As media agencies go, UM is up there with the big guns. But its unique philosophy and focus would have you believe otherwise, as Lucy Clark finds out
UM is big. It’s a multinational media agency employing more than 3,500 people in more than 100 countries.
After strong growth last year, there are now 160 people at UM Australia – thanks to $113m of new business in 2012. It was the agency’s best year ever.
But its ‘big boutique’ positioning, introduced in 2011, allows UM to offer the best of both worlds.
Mat Baxter, CEO of UM Australia, explains: “Historically, the bigger you get, the more boring you become. It’s an issue we have grappled with. Clients go into a big media agency and never see the principal or senior people, and your business gets serviced in a generic way. We wanted to give clients all the benefits of big companies – a global footprint, buying power – but we didn’t want to give up the things clients look for with boutiques. So, we actually have senior people turning up to meetings. We all get our hands dirty in clients’ business.”
That means UM does not work to a rigid agency structure. Instead, it builds teams around individual clients, each team including a dedicated strategist – and every senior management team member has their own group of clients.
“We divide and conquer,” says Baxter. “We don’t have any formal structure – but that works.”
Stefan Burford, chief strategy officer, adds: “To deliver boutique, we have got to be absolutely focused and obsessed by the work. What we have tried to do is to build our teams around clients, starting with the client and what that client needs. It might sound obvious, but very few agencies are structured like that. It proves a big advantage for us.”
A big year
In 2012, UM’s focus reaped rewards. It was behind the hugely successful McDonald’s Gets Grilled, the world’s first independently produced McDonald’s documentary. The show won its timeslot, with more than one million viewers tuning in, putting its media value at $4.2m.
UM’s My Quit Buddy app for the Government was also a 2012 highlight. The app saw cessation rates jump from 4-7% to 39% of app users.
“Doing great work is massive,” says Baxter. “But continuously doing great work, across all clients, is the thing I’m most proud of. Some clients are more open to things than others. But once you get a lot of your clients to that place, that’s when you are really making progress.”
UM is well known for its belief in ‘Curiosity’. As Burford outlines: “Our vision is to be the most creative and curious media communications agency in the world. It’s quite a lofty ambition, but it keeps us on our toes and keeps us focused.”
The agency works to five key values: Bravery, Curiosity, Pioneering, Precision and Excellence.
It also references the Japanese philosophy of Kaizen – which means ‘continuous improvement’ – in its day-to-day work. “Even the best ideas can get better,” says Baxter. “We have to apply that to every part of our business, including our talent. Everyone is encouraged to get involved in the creative process, and we must never be too proud to say we were a bit off the mark.”
He adds: “Media is still a creative pursuit. We are often perceived to be the calculator brigade, that we sit and draft media plans and put crosses in boxes. To some extent, we’ve lost sight of the fact that media operates in this world of creativity.”
Baxter joined UM in December 2010 and embarked on a re-structuring program. By mid-2011, he had strategists in place in every team.
“We put heavy investment in our strategic resource, as we have to start with great thinking and thought leadership,” he explains. “If you don’t have that with every client team, you’re dead in the water.
“Two years on, we’re starting now to see the cross-company benefits of having skills like James’ (James Filmer, chief innovation officer) in the business. It’s a change of skills, but also a change of philosophy and culture.”
And Burford continues: “Any success we have had in our strategic or creative output has been through diverse skills. A new world agency needs a more diverse skill set than ever.”
Under Baxter, there is also a huge focus on mentoring. UM spends more than $1m each year on coaching and training. “Mentoring and setting short-term development goals is important,” says Burford. “And Mat has one-on-one meetings with every person who works here each quarter.”
But it’s not all hard graft, as Baxter points out: “Also important is having a happy agency. Happiness is underrated. Striking the right work-life balance, and having enough resources to do the job and still have a bit of time for fun, means you get a better product popping out the other end.”
One of the biggest challenges facing the industry is the friction between agencies, says Baxter: “It’s amazing how many agencies cannot play nicely in the sandpit together. The biggest barrier is agencies fighting with other partners in the business. We work hard at collaboration and I think we do it well, both internally and externally.”
And Filmer adds: “We have a lot of skills inhouse, but cannot be expected to always know the latest technology, so we have internal and external partners and technology agencies and experiential agencies. It’s important to know that we cannot always innovate in-house.”
But even winning awards brings its challenges.
Baxter says: “Winning B&T Media Agency was the single most rewarding – but also most daunting – thing to happen last year. It’s one thing winning, but another staying there. We cannot rest on our laurels.
The moment we think we’ve got it under control, we are screwed. Having that attitude of always wanting to do better is a really important trait for us.”
UM hopes to build on its big year. Baxter explains: “The momentum of last year is something we want to keep. But we want to keep it in a responsible way – we don’t want to go into a downward spiral, stretching our staff and taking on too much. Measured consolidation and retention of clients this year is really important to us.”
Mobile and social are key priorities for the agency. “We are hardwiring digital and social into our responses,” says Burford. “We are also focusing on campaigns that genuinely change behaviour, and diversifying to meet our clients’ needs.”
Keeping on top of today’s transient digital world is a tall order. UM is well placed to meet it.
1999: UM was formed, as part the global media buying arm of McCann Worldgroup.
2008: Former accountant Henry Tajer became managing director of UM Australia, replacing Jeff Cressall who relocated to Singapore as president of UM Asia Pacific.
UM became part of the IPG MediaBrands Group.
2009: Tajer was promoted to CEO of UM Asia Pacific, and Travis Johnson joined as general manager of UM’s Sydney office.
2010: Naked Communcations co-founder and former chief strategy officer at MediaCom, Mat Baxter, was appointed CEO of UM Australia.
2012: UM Australia was behind McDonald’s Gets Grilled – the fast food giant’s first independently-produced documentary.