NEIL HARD­WICK, the new CEO of MEC – and soon of Wave­maker.

“Ad­dress­able me­dia is go­ing to save clients a huge amount, but first they’ve got to get their heads around the fact that there are fees in­volved.”

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WPP’s Group M me­dia agency MEC is com­ing back to the game with a new cap­tain: Neil Hard

wick. The new CEO joins MEC from Group M Rus­sia and CIS, which he led for eight and a half years. Hav­ing started his ca­reer with Saatchi & Saatchi in 1984, he has also headed up Bates Saatchi & Saatchi Zenith Me­dia, Saatchi & Saatchi Tai­wan and Publi­cis China.

Hard­wick takes over from Mo­han Nam­biar, who quit the agency last Novem­ber after 23 years.

The new leader says his re­mit is clear: “To en­sure that we con­tinue to de­liver qual­ity of work to the clients, and that we are able to evolve the de­liv­ery to en­sure we are not just keep­ing up but ac­tu­ally driv­ing the changes in the mar­ket.”

This will in­volve some up­heaval. He adds: “To drive that, to en­sure we are struc­tured – noth­ing against Mo­han – not as Mo­han’s agency but as a for­ward-look­ing MEC needs to be struc­tured, a for­ward look­ing Newco needs to be struc­tured, we are putting re­sources in the right place and en­sur­ing peo­ple are highly mo­ti­vated to de­liver what they need to de­liver.”

Newco was a work­ing ti­tle for the up­com­ing global merger of MEC and its Group M sta­ble­mate Maxus. Hard­wick says an an­nounce­ment is com­ing about Newco. “When it’s an­nounced, you’ll un­der­stand … it’s not just a com­bi­na­tion of two agen­cies and a new name.”

Sure enough, a day after Cam­paign’s in­ter­view, WPP re­veals that the new agency will be called Wave­maker, pre­vi­ously the name of MEC’s con­tent divi­sion. (MEC Wave­maker will be re­named Wave­maker Con­tent.)

Tim Cas­tree, global CEO of MEC, and now of Wave­maker, is po­si­tion­ing the new agency as “a me­dia, con­tent and tech­nol­ogy agency”, rather than just a me­dia shop. Its logo, in the shape of the let­ters WM, “re­flects the agency’s her­itage” as a part of WPP and its me­dia-buy­ing arm Group M.

One of Hard­wick’s qual­i­fi­ca­tions to lead the trans­for­ma­tion in the re­gion is, he says: “I un­der­stand the val­ues and the strate­gic logic of the WPP struc­ture, with Group M, and I also un­der­stand his­tor­i­cally how Group M and the agen­cies have been on the front of the wave rather than the back of the wave.”

Although he has­tens to point out that “I’m not chief strate­gist for Group M”, he says it is clear clients are look­ing for “hold­ing com­pany logic” with mul­ti­ple de­liv­er­ables that go be­yond me­dia, cre­ative and PR agen­cies. He talks of a “co­or­di­nated man­aged de­liv­ery”.

“The logic of form­ing a trad­ing group hap­pened first in Group M,” says Hard­wick. The com­bi­na­tion of WPP’s me­dia agen­cies in 2003 formed the largest me­dia group in the world, al­low­ing its mem­bers to push down prices through col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing. “Other groups are sort of fol­low­ing down the path,” he adds. Last year Publi­cis Groupe re­struc­tured to in­clude Publi­cis Me­dia, its buy­ing divi­sion that in­cludes Star­com, Zenith, Blue 449, Spark Foundry and Per­formics. Also in 2016, Om­ni­com Me­dia Group added Hearts and Science to its sta­ble led by OMD and PHD.

“What we are see­ing now, in­ter­est­ingly enough,” says Hard­wick, “is that just as they get there we are al­ready on the next el­e­ment, as you can see with the changes that are hap­pen­ing with [Wave­maker].”

Many big pitches are be­ing won at a hold­ing com­pany level. Om­ni­com won Mc­Don­ald’s in the US last year, and WPP just won Cam­pari at a group level. The drinks gi­ant joins Ford and about 25 other in­ter­na­tional clients be­ing han­dled not by WPP sub­sidiaries but by WPP it­self.

“The logic is you’ve got this sig­nif­i­cant move,” says Hard­wick. “It’s not just hap­pened this year; it’s been hap­pen­ing for two or three years. It’s re­ally gain­ing pace, where clients are buy­ing into a hold­ing com­pany and they are ef­fec­tively run­ning hold­ing-com­pany-level pitches.”

He adds: “So why do you need eight dif­fer­ent agency brands just to de­liver me­dia?”

The tra­di­tional an­swer is that they keep teams work­ing on com­pet­ing clients away from one an­other. But Hard­wick ar­gues that since clients are still dealing with sub­agen­cies of the same group, the key is in how they are han­dled. “Global con­tracts will be writ­ten the same as they have al­ways been writ­ten,” he says. “And the agen­cies would then struc­ture spe­cific teams and struc­tures that match those clients’ con­trac­tual com­mit­ments.”

While Hard­wick says there is “no sin­gle formula” for a client’s point of con­tact, he does em­pha­sise that me­dia agen­cies such as MEC or Wave­maker are pro­duc­ing ad­dress­able me­dia, tai­lored to con­sumers’ pro­files us­ing suites of an­a­lytic soft­ware and teams of plan­ners.

It is me­dia agen­cies that are chang­ing mes­sag­ing in real time. “[The struc­ture] can work out a cre­ative agency com­ing up with a raft of cre­ative ma­te­ri­als that we then man­age and ap­ply to the seg­mented au­di­ences, and what we serve up will de­pend on how they re­act,” he says.

He is keen to point out that he came from a cre­ative agency, Saatchi & Saatchi, be­fore say­ing: “If you’re be­ing re­ally blunt, [cre­ative agen­cies] just cre­ate the con­tent.” This is the same as it has al­ways been, he adds. “But you didn’t call it con­tent; you called it ad­ver­tis­ing, and you made com­mer­cials and you made print ads.”

Today cre­ative agen­cies face com­pe­ti­tion from the likes of Face­book, which has opened its own con­tent stu­dio, and YouTube, which lets peo­ple pro­duce their own video con­tent. “The dig­i­tal me­dia own­ers are cre­at­ing con­tent, be­cause they know they need to at­tract eye­balls, which is what cre­ative agen­cies have al­ways done; they have cre­ated con­tent.”

To ad­dress me­dia, agen­cies need data. And much of that data has to come from clients. “Clients need to get their heads around the con­cept of who’s go­ing to man­age that,” says Hard­wick. “Be­cause if they want their agen­cies to be do­ing all sorts of re­ally smart stuff with ad­dress­able me­dia and bid­dable au­di­ences, it’s go­ing to save them a huge amount of money po­ten­tially. But first they’ve got to get their heads around the fact that there are fees in­volved with that.”

In June last year, the US ad­ver­tis­ing industry was rocked by news that me­dia agen­cies had been found to be tak­ing bulk re­bates from me­dia own­ers, among other “nu­mer­ous non-trans­par­ent busi­ness prac­tices,” in the words of the As­so­ci­a­tion of Na­tional Ad­ver­tis­ers (ANA), which con­ducted the in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

How­ever, Hard­wick points out that there were few high-pro­file sack­ings, res­ig­na­tions or court cases from clients claw­ing back money and seek­ing le­gal vengeance on the ex­ec­u­tives that helped take it. Rather, the prob­lem was in the pa­per­work.

“Most of the client con­tracts weren’t quite fit for pur­pose, even when the ANA did its mas­sive re­view,” he says. “What they were find­ing was the con­tracts weren’t quite suit­able for the mod­ern world of dig­i­tal and the way we were ap­ply­ing them.”

So the industry needs to see “a sea change in how peo­ple think”. Con­tracts need to es­tab­lish who owns data, how it will be used, and how agen­cies are com­pen­sated. “As a me­dia agency, you run 24-7 real-time ad­dress­able ad­ver­tis­ing, serv­ing up ads and man­ag­ing it all, and run­ning con­stant al­go­rithms, and fac­tor­ing in all this stuff,” says Hard­wick. “That’s ex­ces­sively com­pli­cated; you don’t do that on 1.5 per cent.”

But when clients and agen­cies work out the right mod­els and the right con­tracts, their agree­ments and scope of work can go well be­yond what tra­di­tional me­dia agen­cies once of­fered. They can go be­yond what cre­ative and PR and dig­i­tal agen­cies of­fer.

Hard­wick sums up what peo­ple can ex­pect to see now he is at the helm of MEC: “They can ex­pect to see a CEO, which they haven’t done for a few weeks. They can ex­pect to see that the agency is much bet­ter con­nected to what’s go­ing on in the global WPP world, the global industry, the global agency world. And they can ex­pect to see a new vigour, be­cause I’m not here to stir the same old pot around. They should ex­pect to see us bring in new [tech­nolo­gies] and be at the cut­ting edge.”

“[My re­mit is] to en­sure we con­tinue to de­liver qual­ity of work to the clients, and that we are able to evolve the de­liv­ery to en­sure we are not just keep­ing up but driv­ing the changes in the mar­ket.” “The dig­i­tal me­dia own­ers are cre­at­ing con­tent, be­cause they know they need to at­tract eye­balls, which is what cre­ative agen­cies have al­ways done; they have cre­ated con­tent.”

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