Hugh Dow: Media Person of the Decade

From opening the first agency-parented stand-alone media services company to deft navigation through the decade's turbulent media environment, Dow has helped move media management companies to the top of the agency heap.

When a lad at the tender age of 15 shows unwavering resolve as to how he wants to spend his life – and it’s not as a rock star, A-list director or celebrity athlete – he’s well on his way to making it a reality. For Hugh Dow, chairman of Mediabrands Canada, realizing his goal led to becoming one of the main architects of the agency industry in Canada. 
From opening Initiative Media in 1989, the first agency-parented stand-alone media services company, to deft navigation through the turbulent media environment of the last decade, Dow has more than delivered on his early vision and has helped move media management companies to the top of the agency heap.
It all began when Dow stood his ground against school counsellors who thought accountancy was his destiny. He knew he wanted to work in advertising, specifically, the media side, where he could sense the potential for greater understanding and better relation to consumers. With that battle won, Dow finished school at 18 and began his chosen career with a five-year stint in television audience measurement in the U.K. before taking a media research gig with Leo Burnett in London.
A few years later, Dow took a leap of faith when he replied to a small but intriguing ad for a media research supervisor at an agency he’d never heard of in a place where he didn’t know a soul – McKim Advertising in Toronto. That was in 1967 and Dow has been blazing trails in Canada ever since.
“I spent two years at McKim and then MacLaren Advertising approached me. I have been very fortunate to have worked for a company that addressed all my crazy notions of what media should do,” says Dow. “And I’ve now been here 41 years.”
The years have been eventful. Dow took the former media department of MacLaren McCann through restructuring and expansions, arming it with the tools and expertise to keep up with the media industry’s challenge and change.
He quickly moved up the ranks at MacLaren to become media director in 1974, and piloted the agency through its acquisition by Lintas/Interpublic and the launch of Initiative Media in 1989.
In February 2000, Initiative Media was renamed M2 Universal to reflect its ties with Universal McCann, the media management brand of IPG’s McCann network. Dow led M2 first as president and more recently as chairman. A few months after the birth of M2, Initiative Media returned as the new moniker for Western International Media to indicate its alliance with IPG’s Initiative Media Worldwide network.
This last decade Dow has also been spearheading product placement and multi-platform campaigns. He embraced digital and mobile media and demonstrated how combining the old and the new can create compelling convergence campaigns.
“It’s a question of giving people the confidence to come forward with new ways of doing things – and having people who are naturally curious about more engaging ways of using media,” says Dow.
“Everything we do now is multi-channel and obviously digital is an increasingly big component of that. The next arena will be mobile and that’s coming like a freight train down the track at us.”
Dow’s emphasis on innovation could be seen throughout this past decade. As media suppliers were being transformed into conglomerates with properties across multiple platforms, Dow saw that M2 was ready to take advantage of the opportunities via convergence planning.
One of M2 Universal’s first big convergence efforts was in 2001 for RBC Financial Group through Canwest’s TV, newspaper, magazine and web properties. The content was based on quarterly polling to take the pulse of the nation on social and economic attitudes and the state of education. It included a four-part TV series, 12-page inserts in the National Post and advertorials in National Post Business magazine as well as 60-second features on Global’s dinner-hour newscast and a half-hour program on Prime – all sponsored by RBC Financial Group brands. It may sound like old hat now, but it was a radical level of brand involvement and far more integrated than programs of its time.
Dow quickly followed that up with a convergence program called Innovating Tomorrow with the newly created Bell Globemedia for GM’s new Cadillac CTS model. Content based on the innovation theme ran as half-hour TV programs, vignettes on specialty nets such as ROBtv (now BNN), in the Globe and, through Sympatico, included a microsite and a contest.
Andrew Saunders, VP advertising sales for the Globe and Mail, was VP of integrated sales for Bell Globemedia at the time and says the deal was a great example of Dow challenging media organizations to look beyond where business is today to where its going.
“Part of the success of today is based on the trials and tribulations of what you went through in the past,” says Saunders. “A media organization needs to partner with high-calibre clients who could provide that thought leadership and be able to facilitate those deep strategic conversations. Hugh is very good at that.”
“What an impact he’s had on the entire industry,” observes Saunders. “Specifically with newspaper, Hugh’s definitely been a big supporter. He’s pushed on working in a partnership environment, whether it’s the relationship between editorial and advertising, or the ability to strive for creativity and push the envelope on measurement, accuracy and ad effectiveness.”
Dow also ensured brands received unique, custom-made media solutions. For example, innovation for Johnson & Johnson has been outstanding year after year, such as the award-winning “Balance” campaign in 2003 designed to promote J&J brands in meaningful environments with tailored content on TV, online and print.
In 2005, M2 Universal did a deal with Canadian Living that involved publication of an extra edition entitled “Health for Life,” wholly owned and branded for Johnson & Johnson, and leveraged in-store.
In recent years under the agency’s dedicated J3 unit, mother and baby have been a big J&J focus with 2009 campaigns including partnerships with Slice TV’s The Mom Show and MySweetBaby.ca.
Despite all the long-lead complex content deals on the go, Dow’s team stayed nimble and unafraid to tackle fast-moving opps. In 2005, M2 Universal discovered that one of the tasks on The Apprentice involved designing a brochure for GM’s Pontiac Solstice. With 10 days and a small budget, M2 came up with a campaign to capitalize on that, yielding 200,000 visits to the website.
Dow’s early mobile forays included bbTV in 2006. This Canwest MediaWorks ad-supported video service for BlackBerry launched with a roster of M2 clients: General Motors, RBC, Tylenol and Labatt.
In 2007, M2 also got GM’s Cadillac into the Dragons’ Den on CBC, plus a presence on ROBtv. That year was also memorable for Dow’s provocative cha-cha during a Dancing With the Media Stars performance at the CTV Upfront.
In 2008, the agency beefed up its understanding of how consumers are really using media by creating a proprietary online panel of 5,000 Canadians. “Sometimes we do spot checks on particular subjects that the planners or buyers might have. Now we’re spending a lot of time determining people’s mobile usage, for example,” says Dow.
“It’s essential to have regular information on consumer behaviour, how they’re using new communications channels, and how they tie them all together. When that’s combined with syndicated research then you have some pretty powerful tools that enable you to develop the right connections.”
Dow’s passion for research has been evident in the work he’s been doing with industry organizations, including ABC, PMB, BBM Canada and CMDC. His contributions to the industry were recognized with the Association of Canadian Advertisers’ Gold Medal Award, and he’s been a winner of numerous Media Director of the Year honours. 
Part of Dow’s contribution to furthering media measurement involved spearheading CMDC’s Unity Project. The plan, set it in motion in 2001, called for the fusion of local and national product and media usage data to form a central databank used by the entire industry in conjunction with individual media audience measurement. Although it came to an inconclusive end, Dow is optimistic that it will happen once methodology and cost are better aligned.
Sunni Boot, president and CEO, ZenithOptimedia, says her longtime competitor and industry colleague has been a calm, credible voice in media issues and has led the Canadian media agenda.
“Hugh’s contribution to the industry has been immense,” says Boot. “He helped start the groundswell of moving media departments to become independent media companies, and he has worked to consolidate and improve media measurement.”
Dow’s Canadian track record was also noticed outside of the country, and he was named EVP/director of global operations for Universal McCann in 2007. In February of last year, Interpublic Group’s Canadian media operations – M2 Universal and Initiative Media – were aligned under the Mediabrands Canada umbrella, with Dow as chairman. Mediabrands was first established in the U.S. in 2008.
“The role of Mediabrands is to coordinate the activities of IPG media holdings in Canada and, for that matter, in other countries as well,” explains Dow. “Whereas these companies previously competed against each other, we’re looking for a much more focused direction.”
Following the Mediabrands launch, Dow saw an opportunity to form a third Mediabrands agency to specialize in global and international accounts. UM opened in the U.S. in 2009. UM Canada followed in early 2010 with it first account being Chrysler, for which it was media AOR. More recently, UM won the Coca-Cola MAOR. J3 has also been aligned under UM Canada.
Like the decade, the Dow Era comes to a close at end of 2010 – but he’s definitely retiring on a high note: Mediabrands Canada agencies picked up over $150 million in new business in 2010.
Dow has every confidence that the strong leaders of the three Mediabrands agencies – Sara Hill, M2 Universal president; Michele Pauchuk, Initiative Canada EVP managing director; and UK-import Peter Mears, UM Canada president – will continue the momentum.
Dow adds, “I can walk away with a great sense of satisfaction that the company is in good hands – and media is generally held in very high regard now, both by the advertiser and anybody that works in the business. It’s very satisfying to see where we’ve come from and where we are now. We’ve seen a lot of changes but media will continue to change – we ain’t seen nothing yet.”