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‘There isn’t always an RFP that defines us’: VMLY&R chief details growth strategies

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By Dani Gibson | Senior Writer

August 10, 2022 | 7 min read

Ahead of The Drum Awards for Agency Business later this year, we caught up with VMLY&R – Network Agency of the Year 2021 (+1000 employees) to find out if it’s been building upon its winning formula.

MLY&R won Network Agency of the Year at The Drum Agency Business Awards 2021

VMLY&R won Network Agency of the Year at The Drum Agency Business Awards 2021

VMLY&R has had a few strong formative years. Formed in 2018 when VML joined forces with Y&R, it would go on to win the Agency Business Awards, and be a cornerstone of parent company WPP’s seizure of the Coca-Cola account. It now boasts clients including T-Mobile, Intel, Wendy’s, Greenpeace, Starbucks, Colgate and Ford.

2021 into 2022 proved to be a period of record growth for VMLY&R as it developed its ‘Connected Brands’ capability, merging the disciplines of brand and customer experience.

The Drum catches up with Jon Cook, global chief executive, to learn the secret behind the success. Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

How important is winning industry awards for the team’s culture?

The award and the recognition have been very helpful to us from a talent perspective. Accolades and recognitions are all good for the ego and for validating what you’re doing, but also for people to recognize that you might be a great agency to come and work for. We’ve hired more people in the last year than we ever have before and for some positions and roles that we’ve never had before, particularly much deeper into senior roles.

Earlier this year, we hired a global chief experiential officer, Laura Mignott, into a burgeoning capability that we never had before to drive experiential. She’s doing a lot of work on Coca-Cola with experiential around the world. It’s amazing when we put our work into something that we feel fits our strategy. If you build it, they will come, and that’s certainly been the case with Laura.

What have been VMLY&R’s biggest highlights this year?

One of the fastest-growing areas of our business in this last year, since The Drum Awards win, has been our health practice, and we have one of the biggest health capabilities in the world sitting within VMLY&R. The foundation of the merger four years ago has also created the ability to add, if not the biggest, one of the largest commerce capabilities in the entire world of ad agencies.

And right before last year’s win, we added Geometry from WPP into VMLY&R. One year on, it’s become one of the strongest parts of our capability. At this year’s Cannes Lions, we finished in the top five globally and I don’t take that for granted. The work that we won two Grand Prix for is in health, and we won in almost every part of the world – our team in India was one of our biggest winners and is a part of our company that hasn’t won big in Cannes before. We’re so proud of the company, what we’ve become, and where we’re headed.

What challenges are clients coming to you with?

As clients are coming out of the pandemic and reintroducing themselves to customers, they’re trying to find new ways forward to balance media spending and content delivery. I’m generalizing because each one is so different, but this notion was consistent. During the pandemic, every one of the relationships our brands had with their consumers changed a little bit, mostly for the better. Most of the clients we work with deepened in finding some new way to exist with that kind of customer base.

If you haven’t seen a friend or a co-worker for a couple of years during the pandemic, when you find each other again each of you has changed a bit and you’re finding that new rhythm together. If you carry that metaphor forward, a lot of our brands are finding a new way for their relationships to exist with customers. If it’s a customer that was in a travel space, and somebody hadn’t been traveling very much, what’s their new relationship? And how does that brand greet them differently? All of our clients are challenging themselves to find a new way forward with consumers.

What have been some of the most challenging moments of the past year?

That would be finding our rhythm of running the business as we enter the post-pandemic. I don’t know if we’re out of the pandemic or not, but we’ve been a lot more in person, certainly with our clients and with our travel, but still finding our way in our offices. It’s been challenging as every one of our offices is a little bit different in their comfort level of coming back. It’s challenging because we’re such an in-person business, a business that demands being together.

There have also been fewer giant pitches, which isn’t necessarily a challenge because there’s a lot of new business out there and a lot of growth available. The challenge is that it comes in a lot of new forms. It’s not always as perfectly formed as an RFP or a pitch process. Our world’s becoming a place where the better agencies are finding growth through their capability. VMLY&R has got a capability [Connected Brands] that is unique when you take brand experience and customer experience together. There’s not always an RFP that defines exactly what we are. We need to make sure that we’re taking opportunities as they’re presented in their literal form. And then finding a way to represent what we are, which is often something different or more than the RFP calls for. It’s fine-tuning our capability to where the market questions are.

While The Drum Awards for Agency Business 2022 has closed for entries, extensions are available now.

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