The agency model is in flux, clients want to handle media differently, and WPP is lagging behind new rivals. But Nick Emery is talking about 1997, not 2017.
It is 20 years since he co-founded Mindshare, WPP’s first global media agency network.
And as Emery, now the global chief executive of Mindshare, quietly marks its birthday without a big celebration, he knows there are parallels between those heady days in 1997 and today’s uncertain times.
Indeed, his boss, Sir Martin Sorrell, the chief executive of WPP, said earlier this year that the disruption currently facing the agency sector is the biggest market shift since Mindshare launched.
Back in 1997, the creation of Mindshare looked like a defensive move as WPP merged the media departments of Ogilvy and JWT to form a new, standalone media agency.
"There was certainly a feeling that we were behind the competition," Emery admits, recalling how rivals such as Zenith, CIA and TMD Carat were already well established in the UK and winning clients from WPP agencies.
But late-mover advantage and international ambition worked in Mindshare’s favour as the agency grew rapidly.
It is now more than a match for those old rivals, with upwards of $30 billion in annual billings from clients such as Unilever and HSBC, and 8,500 staff.
Emery, a fan of punk band The Clash, thinks Mindshare had several attributes that were "important to the DNA of the company" when it launched.
First, Mindshare was a start-up. "It was in many ways the first thing that Martin had created from scratch," Emery says—a reference to how WPP had been largely built on acquisitions.
We came up with this concept of a kind of house of media where you’d come in and you’d have a much more holistic, total experience of what media could be.
Second, Mindshare was founded in Taiwan, not New York or London, which meant there was an absence of legacy in an industry where some leaders had "a traditional point of view", as Emery puts it, and were resistant to splitting creative and media.
Third, Mindshare was "designed to be global" from the beginning, which suited multi-national clients with an international mindset.
Fourth, Mindshare tried to offer "something different" from what Emery calls the "brutal", "direct", "transactional" nature of many of the media-buying independents.
"We came up with this concept of a kind of house of media where you’d come in and you’d have a much more holistic, total experience of what media could be," he says.
‘Boys’ club’ media world
Emery felt strongly that Mindshare should challenge the status quo in other ways by being "more democratic" and "more egalitarian".
He explains: "Media before that was a very ‘boys’ club’ media world of lunches and prawn cocktails and steaks and wine.
"And we had a new generation of people who saw media not as a financial deal and a transaction but something that was exciting to play with."
These were "people who were coming out of universities and colleges who saw all the excitement that media could be, in terms of content, in terms of everything that carries a message, and a much more creative, innovative angle", he says.
Kimberly-Clark was the agency’s first global client. Others such as Gillette, Nike and Samsung soon followed. "It was exponential growth from ’97 onwards," Emery says.
By the early 2000s, WPP’s media operation was overtaking rivals in scale.
Sorrell bought CIA’s parent company, Tempus Group, in 2001 and turned the media agency into a second global network, Media Edge: CIA, later known as MEC.
Two years later, in 2003, WPP created Group M, a holding company that could leverage the combined trading muscle of Mindshare and MEC and, subsequently, MediaCom, which was acquired as part of Grey Group in 2004.
Did the germ of the idea for Group M, now the world’s biggest media-buying group, come from Mindshare’s success?
"Partly," Emery replies. "You create a successful media organisation and that promotes the desire to repeat that.
"It was also the acquisitions that Martin was making. That necessitated the need to put more structure around it and media is a scale business and that was the most obvious strategy to pursue."
'We’re still growing'
Fast forward to 2017 and global media agencies face big challenges and are no longer so dominant.
Brands can take their media-buying in-house and buy direct from giant tech platforms such as Google and Facebook, a Mindshare client.
They can also turn to the big management consulting firms for advice—a worrying prospect as far as Emery is concerned.
He remains bullish about Mindshare, declaring: "We’re still growing."
But parent company WPP has reported two consecutive quarters of falling net sales and cut its growth forecast three times this year.
"In some ways, the challenges are the same as they’ve always been. It’s just that they are bigger and they’re more people playing [in media]," Emery says.
"On the positive side, where life is different is if you wanted a job in media in 1997, you could be a planner, buyer or researcher—and that was it.
"Now you can be in charge of analytics, content development, sports sponsorship, insight, original creative generation - the world is your oyster."
We are always at a watershed moment. There are some structural things that we can look at. But it’s more about seizing those new opportunities.
What’s more, Emery feels that "the original vision that we had that everything begins and ends in media" applies even more now than it did in 1997. "It’s a pretty exciting business to be in," he says.
However, more possibilities also mean that media agencies face "more competitors than you used to have".
He warns: "We clearly have a significant challenge with consultancy companies who clients seem happy to tolerate as both auditors of their business and our business and then use that insight to grow their own [consulting] business that they compete in [with agencies].
"That is clearly something that is unethical in our view and will have to come to a head. That’s a very difficult situation to be in. I’m sure most clients will realise that’s not where they want to be."
Some observers talk about media agencies facing a watershed moment, or even an existential threat, but Emery dismisses such fears.
"We are always at a watershed moment," he responds. "There are some structural things that we can look at. But it’s more about seizing those new opportunities.
"What clients want is help with their digital and marketing transformation. There’s nothing that doesn’t exist within Mindshare or within the broader team at WPP that we cannot harness—with the right leadership—to drive digital and marketing transformation."
Clients "don’t want navel-gazing about our own structure and our own business", he adds.
The agency model "is robust because it constantly changes", according to Emery, recalling how Mindshare blew up its internal structure and simplified the organisation a decade ago.
Now there needs to be more frequent change.
"It’s about being flexible for clients," he says, as they balance their own competing interests—global and local, brand and demand, advertising and content.
That’s why Mindshare operates as a "network of networks" to adapt to each advertiser’s needs. "We’re becoming more of an outcomes-based organisation," he says.
Emery argues that clients must also educate themselves—particularly on the thorny topic of media transparency, where agencies have taken a lot of flak.
"There is nothing that people are trying to hide," he insists." There are different ways of working, different models, different ways of trading and clients have to make an informed choice."
If Emery sounds combative, it’s because he says, somewhat implausibly, that Mindshare is a "punk brand".
I don’t think we’re frightened of change. Media agencies will survive but they will broaden and they will change.
He concedes that the agency is part of a giant corporation but he says it’s about a state of mind.
"That’s why the 20th anniversary is important," he explains. "What I like to remind people is we are a start-up company.
"The reason why every Mindshare show-reel has a Clash soundtrack—and everyone groans—is that I think there’s a punk, rebellious spirit that people need to harness and foster."
That is reflected in the agency's leaders whom Emery has largely promoted from within.
"They don’t put up with any shit, they will always find a way through to find an answer, and they want to create something new. That’s what I mean by a punk spirit," he says.
"You might as well as go and be an accountant if you don’t want to come up with new ideas. That’s why you work in an agency."
So, despite the storm clouds, Emery is "confident and hopeful".
"I don’t think we’re frightened of change," he declares. "Media agencies will survive but they will broaden and they will change."