By Noreen O’Leary

UM’s win of Johnson & Johnson’s global media business last October awed even the marketer’s global CMO Alison Lewis. Not a bad outcome for a self-described “underdog” going up against larger network competitors.

The Interpublic agency had to prove itself in front of decision makers at every regional level to win media chores in 55 markets worldwide, representing an ad spend of more than $2.5 billion. UM and its J3 unit, which is dedicated to J&J, ended up running the table.

 “J3 won separately in every region. I’ve never seen anything like that in my career,” says Lewis. “That’s a very important piece of their story. We felt very comfortable with them globally. The cultural fit is an important fit. At the end of the day, you want someone who can act on your behalf, and UM and J3 have really learned who we are and how to work with us.”

Making that storyline especially compelling was that it came during a time that “Mediapalooza” dominated the industry’s headlines. Amid that frenzy of account reviews last year, UM not only reclaimed U.S. and global business from J&J, but it also won the coveted lead media agency status for Coca-Cola in North America, as well as additional markets in Central America, Hong Kong and Australia. Building on those big wins—and quieting rivals who question the prowess of its 130-office global network—UM won BMW in Japan, beating out formidable rivals in the region Dentsu and Hakuhodo.

In the U.S., UM also added accounts like CVS Health and McCormick, helping boost revenue stateside by 15 percent. Globally, UM revenue last year improved 5 percent, to north of an estimated $545 million.

“We were the underdogs in every one of those fights, incumbent or not. That’s the best possible position to be in. You’ve got to love being the underdog and just have fun with it,” says Daryl Lee, UM’s global CEO. “You win as an agency, you pitch as an agency, and if everyone is excited and leaning in, there’s no way you can’t make chemistry work.

“A unique characteristic of UM is that we really like working together,” he continues. “That’s certainly felt in the U.S., but it’s the same around the world. In every pitch last year, we had a very clear proposition: ‘Better Science, Better Art, Better Outcomes.’ Better, not just different. [UM U.S. president] Kasha [Cacy] and I are both product people. We like to think product wins the day, but it only gets you halfway there. What really wins the day are people who love what they do and love being with each other. We worked very hard to put people together who care about culture as much as product.”

Lee’s humanity aside, product was, in fact, a significant player in UM’s success last year. The agency’s “Better” promise was rolled out globally in an effort that seeks to target people at the time and place and in the context that matters most to them. Designed to fulfill that mission, the shop’s Business Analytics Engine (BAE) and expanded content unit UM Studios both proved key in 2015 reviews, especially with J&J.

All About the BAE

Specifically, BAE takes a variety of measurement approaches and data sets, combining them into a system of analytics and measurement that form a holistic approach.

“When you bring science and art together, something truly powerful happens,” says Cacy, who pioneered the tool at J3 and scaled it across the agency last year. “The solution is unique in two ways. First, it allows us to build our plans to what marketers really care about—things like sales and brand perceptions versus reach and frequency. Second, it allows us to be forward-looking and predictive in addition to just evaluating what happened in the past.”

Data is refreshed in real time, weekly to monthly, “so we can see how we have performed to date, how we are likely to perform in the future and adjust accordingly,” Cacy adds. “It allows us to make a plan based on a business forecast and then optimize against that in market.”

It’s just what the doctor ordered for J&J, says Lewis. “One of the benefits of BAE is leveraging real-time data for continuous optimization to drive better ROIs,” she explains. “So with [Tylenol’s] ‘#HowWeFamily’ and Listerine’s ’21 Day challenge,’ we looked at the data in real time to determine what content and media connection was getting more traction. Then we amplify what we see working. This contributes to the overall results that we see, and obviously return on investment.”

While Tylenol had long supported the idea of family, the brand—after being off the shelf for a few years—needed to reinforce that notion and break through category clutter of “faster, stronger, longer” positioning. So J&J created a platform encouraging consumers to share what makes their families unique. It partnered with YouTube and Facebook in three phases, using an anthem spot, a video series featuring influencers and personalities, and a docuseries focusing on eight families. Tylenol also encouraged consumers to share what made their families special by using the hashtag #HowWeFamily across social platforms.

As a result, the brand experienced double- and triple-digit percentage growth in key attributes like brand affinity, dynamics and uniqueness. And while there was no product exposure, the initiative drove stronger purchase intent for the brand than every other Tylenol product ad while “significantly outperforming” the OTC pain category normal benchmark, according to J&J.

Ultimately, UM credits BAE with being instrumental last year in eight account wins in the U.S. and North America; 40 in Europe, the Middle East and Africa; 64 in the Asia-Pacific region; and 14 in Central and South America.

But UM’s wins go beyond BAE. The agency also executed cutting-edge work in the mobile space. Last fall, it worked with Sony Pictures (an account UM successfully defended in the last two weeks) on the launch of the latest in the James Bond franchise, Spectre. To entice the elusive 13 to 34 age group to the feature, UM saw Snapchat as the ideal platform. Not only would it serve to reach millennials drawn to shorter, attention-grabbing content, but it would also satisfy the target’s desire for access to exclusive, buzzworthy content. The pitch employed components including a Spectre Channel on Discover, featuring 22 pieces of original content that could be viewed for only one day across 17 markets. Snapchatters spent 65,000 hours engaging with the content, while vertical video ads generated another 28 million views, increasing both awareness and female engagement. All told, the campaign generated 154 million views, helping Spectre reach the No. 1 spot at the box office in the 17 markets, according to Sony Pictures.

UM Studios also made its mark. In addition to the successful #HowWeFamily campaign for Tylenol, UM Studios also produced eye-catching work last year for J&J’s Clean & Clear. The campaign, “See the Real Me: Jazz,” features a transgender teenager learning to be happy in her own skin. The YouTube episode was backed by interviews with teens and social content, quickly gaining attention from national media outlets. In another pitch, “#ColourYourSummer,” UM sought to combat the perception that Coca-Cola was losing its cool in Australia where teens felt the brand didn’t speak to them. UM Studios tried something Coke had never attempted anywhere else in the world, changing the soft drink’s iconic red packaging to shades of fuchsia, turquoise and purple. Using a smartphone, the consumer could unlock content via color codes and share it across social media, providing fresh relevancy for the brand among the young target.

“UM really stands out. The people they put on our business felt very passionate,” says Ivan Pollard, SVP, strategic marketing at Coca-Cola North America. “They felt very forward-thinking, creative, strategic and innovative and could see where we get value out of the market. Media agencies are all pretty good—smart, strategic and possessing buying skills—but it’s the people who can make the difference. These were people who could remember their first sip of Coke.”

That supports UM global chief Lee’s contention that in the debate between product and people, it’s the agency’s employees who really won the day. And it all starts with Lee and Cacy, for whom 2015 was her first full year as UM’s U.S. president. The two executives have worked together for a decade and share a common career path. Aside from UM, both have spent time at creative agencies including McCann-Erickson and Ogilvy (where Lee was with customer-engagement unit OgilvyOne), and both began their careers as consultants—Lee at McKinsey and Cacy at Accenture.

It was less than a year ago that Henry Tajer, Mediabrands’ Australia-based global COO, was named CEO at the unit that oversees IPG’s UM and Initiative networks (and moved to New York). His advice to Lee as industry networks jockeyed for position within last year’s rash of media reviews? “This is not a marathon you sprint alone,” Lee recalls. “UM broke down structures and hierarchies. It wasn’t just five people leading. We had people deployed from all parts of the organization, all parts of the globe. It was an amazing mashup of creating connections, friendships and real value.”

Mediapalooza not only meant that UM was chasing new accounts up for grabs, but also that it had to defend current accounts in review and keep its clients happy. UM ended up losing the Heinz North America business after the company’s merger with Kraft, without a review. Wells Fargo’s U.S. business also left, while UM’s L’Oréal’s U.S. business was consolidated at WPP shop MEC.

Cacy admits that the year could have been a crushing one, noting that the collective stress “could have sucked the soul of the agency.” But she and Lee laid out an in-house ground game for dealing with the intense pitch environment. Cacy recalls that when the agency had one particular pitch on the horizon, she sent out an email asking employees to volunteer for five different roles associated with the pitch. The next day, she got 100 responses from across the network. One staffer said he wanted in because the pitch involved a brand that was a personal favorite. Another signaled that it was a brand she’d always wanted to work on, while another simply wanted a new experience. Still another employee was motivated because it gave him the chance to go up against his father-in-law, who worked for a rival brand.

“We always talked about these pitches as an agencywide effort,” says Cacy. In nearly all of them, people who led them were account people who hadn’t led pitches in the past or been part of the traditional pitch team. It allowed us to bring a lot of new life into the process, enabled us to spread the huge workload and gave us a senior person who was very fresh to dig in on each pitch and take a new look at it. I can’t put a value on how important that was.”

Perhaps just as valuable to Lee is what’s tucked away in his dresser drawer. Lee’s socks in UM red—also Coca-Cola’s signature shade—became a viral hit after Wendy Clark, a former top-level marketing exec at Coca-Cola North America, tweeted photos of the global CEO donning them last summer during the brand’s review, joined by IPG chief Michael Roth, who also got in on the sock game.

“They’re legend now,” he jokes. “I was wearing them as much to get agency people and myself in the mood. UM is a red brand. The red stands for many things to us. It’s our heart, our passion, our warmth, and I was just mad I couldn’t wear a red suit to show all of that.”

Agency pride aside, that might’ve been the right call.