2019 Media AOY Silver: UM’s courage pays off

To achieve results, the agency works alongside brave clients like Oh! Henry to program bold media plans.

UM group pic

This story originally appeared in the November/December 2019 issue of strategy.

Many agencies would say they’re client-focused. But when Shelley Smit says that about UM, she really means it.

Smit, who has been president of the Mediabrands shop since it first opened in 2010, has been in media since the ‘90s, but spent a decade at Labatt Breweries of Canada. She doesn’t stand out among her VPs – 70% of UM’s senior leadership also came from the client side.

UM’s client-centric approach dates back to its inception. Before the agency opened a Canadian outpost, there was J3 – a global unit within UM that manages media for Johnson & Johnson. When Smit returned to the agency world in 2008, Mediabrands brought her on as managing director of J3 in Canada. After several years on the Johnson & Johnson account, IPG brought the UM brand to Canada, with Smit leading the way. She’s since cultivated an agency inspired by J3’s dedicated model.

UM is divided into “pods,” teams comprised of planners and investment specialists, with each pod focusing on a finite number of accounts (typically up to three clients). UM started with two of these dedicated groups and it now has six. “The TV buyer sits right beside the planner, who sits right behind the digital pure-play buyer and the social buyer.”

Using the example of a pod that handles Sony Pictures, Smit explains: “Every movie is a new launch, and they have 20 a year. You can’t carry over learnings from one to another – there are different targets, the creative comes out of the U.S., and they basically have three weeks for success. After it launches, they have to question every day whether or not to put more money into it. And then Monday afternoon after opening weekend, they meet with the client and review.”

There can be a drawback, though, says VP of digital Erica Kokiw. The pod format by itself can impede shared learning “and you could lose a lot of expertise across disciplines, like digital,” she says. That prompted the creation of UM’s Decision Sciences unit, which works under Kokiw. Besides data, and taking some of the time-consuming reporting off of planners’ hands, Kokiw says it bridges gaps by sharing learnings from past work and building best practices across the agency.

As UM has increased its number of performance-based clients (which Smit estimates is 40%) as opposed to brand-builders, Decision Sciences has evolved. Kokiw says it’s now focused on hard skills training in areas like Six Sigma, AI and statistical analysis.

UM has also evolved from a tech perspective. Kokiw says no one estimated tech to go in its current direction, with the most powerful tech so accessible to consumers. As a result, IPG’s Medialab – a physical space in New York where clients can immerse themselves in tech demos – has evolved to also become an agency practice.

“Everything is on your personal devices. Maybe you have an AI assistant in your house. Every TV comes connected. We all have access to innovation, so our teams have to ask, ‘Where do we go from here?’”
Now, she says, teams will do workshops with clients around tech-related business problems – like what “the store of the future” will look like, or how clients can use AI to eliminate consumer friction.

Data has been a major area of investment for UM, but Smit admits that’s table stakes for any media agency today. An equal amount of focus has been put on training and culture – like its “Better U” program, which allows employees at all levels to receive training from management to personal brand-building.

Smit adds that UM has less than 10% turnover, which she also credits to the culture. Every single one of the agency’s values (like those of courage, community and candor, all of which line the walls of UM’s elevator bank) is something it tries to impart on clients.

In order for those values to achieve results, says Smit, it needs to be reciprocal. She uses Hershey’s Oh! Henry 4:25 bar (see sidebar) as an example of the magic that happens when UM’s values, like courage, are shared with the client. “Never would I have told you five years ago that Hershey would sign on to do something that bold,” says Smit, referring to the cannabis-adjacent name and promotion. “But the impact after even just a few days was tremendous.”

Taking a client on a journey with you and remaining consistent in your values pays off, says Smit. In the meantime, she and Kokiw aim to keep up the candor – and anticipate the day UM expands to a seventh pod.

Key new business
Bank of Montreal, (Canada and U.S.), Home Depot, Movember, American Express, Allerject, Energizer, Waterloo Breweries, Allstate, Estee Lauder, Mount Sinai Hospital, Henkel, SharkNinja, RE/MAX, Giant Tiger

New hires
James Monaghan, Owen Garscadden directors, strategy; Will Mulqueeney, VP client business partner (J3); Dennis Truong, director, digital strategy and partnerships


Media Cases

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When Oh Henry! needed a way to re-engage with millennials, UM helped the brand reach the hungry cohort through clever media tactics. Oh Henry! hit on the notion that “when you’re high you’re hungry” and created a new nuttier bar designed to meet those needs, five minutes after 4:20pm. The media plan helped connect the 4:25 bar with a cannabis-friendly audience via a collab with food legends Epic Meal Time, as well as distribution in a dispensary and a gate-crashing effort at the global marijuana march.


For Sobeys, UM created 48 Facebook ads using data that informed mini stories. Each one featured life moments and product mixes, making it easier for shoppers to find what’s relevant to their lifestyle needs.

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When Tim Hortons filmed the journey of a Kenyan hockey team being flown to Canada to play with NHL stars, the agency got the spot TV airtime so that it could warm hearts from coast to coast.