexity to what we do and get lost in the detail. But we have also allowed our pride to diminish over the last few years. The business should keep changing to stay relevant, but equally we’ve allowed a negative dialogue to build up.”
Johnston is referring to the fallout from a report by US trade group the Association of National Advertisers.
The document outlined many non-transparent business practices in the US media buying ecosystem, including cash rebates to media agencies from publishers and tech vendors that were not being returned to advertisers.
“We still have work to do to rebuild trust as an industry. Our role in the communications industry is important and we’ve forgotten that as a media business. We’ve allowed other people to take over our position. Unfortunately when you erode a bit of trust, you have to be proactive to resolve it.
“We have deep relationships with our clients here. My question to clients is to ask what do they mean by transparency? What is the thing they feel they’re not getting or seeing? It normally comes down to the level of control and the level of visibility. As far I can see, we’re one of the most transparent businesses around because of all the auditing work we’ve been through in recent years.”
Johnston says agencies must double down on efforts to ensure “visibility and governance over advertising assurance”. To this end, Johnston is hiring for a new position to offer guidance to clients on “ethical” media-buying practices, particularly in programmatic advertising.
It comes after The Australian revealed the federal government shifted its estimated $150 million ad-buying account to UM Sydney, from rival Dentsu x, ahead of the forthcoming election.
The move is a huge boost to Danny Bass, chief executive of Mediabrands, the company that holds Interpublic Group’s UM, as well as his new hire Johnston.
UM handled the account before Bass’s arrival in the top Mediabrands job in 2015.
Bass and Johnston worked on a repositioning of UM ahead of the win. The duo have also added ad-buying accounts for AGL, ING, and the NSW government.
Before the switch, Japanese-owned ad giant Dentsu Aegis Network held the business for about four years through agency Dentsu x, originally founded by veteran adman Harold Mitchell.
Major advertisers switch agencies for many reasons, including simply cutting costs. In the federal government’s case, it was down to “team work and UM’s new strategic approach”, says Johnston.
Called “Better Science. Better Art. Better Outcome”, the reorientation of UM’s Australian arm reflects the rise of data analytics and science.
As Johnston prepares to judge the prestigious awards at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity next month, she reveals ad spending cutbacks by packaged-goods brands appear to be slowing. Consumer-goods companies have been ratcheting down ad spending as they struggle to stay competitive in a brutal e-commerce marketplace.
“Some clients are starting to realise that you can damage brand equity if you’re too reactive in digital.
“We’re working with a few clients on a balanced approach, with greater investment in brand building over time.”
Johnston says clients are “acknowledging that they need to invest in marketing” if they want to continue to grow.