McCann Worldgroup’s business growth and creative success are not the by-product of radical restructuring, but the company’s belief in the soft power of its people and the art of account management. It’s an approach driven by the convictions of chief executive, ex-PR man and all-round diplomat, Harris Diamond.
If you come to an interview expecting Harris Diamond to bare his business soul over the issues keeping him awake at night, you’re in for a disappointment. This is a chief executive acutely attuned to issues of reputation, having run Weber Shandwick for the best part of 16 years.
You can take the man out of PR, so it would seem, but you can’t take PR out of the man.
“I'm amazed how many [companies] are making announcements about their internal problems,” he says. “It's like the husband and wife in trouble saying, ‘let's go tell the neighbors!’ That doesn't happen under my roof.”
The fact is that Diamond, the chairman and chief executive of McCann Worldgroup, has had no need to trade his vulnerability for press coverage like a number of his peers have before him. Since he took up the top job in 2012 he has watched his company win the most D&AD awards in the show’s history for a single campaign, claim the title of number one advertising agency network for creative effectiveness, among other accolades, and contribute to IPG’s continual growth.
In the past, financial success was attributed to a number of beefy, high-profile account wins, such as Verizon, Microsoft, Nestle and L’Oréal. But while the group picked a fair amount of new business in 2018, growth in the financial year end February 2019 came largely from expanding existing client relationships, Diamond says.
“That was, in a lot of respects, a saving grace because there was very little new business last year,” he says, referring specifically to the number of $50m-plus accounts going up for pitch across the board. “We saw a lot of great growth from our clients trusting us to basically expand our share of their wallet and at the same time, some clients actually increased their marketing spend.
“Clients are asking us [to] put one idea at the centre and asking how we could we exploit it and which platforms could we exploit it on. Frankly, that has resulted in them consolidating more business with us."
Onus on business leaders
Of course, these clients haven’t opened up their wallets without a little encouragement from Worldgroup. Its strategy for organic growth is multi-layered: offer clients more with an integrated offering spanning CRM to experiential, and get really good at selling this to them.
Granting clients access to every skillset in the business is not unique to McCann Worldgroup; in fact virtually every agency group is on a crusade to do the same. Publicis Groupe, along with networks BBH and Ogilvy, have all pledged allegiance to some iteration of the ‘power of one’, with the latter dismantling brands such as One and ‘...& Mather’ to fully commit to the one-stop shop approach. A similar approach has been undertaken by ICF Next.
But Diamond, like IPG boss Michael Roth, still sees value in separate agencies brands, and has no plans to melt the likes of MRM, Momentum and Weber Shandwick into one singular ‘McCann’ pot.
“I have a different viewpoint, and maybe it's because I was the PR guy,” he says. “There's intellectual capital in all our businesses. By keeping our agencies different we ensure that people who work in them basically are getting that disciplined, specialist knowledge.
“The problem in the end is, when you merge to make things – with all the best intentions – somebody wins. Some culture wins. Some intellectual capital wins. And by definition it means you've suppressed the other side. I am less willing to do that.”
Without a branded banner to unite Worldgroup’s nine business units, Diamond’s confidence in soft power has led him to place his trust in his account leads (or business leaders, as they’re referred to internally) to sell an integrated offer into clients. He has tremendous faith in Nannette Lafond-Dufour, the company’s president of global clients and business leadership, to push and co-ordinate a truly full-service offer, as well as bridge the gap between a brave creative team and a sometimes-cautious client.
“We started this approach [of elevating the art of account management] inside McCann three or four years ago,” says Diamond. “Nannette has done a phenomenal job of getting people to understand what the new requirements are, what the KPIs are – to get them to be much better partners to clients, rather than necessarily looking at our business from our perspective and, perhaps most importantly, to take creative ideas and push them forward.
“Sometimes it does take uphill pushing to get an idea accepted. But I don't buy the argument that clients aren't willing to [take risks]. That's the agency's failure most of the time. If that’s what happens, then we didn't spend enough time in explaining how it should be done."
This strategy looks to be paying off. Currently 10 of Worldgroup’s top 15 clients use five or more of its agencies, and 40 out of the top 50 are serviced by at least two. Additionally, 41 out of the 50 are serviced by offices in multiple regions.
According to Rob Doubal, joint chief creative officer of McCann UK, Diamond is central to pushing this spirit of collaboration as far as it can reach.
“He has created a culture which allows us to believe that we can create anything together,” Doubal writes on email. “We have countless best-in-class agencies to work with. The interplay between them is not only seamless, but fun. Everyone knows each other well.
“As a result, we have created some of the world’s best cross-channel work – campaigns like Xbox Survival Billboard and the Fanchise model – two of the most awarded in the world – would not been possible without the spirit of generosity and goodwill that exists between the McCann Worldgroup agencies. Which is very much down to the culture that Harris has created in recent years.”
Interagency collaboration is never smooth sailing, even at Worldgroup, where the occasional creative toy is thrown out of the occasional agency pram. But again, it’s Diamond that’s moulded the business with a pragmatic, 80/20 approach to distributing work in mind – business leaders should know the perfect agency for a brief 80% of the time, and only have to roll the dice between two or more agencies 20% of the time.
“If two or more of the agencies are fighting with each other only 20% of the time, life goes on in my mind,” he says. “I'm not unrealistic. As long as people know that when it's really important to the client's success the right agency is brought to the table... I'm OK with it. And we're getting better at that.”
Diamond’s senior colleagues attest to the chief executive’s drive, his 24/7 mentality, his lack preciousness over reporting lines and his laser focus on clients, which manifests in his acting as a reliable touchpoint for marketers, rather than as someone important to be wheeled in for serious, biannual conversations.
He spends 50% of his time thinking about clients and the other 50% thinking about the people best positioned to service those clients. He “triangulates”, according to one source – listening to multiple viewpoints that allow him to see a clear path through a client or internal challenge.
He chooses to choreograph his staff, guiding them and encouraging them to guide each other, rather than picking them up and dropping them down under the guise of business restructure. But when the steps aren't followed, he's not afraid to play hardball either, as his H+K lawsuit proved in the early years of his executiveship.
Diamond “puts his money where his mouth is”, too, according to one senior executive, by investing in his agency brands to make sure they have the best talent to succeed and room to grow.
He’s just done it quietly, without fanfare, because – to use Diamond’s analogy – there’s no real reason to tell the neighbors.