M2 Universal Shifts Gears

Mediabrands Canada chairman Peter Mears opens up about the departure of M2 Universal president Sara Hill and how, despite losing GM, he sees huge potential for the agency.

With Sara Hill and GM gone, why isn’t M2 Universal worried?


Peter Mears is one cool cucumber for a guy who has watched one of his presidents and biggest clients walk out the door in the past month.

“I see huge potential for M2 Universal,” the chairman of the agency’s parent company, Mediabrands Canada, told Marketing just a few days after the company announced that president Sara Hill would step down at the end of June after being with the company since its inception. “We are aggressively looking to grow.”

He contends that M2 is having a “fantastic year” despite Hill’s departure and the loss of longtime client GM to Aegis Media’s Carat in a global review. Despite the loss, M2 Universal remains a “critical pillar” of the Interpublic Group of Companies (IPG), says Mears.

The agency not only won the estimated $24.2- million Wind Mobile assignment and successfully defended the CBC English-language assignment it has held since 2007, says Mears, but has also managed some “really good” new business wins he declined to divulge.

But the combination of Hill’s abrupt departure and the loss of GM—by far the agency’s biggest client, with 2011 billings of $142.8 million, second only to P&G’s $199.8 million according to ACNielsen—has led to industry speculation that Canada’s first agency-parented media agency faces some short-term challenges.

Longtime M2 Universal president Hugh Dow handpicked Hill as his successor when he stepped back from the day-to-day leadership of the agency in 2008. One agency insider, speaking on condition of anonymity, referred to her as a “dedicated soldier” who was instrumental in M2’s launch.

The release announcing Hill’s departure was vague, leading to the inevitable speculation about whether she jumped or was pushed from the agency. There is evidence to support both claims.

Hill isn’t talking, but some say the fact she is staying on with M2 Universal through June, even assisting in the search for her successor, suggests she is leaving the company that she first joined as a media assistant in 1979 of her own accord.

Mears says that Mediabrands “respectfully accept[s] her decision,” suggesting that she is leaving of her own volition. He went on to laud Hill as “a huge force in the Canadian media industry.”

But there is also talk that Hill’s status at M2 was very much tied to GM. “Her career was built on GM [and] I’m not sure how strong of a necessary role she would play moving forward,” says one senior agency executive who didn’t want to be named.

Hill leaves behind a reputation as a fearsome negotiator. Errol Da-Re, senior vice-president of sales for Shaw Media, characterizes Hill as tough but fair. She grinds vendors down on prices, he says, but is always straightforward about her expectations.

“She’s probably the toughest negotiator for the up-fronts I’ve ever had,” he says. “If you talked to Rita Fabian at CTV or Mitch Dent at Rogers, I’m sure they’d tell you the same thing. The one thing is she’s always been fair: she doesn’t sneak around or tell you things and then do something else. You know exactly where you stand with Sara. That’s why I always appreciated dealing with her.

“She just wanted the best service and she got it from a lot of broadcasters,” he adds. “She was very fair, but she could shut you out really quick if you screwed with her. You don’t want to be on her bad side, I can tell you.”

Da-Re says that there’s little doubt about the continued vitality of M2 with a client roster that includes Wendy’s, RBC and Dairy Farmers of Canada. “The loss of GM is pretty tough on M2, but it’s not the end of the world for the Mediabrands empire,” he says. “They’re still considered a very large agency.”

What is clear is that Hill’s successor won’t have to do all the heavy lifting to guide M2 through what could be a painful transition period. “They have Peter Mears at the top, so it’s not all on one person’s shoulders,” says the insider. “He’s smart, he understands total communications, he’s got experience in the U.S. and Europe, he’s decisive and knows that talent drives the business. He’s got a lot of strong characteristics for the role.”

Check out the July 9 issue of Marketing for more.

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