The Media Barons: Joe Uva

Joining the then-struggling OMD was not a decision Uva took lightly but, 18 months on, it looks as if it was a good one. Ian Darby talks to him about his plans to diversify OMD.

It took Joe Uva seven months to decide to take the global chief executive role at Omnicom's then-dysfunctional media offspring OMD. And you couldn't blame him for his scepticism and caution.

After all, OMD was a network with more schisms than the medieval Catholic Church. Bastard offspring in Europe with little but the name above the door to hold them together, a US operation with planning divorced from buying (the OMD shareholders BBDO, DDB and TBWA jealously guarded the planning stuff) and little presence in Latin America.

Asia was a relative cause for optimism; the regional director, Mike Cooper, had had the opportunity to build a network pretty much from scratch with fewer political issues than other markets faced.

But you're left to wonder why, 18 months ago, Uva quit Turner Entertainment, a relative bright light in the AOL Time Warner business, where he was the president of sales and marketing.

Uva, 48, had been at Turner for 17 years, working in sales for CNN and then sales for the entertainment side of the business, before making the move to OMD. He'd spent the early part of his career in agency media departments, including McCann-Erickson's, but arrived at OMD with the doubters saying he had insufficient agency experience to build Omnicom's main media brand.

Much was made, however, of his bulging contacts book and skills as a team builder. Impetus was needed after a year of uncertainty in which Daryl Simm, the chairman of Omnicom Media Group, was caretaking the role.

Simm was, and is, a respected figure within Omnicom, seen as the chief executive John Wren's right-hand man on media issues, but either didn't or couldn't get the three shareholding creative agencies fully to back OMD. Part of Uva's task was to get them into line.

We meet in the London office of OMD Europe's chief executive, Colin Gottlieb.

Like Gottlieb, Uva can talk ten to the dozen and has a massive enthusiasm for the OMD mission. He's corporate to the extent that he is clearly obsessed with the success and profitability of his business but he's also warm, honest and, by US standards, relatively informal.

But why did he take the job? He says: "They may have gotten to the table later than their competition but I think the approach was very responsible for Omnicom and its agency networks. I admired tremendously the progress OMD had made in the US as a buying organisation. What set it apart from the Universal McCanns, the Zeniths and the MindShares was the strong brand-building and creative heritage that each of these agencies had and I became fascinated by the opportunity to be able to draw on that heritage."

Uva's first task, certainly on the US side of the business, was to sit down with the heads of the three creative agencies to pool planning and bring it under the OMD umbrella. This has now been achieved and the process of beefing up OMD in the US was given added impetus by the recruitment of Page Thompson as the chief executive for North America late last year.

The past year has been successful for OMD, particularly given the difficult nature of its early years. In 2002, it won $2.3 billion in new business, introduced its communications planning product, Checkmate, and built its presence to the extent that it now operates in 55 markets.

New-business performance was strong enough to please the Omnicom accountants (OMD won Sony in Europe, Johnson & Johnson and Hershey in the US, and the global account for Siemens) but things looked ominous when OMD lost Gillette's $300 million global account to MindShare a year ago.

To some this would have been a body blow and Uva admits that he took it hard. But rather than caving in, he used the experience to learn lessons and accelerate the rate of change across the network.

"We had an impetus when we didn't win the consolidated Gillette business," Uva says. "And the reason cited was that we weren't a proper global network because we didn't have Latin America developed and there were some key markets in Asia we didn't have an operation in. That served as the galvanising force to go on and do it. I brought in Mauricio (Sabogal) from MindShare, made him head of Latin America, and within a month of announcing the formation of it we were invited to contest the consolidated McDonald's business in Central America and we won."

Uva is particularly gracious in paying tribute to the European management team, led by Gottlieb, in helping to grow the network. He says Europe had put in early work on developing the Checkmate communications planning system and had gone through many of the necessary teething troubles before he arrived, making the sell to the three creative agencies of creating a strong OMD in the US more attractive.

But how difficult did he find it to talk BBDO, DDB and TBWA into backing OMD? "It was not without challenges and pain around the world. The fact that it took OMD as long as it did, from its origins in France back in the mid- to late-90s, to become what it has, was certainly a lot longer than it took other major holding companies media operations to get up to speed," he says.

"But when we can win a piece of pan-European business such as Sony against MindShare, when we can defend Nissan on a network basis against Carat in Europe, when we can beat MindShare in the US on the Hershey business and Zenith on ExxonMobil, then we've arrived. Today we are considered not just as this big media agency with buying power but as a proper global media agency network that is strong in every region."

Uva says that although there were challenges in getting OMD truly off the ground, the shareholders are now fully convinced of its worth. "The three agencies have been behind us because of the job we've done. Twelve months ago, that was not the case, it was a wait-and-see. Today, if you speak to Jean-Marie Dru (chief executive of TBWA), Allen Rosenshine (chief executive of BBDO) or Ken Kaess (chief executive of DDB), they would all echo the fact that we've achieved consistency, co-ordination and a product and process that integrates with them in a very short space of time. They feel very comfortable with the relationship, they're proud of what OMD has become and I think a lot of that has to do with Europe because Colin and his team have bridged the gap at European level and in markets in Europe."

The talk when Uva arrived was that his media-owner background and links with the entertainment business would help OMD usher in a new age of striking deals with Hollywood studios and organising large-scale, advertiser-funded programme initiatives. The sort of clever stuff that is supposed to deliver orgasmic, weak-at-the knees shudders to clients but rarely does. There was an interesting cross-media deal with Walt Disney (involving a massive $1 billion of spend) but in reality, Uva's leadership has been more pragmatic - putting basic building blocks in place, winning (and defending) new business and taking OMD into markets it didn't have a strong presence in.

But what has he brought to OMD? Gottlieb says: "He's relaxed, focused and a very big media player. He loves the global role and wants to win. His single biggest asset is the way he treats the management team. He is great with clients and passionate about OMD's success."

Recma's 2002 billings figures have OMD as the third-largest global network behind Publicis' Starcom MediaVest Group and WPP's MindShare. But the gap between the three is negligible. OMD's $17.9 billion billings are $500 million behind Starcom MediaVest's.

So does Uva have a burning ambition to be number one? Of course he has, but he claims size and being one of the top three is more important for the benefits it brings to clients rather than a test of his own manhood.

"Scale allows you to do so much more and not just on the buying side. Bigger agencies have more to offer from a creative standpoint simply because they have more people. If consolidation wasn't such a good thing, media owners wouldn't have done it.

"Our priority is to make sure OMD is the most profitable media agency in the world. Clients want the best thinking and the most cost-effective price. When you are in the top three or four, you are breathing this rarefied air."

Some would argue that the single most depressing trend in global media is the move toward increasing commoditisation and advertisers shifting business based on price alone. Uva argues that it's up to the agencies to add value: "Clients do think that way (on price) and I think that they should think that way because they should be looking for the most cost-effective means of doing business. But it's incumbent on us to demonstrate how a much more holistic communications planning approach, with the media agency at the hub with strategic thinking and processes, can have a positive impact on delivering solutions. Otherwise you are dealing with a commodity."

"That's where OMD would like to be, at the forefront of that sea change," he says. "We think that there is a difference between just discretely dealing with a client's paid media budget and the opportunity to understand and then create solutions that will attack bigger business issues. You shouldn't be limited. Let's face it - there are six or seven of us that are big players on the global stage who are going to deliver comparable price."

Uva says that his next task, as well as working with Thompson to strengthen some of its US business units, is to develop new areas for OMD to diversify into. Clearly, this has the attraction of more revenue for Omnicom but will also help, he hopes, the network move upstream.

He is also interested in recent developments at WPP that have led to the creation of Group M, a media negotiations hub working on behalf of MindShare and Mediaedge:cia clients. Uva says a similar deal with PHD is not out of the question but points out that, given PHD's relative lack of geographical coverage, Omnicom's priority is to have two strong competing media networks.

OMD can certainly lay claim to being a strong media network. Such a notion was unthinkable two years ago and its new-found power is a testimony to Uva and his regional management teams. However, the long overdue support of the OMD shareholders was the vital factor. It seems that Uva's calculated risk in joining OMD has paid off. Now his task is to take it to the next level.

If you have an opinion on this or any other issue raised on Brand Republic, join the debate in the Forum here.