Winning mentality: unpicking the secrets to MG OMD’s success
27 April 2023

Originally posted on Campaign Magazine UK 

After the agency’s parent group was the only shop to receive the highest mark in the School Reports last month, Campaign asks how does Manning Gottlieb OMD do it?

“In the past 18 months, we had the government pitch, as well as reviews for John Lewis Partnership and Virgin Media as the incumbent agency. If we had lost those three accounts, it would have wiped out 15 years’ worth of billings growth for this agency. That was pretty scary.”

Manning Gottlieb OMD chief executive Natalie Bell is looking back at a remarkable period of work and growth. However, as she tells it, things could have been all so different. There was John Lewis and Virgin, but to add to the jitters, the agency’s biggest client, the UK government, was still mulling over whether to sign up for another four-year term.

The pitch took place in 2021, amid the Covid pandemic, when the government was still running regular Covid campaigns and MG OMD’s 160-strong government media buying division OmniGov handled north of £400m in media billings (it’s usually closer to the £250m mark in non-Covid years) for about 85 government departments.

Bell and OmniGov chief executive Paul Knight realised the odds were stacked against them, even though OmniGov had produced award-winning work, and won the Campaign Media Awards’ Agency Team of the Year for two years in a row.

No agency had previusly retained the government media buying account, and they were up against previous incumbent Dentsu’s Carat and WPP’s largest media agency, Mediacom (now EssenceMediacom).

To make matters more complicated, OmniGov could not reference any of its previous government work throughout the tender process.

Knighty, as he is known in the industry, says the agency had prepared for more than a year ahead of receiving a brief, and realised it needed to prove it could elevate government media services to “a new world standard”.

“When you have so many different government clients with very different objectives, it can be a fine line to make sense of it for everyone,” he says. “If you can demystify the complexity of media, cut through the jargon and explain it to someone who is not in your world, you are halfway there.

“We didn’t even contemplate losing, to be honest. It was a case of leaving no stone unturned and we looked at it through the lens of ‘what do we think government communications should do to improve’, started to pilot some work and bring in the different capabilities we needed. The only point I thought we might lose was literally the day before the result.”

Working on the UK’s largest media account has “never been normal” for MG OMD. Since the agency won the business in 2018, the government has had to prepare the country for Brexit, then handle communications for the pandemic and, more recently, provide guidance to help people during a cost-of-living crisis. And all that under four prime ministers and even more chancellors.

Winning streak

The work the agency delivered for the government and others, including Amazon company Ring and Specsavers, has helped it become one of the most awarded of recent times.

Although its sister agency, OMD UK, took out the coveted Media Agency of the Year prize at the Media Week Awards 2022, MG OMD picked up the largest haul, including six golds. The “Ring my bell and Saturday Night Takeaway” campaign, by MG OMD and ITV for Ring, was the most successful individual campaign with half a dozen gongs, including the Grand Prix.

Bell won the Media Leader of the Year for agencies, and MG OMD won Agency Partner of the Year, which is judged by media owners. This follows a successful Media Week Awards in 2021, when MG OMD claimed the Media Agency of the Year and Agency Partner of the Year in another large haul. Although shortlisted for Agency of the Year, it was beaten to the big prize by Zenith.

Last week, the agency again triumphed at the Campaign Media Awards, sharing the glory with rivals Zenith and EssenceMediacom, scooping up three gongs, including two for Specsavers’ “Should’ve 2.o” (in the Healthcare and Creative Idea: Budget over £250k categories).

The agency’s success rate has extended to pitches, adding British Airways, Pernod Ricard, Gambleaware and Virgin Media O2 (following incumbent client Virgin Media’s merger with O2) to its client list since 2021. Just as importantly, it has retained the government, John Lewis and Waitrose.

Paul Phillips, managing director of the intermediary AAR Group, puts the agency’s pitching strike rate down to three factors: engineering deep relationships with clients, the centralised support services provided by Omnicom Media Group and its government work.

“The OmniGov proposition as a standalone agency for government work provides MG OMD with behavioural change levels of insight that can be applied to private sector clients. That can give them a distinctive edge in some reviews,” he says.

According to COMvergence data, which measures the net billings for account wins, losses and retentions, MG OMD topped the industry in 2022, while OMD Group UK – which combines MG OMD and OMD UK – was the only entry to score the highest mark (nine) in Campaign’s School Reports for the past two years.

‘Creative media’ roots

Manning Gottlieb Media was established by Nick Manning and Colin Gottlieb in November 1990 as a challenger media agency that placed craft, trust and performance at the heart of media planning and buying.

Gottlieb explains that the pair decided to sell to Omnicom Group in 1997 due to the “huge creative heritage of BBDO, DDB, TBWA and many other incredible firms across Omnicom that represented the core values at the heart of Manning Gottlieb Media”.

He adds: “And these values are so clearly evident in MG OMD today. It’s their secret sauce, because Natalie and her incredible team passionately believe it in their hearts. Watching the gang do amazing things and continue to play ‘beautiful football’ is a joy.”

Over the years the business has nurtured industry leaders, including Goodstuff founders Ben Hayes and Andrew Stephens, M2M founder Peter Thompson, Hearst’s chief commercial development officer for Europe, Robert Ffitch, and LadBible’s chief revenue officer, Tim Pearson.

Today, MG OMD employs 550 staff and handles Nielsen-rated billings of £1.1bn (up 5% on last year’s figures). Dan Clays, chief executive of Omnicom Media Group UK, mentions a culture of “incredible drive that runs through the agency” but “without a sense of arrogance”, a drive that “binds the culture of MG OMD to unearth new approaches to media and bring new ideas to clients”. In their words, it’s about “creating a competitive advantage”.

Partners and passion

“There’s definitely a secret sauce in a sort of psychological safety that a long-standing team has in that we can challenge each other hard at times, but know that we’re doing it for the right reasons and we’ll get to a better place,” Bell says.

MG OMD’s managing director, Kat Bozicevich, points out that the agency surveys its staff regularly. Examples include when it should return to work after lockdowns ended, and how staff are feeling.

“There’s a lot that we hear from our own people, but equally our clients and the industry about what they are going to need from us in the next year,” she says.

MG OMD set up a “challenger board”, featuring 15 junior staff to provide scrutiny over the way the agency operates and key decisions. It also consults a leadership advisory board composed of people from adjacent agencies, former clients and media owners. Dino Myers-Lamptey, the founder of The Barber Shop, is a non-executive director.

Knight says listening to clients and media partners has helped the agency retain 50% of its client base for 10 years or longer.

“In our industry, with the amount of chopping and changing as well as the short life span of CMOs now, I think that is a rarity,” he says.

“Listening” is what the leadership team believes swung last year’s John Lewis Partnership media review in the agency’s favour when it was rumoured the client wanted a divorce.

MG OMD had worked with John Lewis for 15 years and developed a “strong relationship” with the client, but that changed due to the impacts of Covid-19 on the retail sector, in which high street stores closed down and made large losses, and the recent cost of living crunch on suppliers and customers.

“Their needs changed, and the business had become challenged,” she says. “So we did go into that review fearing the worst because of the conversations we were having and our relationship hadn’t been updated fast enough for their needs – it took a review to force that.

“We really listened to what they needed and reshaped things along the way and quickly, but then we also delivered outstanding work at the same time again to restore the trust that we were their partner for the future. We also brought in Omnicom Media Group services to ensure that we could deliver in every part of their business, particularly in digital, but the account team went above and beyond.”

What the industry thinks

“Going the extra mile” is a sentiment that Simon Groves, director of brand and marketing at Virgin Media O2, uses to describe the agency: “They are proactive, highly collaborative and always going the extra mile to understand how media can deliver for our business. Importantly, that is consistent across everyone we work with – they really are integral partners for us.”

Groves isn’t alone in his praise for the agency. Rosie Hanley, head of brand and marketing at John Lewis, says it is part of her extended team, one that guides strategic thinking and is “so responsive to the pace of modern retail”.

For Ian Maybank, Specsavers’ head of media and connections planning, MG OMD is a key driver in business growth (“their thinking is beyond our paid media brief”), while at Pearl & Dean, chief executive Kathryn Jacob salutes its “genuine team spirit… they know what good looks like”.

ITV’s deputy managing director of  commercial, Simon Daglish, says now that the agency has retained some of its larger clients (Government, Virgin O2 and John Lewis) – it is in a strong position to grow its new business pipeline.

All businesses have areas for growth, even strong agencies like MG OMD. One rival agency head pointed out that MG OMD’s reliance on domestic brands could one day backfire: “If there’s a global pitch, would that go to one of its global sister agencies, like an OMD or PHD?”

Another questions the sustainability of a business that benefits from long-term leaders and some very large clients: “It could make it vulnerable in the future if some of these bigger accounts moved on. A real test will be how it manages these changes.”

What’s next for MG OMD?

Even if MG OMD is well placed to grow its client portfolio, the agency is taking a break from pitching to onboard O2 and Giffgaff, which it won in August. It also wants to help clients through tough economic conditions.

”We are reshaping the work and planning that we’re doing around how media can unlock that competitive advantage for every single client,” chief planning officer Emma Withington says. “Whether it is improving their share of voice, or creativity, or new audience growth – what are the strategies, techniques and tools our planners need to demonstrate the effectiveness and business impact of media?”

She adds: “A lot of the markets our clients are operating in might be in decline. They’re all facing inflation and a cost of living crisis with customers tailing back. The only way they’re going to win is by stealing share.”

The tenure of MG OMD’s leadership team is testament that once it finds promising talent, they tend to stick around, and its people have delivered a formidable reputation for creativity, effectiveness and being a true partner to media owners and clients alike.

“If I could sum up our culture in one phrase: the people here genuinely give a shit,” Bell says. “We give a shit about each other, our clients and doing great work, and our media partners. It’s as simple as that.”

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