In an exclusive interview with M&M Global, OMD EMEA boss Nikki Mendonca lifts the lid on the agency’s digital ‘pivot’, and discusses the challenge of making science ‘sexy’ in media.
The agency model is being disrupted, that much the industry agrees. What is being robustly debated is how these businesses should be reshaped – and whether they have a future at all.
It will come as no surprise that OMD’s EMEA president Nikki Mendonca has absolute faith in the future of her agency. However, unlike many of her rivals, she is dialling up efforts to move from OMD’s media buying and selling roots and transform the business into a broader deliverer of ‘marketing performance’.
At the heart of this transformation is a five-point ‘pivot’ to ensure OMD’s operations across EMEA becomes fit for the digital and mobile marketing age, with everything from job titles to candidate interview techniques up for review.
“The strategy is all about moving from a focus on transacting media to a world of actually delivering marketing performance for clients”
Discussing the changes with M&M Global, Mendonca said the agency’s senior management realised some time ago that a serious shift in emphasis to digital channels and technologies was urgently required.
“In all of our conversations, we have landed on the fact that having a digital-first mind-set is having a consumer-first mind-set,” she says. “Digital and, more principally, mobile had utterly transformed the path to purchase. You can go from awareness to purchase in 30 seconds, and we really have to get to the bottom of that.”
Instigating a fundamental change of business model across 65 countries and 85 offices is not easy, of course.
To inform local and regional leaders that a new approach was on the way, OMD convened an initial meeting with CEOs in April 2015, before gathering again in December to go over the plans in greater detail. Each and every market will be expected to implement the new strategy over the course of 2016.
Mendonca sums up the message she passed on to her colleagues: “In a nutshell, the strategy is all about moving from a focus on transacting media – which has pretty much been our heartland, pure media at the best price – and moving to a world of actually delivering marketing performance for clients.”
Most agencies at the very least pay lip service to the idea of change, coining neat slogans and trade marketing campaigns to promote a reputation for innovation, but Mendonca insists this pivot represents more than just PR.
At a very fundamental level, agency staff will find their roles changed, including job titles and descriptions. Account directors are becoming business directors, with new KPIs based around delivering growth for clients. Digital specialists are moving closer to clients; TV and digital departments have been merged to form A/V teams.
OMD has also quadrupled its training budget across the EMEA region, with staff at all levels required to dedicate hours each week to enhancing and broadening their skillsets. Areas such as e-commerce and SEO are prioritised.
An initiative called ‘Raise Your Game’ deliberately looks to challenge employees to embrace the pivot by making themselves more useful in the agency’s digital future. Those with traditional media backgrounds are encouraged to develop specialisms in new areas, including mobile and programmatic – Alex Newman, the agency’s EMEA head of mobile and an M&M Global blogger, moved over from the TV department.
Some skills cannot be gained through extra training, however, and Mendonca says OMD is looking to “fish in new pools” to find the right individuals to accelerate the business transformation.
“Those geeks are almost the new gods in our business, they really are so important. It’s trying to make that science bit sexier at OMD”
“We’re going straight to business and tech schools to yank them out the moment they have earned their degrees,” she says, laughing. “To be honest, we have to hire in [data skills] – it is very difficult to train people with the vertical skill-sets you need to be a data analyst.”
The recruitment process is also changing, with candidates challenged to prove they possess the requisite problem-solving attributes – all in the name of making science “sexy” within the organisation, says Mendonca.
“We have maths and science tests for candidates, testing lateral thinking, and giving them puzzles to solve against the clock. We want to test how they are thinking,” she says.
“These small changes can have a big impact. Those geeks are almost the new gods in our business, they really are so important. It’s trying to make that science bit sexier at OMD. Sometimes geeks have a bad name, but we’re putting them front and centre in pitches and client presentations. They have a lynchpin role.”
It is no good for the agency to change its own operating model but allow client relationships to remain entrenched in the past. OMD pushes for ‘reboot sessions’, especially with clients operating silo-based internal systems, to encourage all parties to arrive at a new “customer-first” strategy.
With clients such as PSA Peugeot and McDonald’s, the agency is changing the way it uses data to go beyond media ideas, instead moving to the “next iteration” of adapting and fine-tuning content “on the fly” based on what real-time insights it can garner from the data.
OMD has adopted “sophisticated OOH planning” with Google, and is starting to explore the potential of programmatic TV with Liberty Global, all in an effort to future-proof its business and ensure the agency can retain a seat at the top table with clients.
It is all, Mendonca admits, a far cry from her early days in the agency world: “I was a TV planner and buyer, and I used to let a campaign run and then check in once it was done three or four weeks later. We don’t operate like that. We operate under an active investment strategy.
“We understand this new world is around the corner, so we’ve got to prepare, start testing, and get ready.”