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Media Agency Head of the Year 2020: Natalie Cummins

Cummins' journey to the top of Zenith began more than 20 years ago when she joined as a graduate.

Media Agency Head of the Year 2020: Natalie Cummins

UK chief executive, Zenith

This was a fiercely contested category between three media agency leaders who are among the top operators in UK media. The judges concluded Cummins stood out as an "aspirational and inspirational" leader, as befits a woman whose journey to the summit of Zenith began more than two decades ago when she joined as a graduate in 1998.

She has put her stamp on the Publicis shop since becoming chief executive in summer 2018 and notched up a strong performance during her first full year in charge, as like-for-like revenue rose 6% in 2019. Cummins propelled Zenith up the new-business tables with £92.8m in net new billings, beefed up the management team, generated more than half of revenue from "non-core" media services for the first time and scooped a string of awards for its work.

Zenith’s pitch record was strong – it came within a whisker of Havas at the top of Campaign’s media new-business league standings at the end of 2019, as Cummins’ team landed some key wins, including Three in the UK and Disney as part of a global pitch. 

Work for existing clients was also good, with campaigns for Bodyform, Costa Express, H&M and NatWest shortlisted for a string of prizes at this year’s Campaign Media Awards, which will take place in April. Good client satisfaction scores added to the impressive picture – with 36% giving top marks to Cummins’ team.

Cummins knows Zenith well, after her two-year stint at the start of her career and return to the agency in 2006, and she was ready to drive change when she stepped up from managing director to chief executive. She promoted Sannah Rogers and Jon Stevens to managing directors at the start of 2019 and persuaded Richard Kirk, a Zenith alumnus who moved to Amazon, to rejoin as chief strategy officer.

A quarter of Cummins’ leadership team comes from a BAME background and she is a champion of flexible working. Cummins herself has eloquently written about how she juggles life as a chief executive, a widow and a mother.

"Natalie is a resilient and hard-working leader," one judge observed. "Her dedication to diversity is strong and her client satisfaction record is great."

With her leadership, Cummins has shown there is plenty of life in the network agency model. 

Runners-up

Matt Adams

Former UK chief executive, Havas Media Group 

The judges hailed Adams for presiding over a "genuine turnaround story" at Havas, which topped Campaign’s new-business league for the first time in years with a £94.3m haul, and they praised his focus on clients by "spending time with them first hand". Wins included Dreams, Homebase, Legal & General and Starbucks. He also won credit for improving staff churn, which fell from 26% in 2018 to 17%, and gender balance, as female representation reached 50% on the board – compared with just 6% in 2017 when he took charge. 

Adams was also candid about his own challenges as he wrote about giving up drinking alcohol. It is a sign of his progressive reputation that he was headhunted by performance agency Brainlabs to become its global managing director in January 2020.

Tim Pearson

Chief executive, OMD Group UK

It has been another excellent year for Pearson, who just missed out on this prize but will gain some consolation from Manning Gottlieb OMD’s win for Media Agency of the Year – for the second year in a row – in these awards. 

The judges described Pearson as "not just supremely capable but an all-round nice guy", who won promotion midway through the year from chief executive of MGOMD to a bigger role running parent company OMD UK. 2019 was not such a stellar year in terms of new business for MGOMD, the judges noted, but bedding in the government’s £150m-a-year buying account was a considerable feat. 

Winning agency of the year for MGOMD at the Media Week Awards in October was another feather in the cap.

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