IPG's Caroline Foster Kenny: 'We're in the Goldilocks zone: not too big, not too small'

IPG Mediabrands' EMEA CEO believes its size is its advantage as media focuses more on tech smarts than size of billings.

Optimism has been in short supply in the media agency sector. But when Caroline Foster Kenny addressed the recent Campaign Media Awards dinner in her role as chair of judges, she declared: "Our time has come."

Foster Kenny, chief executive of Interpublic’s media-buying division, IPG Mediabrands, in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, has worked in media for 30 years and she told the audience: "Finally, at long last, media has reached that top table. We’ve got what we’ve longed for – we’re no longer the rushed five minutes at the end of the presentation. Quite the opposite. We’re increasingly the catalyst of the conversation whereby media is the strategic lever, being recognised for the value it can drive, fuelling real brand and business growth for our clients."

She spoke with confidence because IPG Mediabrands has got its mojo back in the UK since she joined in 2017, after 20 years in global roles for WPP’s MEC and its predecessor CIA (now Wavemaker).

Interpublic’s UK media operation was leaderless for the best part of a year before her arrival and "so many people didn’t know about it", she tells Campaign, sitting in her St John’s Square office in Clerkenwell: "IPG Mediabrands was probably the best kept secret in our industry."

Foster Kenny has changed that. Her first move was to replace the leaders of its two flagship agencies, recruiting Richard Morris, previously of Vizeum, to head Initiative in the UK and Europe and Rachel Forde, formerly of Spark Foundry, to run UM in the UK.

And IPG Mediabrands, which also includes performance agency Reprise, digital content shop Stickyeyes and out-of-home arm Rapport, has been winning.

Foster Kenny says UK revenue grew more than 20% a year in 2017 and 2018 – thanks to a mix of global and local wins for Initiative and UM. These have included Lego, Carlsberg, American Express, Revlon, LV= and Premier Inn, plus the retention of Amazon. EMEA has had double-digit growth in each of the past two years, she adds.

The most recent UK accounts for IPG Holdings suggest IPG Mediabrands is the main revenue driver of Interpublic’s EMEA operations, generating £804m or more than half of its £1.6bn in turnover. She won’t discuss financials.

Interpublic’s acquisition of global data giant Acxiom should broaden its offer to clients, which want more insight on consumers and to make their media more targeted and accountable. IPG Mediabrands has expanded so much in London that it recently spilled out of its main home and into an overflow space across the road from St John’s Square.

The group has 5% share among the big six UK media buyers – on a par with Havas but far behind Group M, Omnicom Media Group, Publicis Media and Dentsu Aegis Network. That means there is scope to grow, she says, noting IPG Mediabrands has made media transparency a "priority".

"Our size is our advantage," she believes. "We’re in the Goldilocks zone: not too big, not too small. Scale in media is becoming less and less relevant in biddable and programmatic." It’s about tech smarts, not size of billings, she maintains.

What’s more, less than 60% of IPG Mediabrands’ EMEA growth has been in paid-for media while 40% has been in owned and earned media services. It helps that all the agencies operate as part of one group P&L and are incentivised only on that figure, she says.

Amazon: one of the key accounts in IPG Mediabrands’ portfolio

Foster Kenny is forecasting both UK and EMEA revenues to grow faster than last year in 2019 – so long as Brexit doesn’t spoil things. "We’re not feeling any impact yet," perhaps because clients can see how media is driving business growth, she says, speaking at the start of April, when there was still no resolution to the Brexit stalemate. Her lieutenants across EMEA have been "astonished at the UK’s arrogance", she admits ruefully.

Now the business is doing well commercially, she wants that to translate into award-winning work. Initiative and UM got 10 nominations at the Campaign Media Awards.

Clients are noticing the revival, particularly at Initiative, which lost its way after Tesco moved its account in 2015. Suddenly, IPG Mediabrands and its parent are becoming serious contenders in some of the top UK-based pitches such as Just Eat’s media shoot-out and Centrica’s integrated review, although Foster Kenny will not say a word about them. The proof is whether IPG Mediabrands can win, not just compete.

David Indo, chief executive of ID Comms, the media and pitch consultancy, says: "What I think stands Caroline apart from many of her peers is her deep and astute understanding of what clients need and want from their media agency partner. I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that the obvious turnaround and clear ascendancy of IPG Mediabrands have happened under her relatively short tenure."

Initiative’s relationship with Amazon shows IPG Mediabrands has no problem handling what is fast becoming one of the largest advertisers globally but Foster Kenny’s team has resisted taking on some of the biggest UK pitches such as Sky, the UK government and L’Oréal in the past 18 months. She says she is not worried about the size of clients – rather she wants to focus on those companies where there is "the right cultural fit" and good "KPIs and metrics for success".

Now "every pitch is becoming more complex and rigorous". Yet chemistry and people still matter. Sometimes she feels "you almost know after the first call or email" whether it is a piece of new business worth taking on, she reckons.

Foster Kenny has good people skills. Stuart Bowden, global chief strategy officer at Wavemaker, who worked with her at MEC, says: "CFK is one of the most intelligent and charming leaders you’ll find in the media industry. She always listens first – to clients and to her people – before trying to solve or persuade. She’s hired carefully and intelligently at IPG and she is master of the long game in an industry obsessed by the next quarter, which is very refreshing."

Rob Norman, a senior advisor to Group M and another MEC alumnus, says: "She has unbounded enthusiasm and a love of people and clients and the work, which is a level of joy that is shared by relatively few people in the business."

'She's master of the long game in an industry obsessed by the next quarter, which is very refreshing'
— Stuart Bowden, global chief strategy officer, Wavemaker

She has encouraged a more flexible approach such as annual sabbaticals and extra paid leave to parents of premature babies. Morris says: "She is determined to drive the inclusivity agenda and set the standard for our industry." Change must happen "faster", she admits, as IPG Mediabrands has an 18.7% media gender pay gap in the UK.

Foster Kenny, 50, cuts an elegant figure, clutching a Prada bag as she arrives for this interview, and an ally says: "She’s got the best jewellery in media." But she doesn’t take herself too seriously – "I sound uncannily like Prince Charles," she joked in her Campaign A List entry.

She dreamt of being a newspaper reporter and decided not to go to university. Instead she got a job as a secretary in the advertising department of The Independent. "I wasn’t quite cut out to be the next Lois Lane," Foster Kenny recalls, but she discovered she liked the world of media.

She moved into agencies and got a big break in 1996 when CIA, a pioneering media independent, offered her the chance to launch its Hong Kong office.

Being a "single, white, western woman" in Asia was a challenge, "especially as I was often the most senior person in the room", she says, recounting a story that she recently shared in a message to staff on International Women’s Day: "I quickly realised it was me that had to adapt to the local culture and dynamics, changing my leadership and influencing style for greater impact. After a while I became quite expert at getting a male colleague to think that my solution was their idea, and what a ‘great idea’ that was."

Foster Kenny also got "lots of practice honing my drinking skills", which proved useful in the "male-dominated world I found myself in".

She has seen the agency sector change dramatically as CIA turned into a global network and buying and data went on to become the profit engine of the holding companies.

Now advertisers are bringing some marketing services in-house and management consultants are muscling into the sector but Foster Kenny insists it’s an opportunity.

Agency groups that "can flex and evolve are winning", she says, citing a consulting project with one of IPG Mediabrands’ biggest clients, Johnson & Johnson, in the Nordics as an example. When brands try in-housing or ask an agency to embed staff, "we’re happy to support them", she says.

So what’s next? "We’re on the right track but we have a big ambition to be the most progressive network. That’s always evolving and makes the journey more exciting." With her can-do attitude, Foster Kenny could be referring to herself when she talks about how "our time has come".

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