Richards takes new CEO gig

The speculation over who gains from SMG's loss ends now.

The tagline for homegrown standalone Media Experts is ‘MAKE A BIGGER IMPRESSION’. Well, they just delivered on that with their 13th hire of the year, adding former Starcom MediaVest Group CEO Lauren Richards to their roster.

Mark Sherman, founder and CEO of Canada’s largest indie media services firm, is handing the Media Experts CEO remit to Richards, and changing his business card to read Executive Chairman.

As Sherman cedes responsibility for all operations to Richards, he says, ‘given the ever increasing pace of change in the media business, Media Experts is constantly looking for ways to stay a step ahead, to be the best media services company in Canada – a huge part of that involves people, talent. We set out to find a Toronto-based leader for our entire company, one who could replace me as CEO, as the driver of the company. The criteria was this person should be the best in the business. There was a short list with one name on it, Lauren Richards. Like us, Lauren is not satisfied with the status quo, she is an innovator, always looking for new ways to grab attention, new ways to solve business problems, new ways to build an advertiser’s business, the fit was natural.’

In terms of Richards’ number one priority, Sherman replies, ‘Media Experts has grown rapidly over the last several years and we expect that pace to continue as we move forward with Lauren as CEO; her primary responsibility is to constantly improve the quality of our service to our customers through that growth.’

2010 has been good to Media Experts. Over the last year the 125-person shop – with offices in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver and whose 2010 billings are approaching $300 million – welcomed Bell Canada as a new customer, and also recently added the BMW and Mini brand and dealer business to its list of big accounts such as Best Buy/Future Shop and West Jet. And now they’ve landed Richards,strategy‘s 2009 Media Director of the Year, who also led SMG to Media Agency of the Year Gold in 2008 and 2009 (and silver in 2010), and is widely acknowledged as the catalyst that turned SMG’s creative and business win fates around, thanks to visionary leadership fueled by personal charisma. Her departure from SMG which broke in Media In Canada, was the most-read story this year, and lead to wide scale speculation as to where she would go next.

When asked how Media Experts lured Richards away from her success with SMG, Sherman says, ‘we did not so much lure Lauren away as attract her. Unlike our global competitors we have the luxury of independence, the ability to focus solely on Canadian media, Canadian clients, and the ability to move quickly to serve their ever changing requirements.’

As Richards gets ready to take the reins on Dec. 6th, based out of the Toronto office, strategy caught up with her to ask about the impetus behind the move to Media Experts.

Citing its top ten media agency status, and being the only wholly owned Canadian on that list, Richards says she was attracted to the leadership and dedication to customer service driven by Mark Sherman – ‘who I find really astute’ – and was also intrigued with their growth strategy, ‘having offices – and no individual profit centres – across our three largest markets’.

‘They keep under the radar, there’s a mystery about what they’re up to. I was curious to learn more.’

An important factor for Richards was the level of investment in staff, culture and infrastructure. ‘I believe caring about your people and nurturing their growth and potential is the most important investment in our business. And they do that in spades.’

As an example, Richards mentions efforts to unify talent across the far flung offices to set the stage for greater collaboration and innovation. ‘They invest in that challenge significantly by getting all staff from all offices together at least three times a year. They have a common summer party, Christmas party and an all-staff event devoted to digital every year. To me that kind of thinking is really powerful and important for the ability of the teams to deliver maximum value for their clients.’

But the clincher was Sherman’s big plans for Media Experts: ‘The boldness of his hopes and dreams for the company’s future excited me.’ As did his inclusive approach to achieving those goals – specifically, his ‘openness to additional thinking being able to contribute to the company’s future’ plus a willingness to evolve his role.

When asked if Media Experts independence was a factor, Richards confirms that being a strong independent option in a sea of multinationals was definitely a key part of her interest. ‘I am an entrepreneur at heart and I believe this opportunity provides me the best of both worlds – the size and scale of a well established media operation with the ability to evolve as we see fit for the Canadian marketplace, specifically for Canadian marketer’s needs.’

But as to the downside of being an indie – stiff competition from big global network agencies for those big global clients – Richards doesn’t see it as necessarily a harder slog.

‘There’s a lot of business to go around and, I honestly believe, not enough forward-thinking options in the market. There will be some businesses that will only look at their media partner on a macro global level, and those businesses won’t necessarily be a fit for us anyway. However, our priority won’t be on new business, it will be on existing business. There’s no better path to new business than extremely satisfied existing customers whose own business grows and they recommend you to their contemporaries.’ Adding that Media Experts has partnerships with highly respected US and international media independents.

Richards also says there’s an advantage to being able to look at new business from an entrepreneurial basis. ‘There is an openness to create new models and work in conjunction with specific areas of expertise, be that innovation, digital, retail or content integration to name a few. We are also looking to expand our specialties.’

One area that has benefited greatly from Sherman’s ability to invest as he pleases is proprietary innovation in internal systems. ‘Media Experts has invested in smart tools that help their staff apply the pounds and pounds of media learning into systematic approaches that take the guess work out of decision making,’ says Richards. ‘Mark’s vision for new advances for communications via technology and tools is very complementary to my interest in marketing innovation.’

Looking back at her SMG days, Richards says her proudest accomplishment was ‘returning the pride’ to the people and the organization.

‘When you are proud of yourself and your company there is no end to what you can accomplish.’ And the biggest coup was building the reputation through ‘amazing talent creating fresh product, getting that product recognized and being able to attract clients who were interested in the vision.’

When asked about the biggest rumour on what she’s up to next, Richards replies, ‘I’ve heard up to sixteen! A lot of people believe I am going to start my own thing and in a way I feel like I am. I’ll just have the benefit of a lot of great company. I think this move of mine is surprising and intriguing some, as I’ve come back to a Canadian footprint versus expanding my global one. As many of the best creative shops sprouted up as independents I think there’s tremendous advantage for a media independent with scale, in being expert in Canadian consumers for Canadian marketers.’

As for what’s next for Sherman: ‘After 29 years in the media services business I am handing the wheel to a new driver, I will be sitting in the passenger seat navigating. A new, strong driver, allows me the opportunity to study the map, consider the future of media in Canada and allows me to better understand what direction we need to drive in order to best satisfy the media management needs of Canadian advertisers.’