Initiative global CEO Jim Elms: ‘We must do more than simply peddle media and work the margins’ | M&M Global

Initiative global CEO Jim Elms: ‘We must do more than simply peddle media and work the margins’

Jim Elms, global chief executive at IPG Mediabrands agency Initiative, tells M&M Global why the media agency of the future might look very different indeed.

Jim Elms

“I know it’s an overused word, but it’s so – ah – life changing, you know,” reflects Jim Elms, global chief executive at IPG Mediabrands agency Initiative. “It’s kind of a blur – it happens so fast, and it’s so raw. Half the people cried, but in a way it was beautiful.”

Suffice to say, Elms is not describing his first encounter with programmatic media buying technology. Rather, he is describing his reaction to a two-day acting workshop he attended in New York last month. The eye-opening experience with Deena Levy, the acting coach behind stars such as Jim Carey and Channing Tatum, forms part of his wider plan to revolutionise the agency he has run for nearly two years.

As with many of the former Universal McCann global strategy chief’s ideas, what at first sounds a little odd is soon backed up with logic, and a desire to defy the traditional limitations of media agencies.

“We’re dissecting how actors are able to impart such powerful emotions to audiences, and the tools and techniques they use to achieve accelerated intimacy, which could be critical in new business meetings,” says Elms. “Those situations can be so stilted. How do we crack that chemistry and then bring that to our clients?”

It would be easy to ridicule such ‘blue-sky thinking’, and Elms’ identifiably Californian approach. Yet, his lack of ego is refreshing. What comes across is a genuine sense of an individual attempting to tackle the existential crisis troubling many global media organisations.

In his easy, West Coast drawl, Elms himself asserts: “I’m not a big, polished, know-it-all, bombastic media person. I honestly don’t think I’m the smartest person in the room.” He is happy to indulge in a spot of self-deprecation, neatly embodied by his decision to include a stint as ‘Pot Washer’ at a Chicken Pie Shop on his LinkedIn profile.

Elms is not even a ‘proper’ media person: he started his career as a copywriter, and his career has seen him join a host of creative agencies, from Y&R and Wieden + Kennedy to Grey Worldwide, where he served as director of context planning, before joining Interpublic Group in 2010.

His overall philosophy is to “inspire fun”, because it leads to “good ideas” and “better relationships”, he claims. “I don’t take things overly seriously,” he adds.

Think ‘FBDS’

Yet, despite this laid-back attitude, it would be mistaken to view Elms – set to speak at this year’s Festival of Media Global event in Rome – as somehow laissez faire. He has pursued reform at Initiative with a deceptive zeal, attempting to infuse the world’s tenth biggest media agency group with an entrepreneurial spirit more befitting its smaller scale.

Elms is blunt about the state Initiative found itself in back in 2013: “If you look at the client list now and 10 years ago, Initiative was much more of a power-house back then than it is today. The brand had so much promise but needed some love. It had great heritage, but needed a little polish and sparkle, a refresh.”

The agency’s previous slogan, ‘Performance-led communications’, was unceremoniously dumped (“Come on, we’re all that – right?”). In its place, he has attempted to instil a new philosophy, initially based on the concept of ‘barefoot running’. Again, what may seem risible is rooted in Elms’ unique logic.

“Before, runners on the beach felt the sand under their feet, and were in touch with nature. Then we added footwear and removed ourselves from that essential joy. Media companies have kind of done that with layers of tools, named things these ridiculous names which totally mystify what it is we do,” he says.

Stopping short of naming Initiative a “barefoot running company”, Elms went on a global tour of the agency’s markets, offering employees a choice of over 100 adjectives. There were then whittled down to four common descriptors: ‘fast’, ‘brave’, ‘decisive’ and ‘simple’ – or ‘FBDS’ for short.

“We became FBDS,” he claims. Elms himself has certainly embraced the idea, using the acronym as an email sign-off. Business processes have been simplified to reflect an ‘FBDS’ philosophy, while employees have been encouraged to share a series of ‘FBDS’ tattoo designs and take part in an ‘FBDS World Cup’ (see below).

Eighteen months on from its launch, Elms is now keen to “evolve” the philosophy to influence new areas of the agency, such as new business. “We all get caught in the new business machine, so we took a step back and tried to ‘FBDS’ our new business approach.

“There are certain pitches where we’re not going to win, so we’ve developed five very pointed questions to give us an insight into our chances. One of them is, ‘What are the obstacles to us winning your business?’ It’s a wonderful, non-confrontational way of saying it.

“In general, if the answer is ‘we’re worried about your scale’, we kind of know, because we’re not the scale guys, so maybe we don’t want to pitch this or – if we need to – we pull back on resources.”

FBDS World Cup Case Study (Initiative) from Initiative Communications on Vimeo.

Understanding audiences

Elms credits the influence of some of Initiative’s “very dynamic” global clients, including Unilever, Hyundai Kia, H&M and a certain ecommerce giant it is not allowed to talk about. The demanding relationships are helping to drive innovation at the agency, he argues.

“We have some clients that are so competitive and progressive in their category, and their expectations are so high, that they push us to do things that we weren’t sure we could do. Their drive is infectious and it changes us. It’s a little bit painful, but it makes us better,” he says.

The rapid rise of programmatic has left many questioning the ongoing role of media agencies, and Elms agrees that global businesses must look beyond “peddling media and working the margins”. Citing a quote by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos (“Your competitors aren’t your competition; your competition is the future”), Elms believes Initiative must reinvent itself to ensure long term success.

“Media planning and buying is such a commodity, and everyone is being squeezed and squeezed for costs and margins, so we have to rethink what we’re doing. What is it that we do and have that is special?

“We’re playing around with the idea that we understand audiences better than anyone in the world. We can understand communities and connect,” says Elms.

This is manifesting itself in several “burgeoning initiatives”, which Elms hopes will take Initiative away from a reliance upon traditional media agency revenue sources. For instance, in March the agency will launch a new recording artist in Tokyo, as part of plans to develop its role in the music industry, “helping artists to find their community”.

Elms envisages a situation where Initiative will be able to compete with music media, begin to manage and own music rights, to involve artists with creative thinking, and “to make some money along the way”.

The agency has begun offering gamification services to clients such as Unilever, and is set to publish a book tracing the journey of one of its employees – a 24 year-old Columbia graduate and “modern day Jack Kerouac” – through China, examining the coming of age of millennials in the country. And Elms continues to ponder ways to share his acting experience with staff and clients.

“I’ve always been a bit of a renegade in companies,” he claims. Elms is certainly committed to using Initiative’s relatively modest scale as an opportunity to forge a new type of media agency, one with a more sustainable future. The quiet revolutionary is a part he plays with aplomb. A few may snigger at his methods, but the bravery of his stance is beyond doubt.

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