Five questions with: Natalie Bell, UK CEO, MG OMD
Manning Gottlieb OMD's UK CEO, Natalie Bell discusses her restless leadership style, her love of OOH and the agency's recipe for success
Late last year you were promoted to UK CEO of MG OMD, having headed up the UK agency since 2019 as managing director. Has the promotion changed your day-to-day role significantly?
The honest answer is it’s hard to say what my day job has been over the past 18 months, and it has certainly not been static. In fact I think the biggest challenge for any agency lead has been balancing the now – which has been heightened to a level we’ve never seen before – with also ensuring one eye on the future and where we want to head.
I actually believe the biggest impact in my move to CEO is less that it’s me now doing the job, and more the experiences and learnings that I’ve had that are unique to the past year and what that means to how I now lead our wonderful agency as we look forward.
It’s fair to say that I’m a restless and impatient leader, but I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling pretty shaken up by the speed at which we’ve made sure we’ve supported our clients, adapted to change, cared for our people and all the while transforming our capabilities at the necessary pace.
I genuinely believe we haven’t yet fully recognised the amount of change this period has brought about – through every part of our business – and not all just down to Covid, but also down to the place we found ourselves in before we’d even started 2020.
If we look back, sure we’ve seen direct and indirect shifts from Covid but we’ve also seen dramatic shifts in data, in regulation around advertising, in client organisations, and in consolidations – agency and media owner side.
As well as an evolution in offline media owners to respond to the persistent threat of digital giants. Oh, and everybody stepping-up in our focus on people.
I truly believe we’ve seen those pivots more so in the past year, accelerated by Covid perhaps, but also by the culmination of market dynamics.
So, as we come out of this period, we have many more opportunities to be excited by, couched in an industry that has learnt the importance of setting the right conditions for everyone to thrive. It’s very exciting, but it doesn’t mean that capitalising on those opportunities is going to be easy.
2019 was MG OMD’s most successfully year in its history - why do you think that was? And how did you go about maintaining momentum during a much more challenging 2020?
It’s probably fair to say we hit a sweet spot. But it wasn’t by chance, it was years of having the right leadership team, the right culture, and a clarity of what the agency wanted to be…and sometimes I think it all just falls into place at the right time.
Winning the HM Government buying account was a huge driver of that, but for me it was the clarity of proposition that we wanted it to be – and all credit to Paul Knight (CEO of OmniGOV) for how amazingly he has delivered that through the toughest of times (he’s my ultimate work hero) - built on transparency, world leading standards and a huge focus on effectiveness.
Then importantly, it was how we bedded it into the agency – e.g. not pitching for new clients for 18 months – to ensure we got it right whilst guaranteeing the highest delivery for all of our amazing existing client base – many of whom we have worked with for over 10 years.
Key to all of that is the relentless focus on the work.
It’s far too easy in our business to get distracted by internal challenges, and work-streams darting up all over the place. But they have to be firmly pointed at creative, meaningful, effective work for our clients. Work that is fuelled by brilliant talent, and very importantly, the right partnerships that enable it – across the industry and our partners.
As for 2020, of course it was tough.
I could not be prouder of how we adapted to all of the huge challenges we faced as an agency (along with everyone else in our industry), and how we supported our fantastic and varied client base; from The John Lewis Partnership to Virgin Media and from Renault to Sony Pictures – whilst ALSO delivering the Government comms throughout the year – which the team did faultlessly, I might add.
We have a clarity of proposition at MG OMD, which we launched in March 2020 – Creating Difference that Matters. Little did we know how important that would be as we entered the year – but everything that underpins that proposition – Creating Difference that matters for our people, our clients and to our industry has been our north star.
What advice are you giving your clients as we hopefully head towards the end of lockdown?
It’s the same advice I give to the agency – come out of this having embraced the good bits, learnt from the bad bits, jump into the opportunities in media that have sprung up all around us – but importantly do it with real clarity of what you stand for and your goals.
We work with some fantastic brands, and some businesses – particularly retail and autos – that have challenging times ahead. But the changes we’ve seen – in consumer behaviour, in digital acceleration, and in media channel transformation - offer amazing opportunities to gain competitive advantage if approached in the right way.
What do you think makes a good agency leader?
The obvious answer is a combination of empathy and clarity of vision/decisiveness. But that goes for any leader.
Specifically, in agencies I think you have to have restlessness and curiosity for what we do – underpinned by oodles of positivity.
I spent a lot of my agency years as a bit more naturally a cynic – I like to challenge the norm and am sadly too much of a perfectionist – but I’ve learnt to retrain those into a positive outlook on what we do – the greater appreciation we show as leaders for our craft, the better we will all enjoy it.
I’m also a big believer that an agency leader’s role doesn’t stop with the agency, it’s a role that contributes wider to the industry.
We have the opportunity to use our voice to push for change from the inside out. For me, I was very proud to co-chair the Omnicom-wide female network – OmniwomenUK+Allies through 2019 and 2020.
Plus, one of the most incredible achievements in the past year at MG OMD has been our development of MG Academy – which has evolved from being an online media training hub for clients, then to media owners, then we opened it out to anyone in the industry that had been hit by the pandemic and wanted up-skilling or re-skilling.
We’ve just rolled out a digital specific academy for our first group of entry-level digital talent – no matter qualifications or experience. And excitingly, we are launching MG Mentoring Academy to built on our partnership with Brixton Finishing School and WYK, offering education and mentoring to a new generation of talent.
What industry trend or innovation are you most interested in or excited by right now?
I’m not shy in saying that I genuinely love outdoor media.
My background is in digital media, but I love the multitude of roles that OOH can play in a plan – from innovation (haptics, holograms, facial recognition!) to big impact cultural fame, to exceptionally targeted and data-driven contextual placements.
A great example of this is how our Specsavers team worked with the client to pull store eye-test availability into local outdoor sites to manage capacity – something that was of even greater importance through 2020, when numbers had to be tightly managed.
With all of the tech developments happening in outdoor…when the world opens up fully again, just watch the fun we’ll have.