Today’s media agencies face a new slew of challenges, as more clients slash budgets, issue RFPs and take everything in-house, from planning to programmatic. But clients aren’t the only ones making big changes. Both OMD and Initiative bounced back from challenging years with strategic pivots, picking up new business from brands like Daimler Mercedes, Liberty Mutual, Revlon and the U.S. Army. Breakthrough network Essence transcended its reputation as Google’s digital resource to score new partnerships with BP, Peloton, T-Mobile and more while doubling its headcount and adding 11 offices around the world. On the work front, these shops proved their media mettle with headlining campaigns for Amazon, McDonald’s, Target, USA Network … and who could forget the International House of Burgers? Read on to find out why these three earned Adweek’s Media Agency of the Year honors

Patrick Coffee




In 2016, Initiative was on the ropes, and global CEO Mat Baxter knew it.

“It was a basket case,” he admits, with “a dysfunctional culture, not much of a product, if any, in terms of a defined product or a proposition, no real brand or reputation to speak of” and a “relatively dry new-business pipeline” that didn’t include “any prestigious new-business pitches.”

The future did not look very bright. “That’s a challenge, to get back up on your feet,” he notes.

And yet, Initiative did just that.

The agency went from losing 3.6 percent of its revenue in 2017 to a growth rate of 11 percent last year, a powerful resurgence that has earned it the mantle of Adweek’s 2018 U.S. Media Agency of the Year.


Initiative began laying the groundwork for its return in November 2016, designing “a world-class planning process.”

“We help clients think differently about their brand,” says U.S. chief client officer Hallie Johnston. “We might be even a bit disruptive in the pitch to help them think about where they can take their brand and their media strategy.”

Notes Baxter, “The one thing that we always hear from clients, whether we win the pitch or lose, is that we were different.”

The agency also instituted its Reverse Upfront, outlining to media partners what clients are looking for.

“I think the Reverse Upfront sent a clear signal to the market that there was change at Initiative,” Baxter says. “Never underestimate the influence of the media owners to influence clients’ perceptions and your own reputation.”

The program completely turned around Initiative’s relationships with media partners, which it now claims as a competitive advantage.

“The clients that do the best work are the ones that tend to recognize they need agencies, and agencies that do the best work are the ones that recognize they need media partners,” notes chief communications design officer David Stopforth.

Initiative also changed the way it works with clients, overhauling its client leadership team, with many new arrivals from client-side backgrounds.


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February 25, 2019