One Year In, Wavemaker Takes Shape But Stays Fluid

What do you get when two legacy media agencies merge to create a new brand?

An entity that aims to be more agile and data-driven than the sum of its parts, said Wavemaker CEO Amanda Richman.

“We need to create ways of working that are much more seamless and allow us to be much more connected to other partners,” Richman said. “How do we rethink everything we do — process, structure, recruitment, retention, approach – in ways that match our clients’ needs?”

Wavemaker launched last summer as the result of a merger between GroupM agencies MEC and Maxus. As a new agency, it has a clean slate to avoid the legacy structures and ways of working that impede many of its peers.

But legacies don’t disappear overnight, and Wavemaker has lost some clients on its way to a new model, including Barclays, Campbell’s Soup Co. and Michelin.

“It’s tough as an incumbent to present yourself as a new entity without having enough time to prove it out,” Richman said.

The tide, however, may be starting to turn. In the past month, Wavemaker won regional business for Tata Global Beverages and Yum Brands. Earlier this year, the agency landed Adobe and Danone’s US accounts.

Richman spoke with AdExchanger about her first year on the job.

AdExchanger: What’s the last year been like for you? 

AMANDA RICHMAN: It’s been a year of great transformation for the agency and the industry. We’re taking the CMO’s frustrations – short-termism from Wall Street, fragmentation in the media marketplace, the complexity of solutions and partners, understanding where to connect with audiences – and trying to find the solutions.

What’s been the biggest challenge of merging two agencies? 

It’s striking that balance of having consistencies, so you’re working as an agency and building a culture that has shared values, but [with] enough flexibility and agility to make sure you can move with the clients’ needs.

How far along that journey is Wavemaker, and what still needs to be done?

We’ve established the brand and core values. We reshaped teams to bring in more data, investment and strategy leadership to partner with client leads. We’ve built capabilities in areas like content and commerce, and we’ve defined our way of working, which puts client growth at the core.

Wavemaker lost a few clients this year. Are you turning a corner?

On the new business front, we were seven for seven … and then we weren’t. What’s interesting is the wins we have are companies in transformation. I think part of their attraction to us is being part of our transformation. What’s the culture and values? Is it a match for theirs? Is the agency moving with speed and designing around them?

[Those that stayed] saw that we were going to put the best talent on their businesses and refresh their teams with new skills around data and analytics. They’re looking for a partner to help them navigate their own change, and I think they saw our willingness to evolve, invest in new areas and build what they need more of.

How does Wavemaker differentiate from the other GroupM agencies?

Everyone in GroupM has carved out their own space. Our focus on client growth [and] our purchase journey understanding to unlock that growth differentiates us.

MediaCom’s space is around creativity and connections. Mindshare talks about speed to market. Essence is digital at the core. We also collaborate and bring our talent together, too, for the right client opportunity.

Is that happening a lot? 

It’s starting to happen more. There is a spirit of change across GroupM fostering collaboration. We partner with Wunderman and Kantar. We create new offerings and ways to package up solutions that get outside of a single brand.

How much does that spirit of change have to do with former WPP CEO Martin Sorrell leaving? 

The change was well underway, under [GroupM CEO] Kelly Clark’s leadership. The other news is not really impacting the teams. They’re focused on clients. That just becomes press.

WPP Chairman Roberto Quarta has declared horizontality dead. Is that confusing for employees?

It’s less about the badge of horizontality and more about bringing together the right talent and brands in a way that [puts] the value of clients at the center and has the flexibility to bring in resources and expertise as needed.

That’s been a goal for WPP for a while. What still needs to happen? 

There’s greater urgency around it now because we hear everyone demanding a simpler approach. We can’t make the client responsible for navigating our structure.

Similarly, they’re searching for the right model. We consult with them on that and share what we are learning from how other clients are structured for leaning into data and bringing to life consumer experiences. That shared knowledge across clients is pretty powerful, and something that agencies uniquely have.

How much programmatic does Wavemaker buy?

It continues to be a growing percent of our business. We can bring programmatic into our teams, we can work in a nondisclosed way with Xaxis and we’re also working with some clients who are doing programmatic in-house to help make sure we’re connecting the strategy to activation.

Are more clients doing that? 

I actually feel like it’s going the other [way]. Many marketers that have gone in that direction have realized the complexity of staffing a team and staying on top of technology. They’ve started to value agencies and partners that have a broader view of the marketplace and technology and can keep on top of data partnerships.

How do media mega-mergers affect your role as an agency? Do you worry that with AT&T now owning Time Warner more walled gardens will pop up across the ecosystem?

We’re still stitching together the stories across walled gardens. You see collaboration across media partners outside of the big two or three. Within GroupM, [we can] bring together inventory within mPlatform.

The AT&T-Time Warner merger creates another large option, hopefully not a walled garden. I think Brian [Lesser, CEO of AT&T Advertising and Analytics], coming from GroupM, understands our concerns and hopefully will look to be more flexible on how much control they give marketers.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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