Sue Frogley

Sue Frogley: Publicis Media UK Is "More Than A Supertanker"

Following a recent flurry of new wins by Publicis Media, its UK CEO talks creativity and entrepreneurship

By Sonoo Singh

Four years ago, Sue Frogley — a relatively unknown entity — took over as the UK chief executive of Publicis Media. Around the same time, several Publicis Media agency brands, such as Mediavest and Blue449, were being slowly unpicked. It all looked somewhat messy from the outside.

Fast forward to 2021, and the agency group is acting like, what Sue calls, “a supertanker”. Not only is Publicis Media on a massive winning streak, it is turning away future clients and being recognised as a pioneer in terms of team wellness in the workplace.

Publicis Media’s recent spate of wins has been headline-worthy. Five major global wins in nine months — Meta (once called Facebook), Lindt, Stellantis, Ferrero and Walmart. At least four out of these five include Publicis Media UK [Spark Foundry continues to work with Asda in which Walmart retains a minority stake].

In the UK, the media group’s recent wins include Nestlé, Lloyds Banking Group, RVU (Zoopla, Confused, Uswitch), Vinted and Fox’s. There was also the new multi-market Reckitt partnership, announced earlier this year, which is being led out of UK.

“All these wins makes you see us as this ‘supertanker’ from the outside, but what you don’t see is how surprisingly agile and nimble and entrepreneurial we can be,” says Sue.

Supertanker is, however, not a word that would have described Publicis Media UK when Sue first took over.

An Outsider-In

Sue spent much of her career as a finance director and chief financial officer within Dentsu Aegis Network and its subsidiaries, Aegis, Carat and BBJ Media. She then moved to Starcom in 2014 as global commercial director and became president of global solutions for Publicis Media in 2016. A year later in October, Sue was appointed as UK chief executive of Publicis Media, the parent company for all Publicis Groupe’s media agencies.

Her appointment coincided with a need to tidy up the structure of Publicis Media UK. In the summer of 2017, the Mediavest brand was rebranded as Spark Foundry. A year before, Publicis Media had split Starcom Mediavest Group and sister operating company, Zenith Optimedia, and opted instead for four agency brands: Starcom, Mediavest Spark, Zenith and Optimedia Blue 449. Soon after, Blue 449 dropped the Optimedia name. And in 2019, Blue 449 was dropped and merged into Spark Foundry. This left Sue with four media agency brands — Spark Foundry, Starcom, Digitas and Zenith. And with it the task to build a business that is fit for purpose for its clients and also its people.

"Who the hell is this?" is how she was first received by the industry, she says, when her new role was announced four years ago. "That I was met with raised eyebrows is a very polite way of putting it."

Media observers say it is Sue’s sharpness and steeliness combined with her rather dignified and very soft-spoken manner that helped her implement the transition that the French-owned media business required in the UK. And while some media businesses have had to wrestle with a downturn in fortunes, and others continue to do so, Sue today finds herself in the very powerful and unique position of turning away at least 50 per cent of all client pitches.

And all this while proving her critics wrong. Sue made headlines in 2018 when she introduced flexible working for all 2,000 employees within Publicis Media, which, due to its success, now serves as a best-practice guide for the industry.

Over 50 per cent of Publicis Media UK’s boardroom is now female — with women leading three of its four media agencies as CEO — Dani Bassil leads Digitas UK; Zenith UK is led by Natalie Cummins; and Nadine Young is the UK CEO of Starcom. Alongside this, 50 per cent of its annual apprentice intake are from the ethnic minorities and black communities.

Her style of leadership is measured, and she's always quick to salute the much louder vision of Annette King (Publicis Groupe UK CEO) to grow the Groupe in the UK as a major presence among its peers. Yet, Sue has enough of a swagger. It was magnificent, recently, to watch her march up to a FTSE 100 client at an industry do and ask him to hand over his media business to her.

Turbo-Charging Media With Entrepreneurship & Creativity

"My bosses who put me in charge recognised I am a businesswoman," she adds, talking about when she first started in this role. Obviously, not new to the world of media and its complexity and having grown in a media landscape that was very male-dominated, Sue says she learnt very early on that getting the right talent and capabilities is how she could build a customer-centric business. "Advertising can often attract a certain type, and my job is to make sure that within the confines of a publicly-owned company we bring in the right talent and diverse talent, to continue to challenge the industry with our entrepreneurial mindset. And that then leads to a client-centric approach."

Certain themes such as entrepreneurship and creativity crop up again and again during our chat, when Sue’s talking success and client business.

"Media can be very creative, and we’re oddly entrepreneurial and very creative,” she reiterates. Her teams, says Sue, are incentivised in forward innovative thinking and "love to come up with the next new idea or the next new tool."

She adds: "One of my problems is if I let them, then every single agency brand would be inventing new tools every week."

From Asda launching the UK’s first use of connected TV last year, giving the retailer the driving power of broadcast and targeted efficiency of digital; to Oreo Limited Edition resurrecting the art of the mixtape; to the latest tongue-in-cheek Taco Bell campaign where Santa’s in the firing line — these are only a few examples of innovative creative strategy from the arsenal of Publicis Media UK. And this in an industry where media can be routinely undervalued and commoditised.

Resonating With Advertisers

“People buy people, the story, and the products. You can’t just turn up to a client with a bit of PowerPoint. You have to win their hearts and minds.” (It's this kind of clarity that Sue has that perhaps allowed her to stride towards one of the biggest advertisers in the country asking for his media business. as mentioned above).

What advertisers are looking for increasingly, she says, is clever strategic thinking that makes their media more effective. "It's almost going back to that sort of intellectual craft and thinking. And that's what we most love here."

Meanwhile, Sue's agencies are turning down most procurement-led pitches in this most recent wave of 'Mediapalooza'. She says: "There's absolutely no point winning new business and not taking care of existing clients. That's absolutely pointless. But it's a definitely a moment in time.

"When it comes to our clients - for us it's always been three things. What's their business problem? What do they need to solve? And then how do we flex the capability and the people around that?"

So what are the shifting media trends that advertisers have Sue and her agencies working on for 2022?

The biggest issue, Sue predicts, for advertisers next year will be winter's Football World Cup occurring at the same time consumers are thinking about Black Friday deals and Christmas shopping. Will that, for instance, make TV disproportionately expensive for most of the year next year? "Clients don't like this kind of ambiguity but this is fascinating, and while we haven't even had this Christmas, we've all started working towards the next.

"And I'm loving it."


Sue Frogley: Five things that give Publicis Media UK a competitive edge

  1. Unified structure, seamlessly bringing to bear the best expertise around our clients.

  2. Strategic sense: Media that makes a difference. Our agencies have won 65 major awards this year.  

  3. Performics, our 'intel inside' performance marketing practice, supports each of our media agencies. Performics has more people platform certified and is one of the most awarded holding group performance teams in the UK.

  4. Epsilon, the best data solution in market. [Transaction verified, audited at above 96 per cent accuracy by Comscore].

  5. Operations powerhouse delivering best in class activation and consistency across our agencies

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