Aimee Buchanan on being the new CEO at GroupM: Straight-up, loyal and ready to get things done

GroupM’s new CEO Aimee Buchanan recently sat down with Mumbrella’s Olivia Kruimel to discuss exactly why she left her role at Omnicom's OMD to join the WPP outfit, what her main priorities are for the short term and what she wants to bring to the ever-evolving group of agencies.

When one of the industry’s most respected leaders jumps ship, many will question why, especially when, by all accounts, it looks like they are on a winning streak where they are.

WPP’s posterchild GroupM has had its fair share of change in the past 12 months. Much like the parent company, GroupM’s management in Australia has provided plenty of water cooler chats in the industry since it was announced CEO Mark Lollback was leaving in March.

Since then a number of changes have taken place. Firstly, Sebastian Rennie was announced as chief investment officer, then Yaron Farizon was named CEO of MediaCom AUNZ, and most recently it was announced AKQA Media would be merged into Essence, with Pat Crowley taking on the Australian CEO role.

Amongst all of this was Aimee Buchanan’s appointment. While some in the industry were shocked by her departure after five years as CEO at OMD, she tells Mumbrella she felt she had finished what she started and done a lot of what she set out to do in that role. “It wasn’t a decision I took lightly,” she says of the move. “I built, I think, a really incredible team over there and we had a great run.”

Her motivation to move, she says, was driven by the possibility of creating a business that is a “good place for people to be”.

“It felt like, somebody said to me ‘you know you going to GroupM could make that a better place for the 900 people who work there’ and that’s a really positive impact.”

Eventually, it was a case of knowing she would regret it if she did not give it a go.

Aimee Buchanan

Former WPP executive, Greg Graham (aka Sparrow) says of Buchanan’s appointment: “They needed a local person… someone who understands the business, has the client contacts, and really understands the market. Buchanan has incredible credentials.

“I don’t think Buchanan would have taken the role unless she knew she could be successful, and is given autonomy, investment etc… so she’s able to make the changes she wants to make and get the best talent in the business.”

Another former WPP exec who asked to remain anonymous says Buchanan and her achievements at OMD are “streets ahead” of what individual leaders at GroupM agencies have achieved. “What she has achieved in terms of drive, growth and stability on a like-for-like basis at OMD, versus Mindshare, Wavemaker and MediaCom, Buchanan achievements are streets ahead.”

Buchanan says she was impressed by GroupM global chief executive, Christian Juhl’s ambition of making advertising a better for people, which she sees as making GroupM a better place for its people.

“It is incredibly unique… for a holding group that has purpose baked into its vision, which as far as I can see, no other that has. He [Juhl] is willing to make the tough calls and adheres to and acts on that vision. And that he’s empowering myself and the leadership team here to do that. And that’s something I can really buy into.”

Christina Juhl

She adds: “The scope to make this a better place for 900 people and to be a better partner for our clients and partners. Well, that’s not something I’m probably going to get everywhere.”

Buchanan sees a lot of potential in GroupM citing the transformation that is going on at a global level and the changes locally as a significant opportunity. “I love change, I love the idea of moving quickly… there’s a lot of opportunity.”

One of the main draw cards for her at GroupM is the group’s infrastructure, and the thinking and productisation that comes out of the global network, which is more than she’s seen elsewhere in her career. GroupM is touted as the world’s largest ad buying group.

“Sometimes when you get so much globally, you don’t build as much locally and I’ve come from almost the reverse where everything was built local, with a little bit from global.

“I think that if you take that sort of entrepreneurial, get-stuff-done hustle, that I think we did a great job of over at OMD, and then build that with what’s coming down from global, you’ve kind of got the best of both worlds.

“You get the best out of WPP as a global organisation, which is incredibly powerful.”

She tapers that though with the acknowledgment that “people don’t come to work for global” they are working at Mindshare in Sydney or Wavemaker in Melbourne. “They have to feel it when they walk in the building,” she adds.

As for taking on a role that sees her steering a number of agencies, each with its own brand, leadership, culture and service offering, Buchanan says she sees it as GroupM’s job to show up well for the agencies so that they succeed; “we are there to support and facilitate better outcomes,” she states.

“I’m super respectful that we win and lose in the agency brands, so what we build needs to be relevant and useful for them, their people and clients, and if they are not, then we are not doing our job. We don’t have a job if we don’t do well for the agencies.”

One other factor that contributed to her move was WPP’s Australian chief strategy officer, Rose Herceg, who Buchanan says she has known for many, many years and has “utmost respect for” and is someone she “could really work with”.

Getting the house in order

Having been in the role for a mere six weeks, Buchanan says she has been very much focused on getting to know the business, the brands, the people and the product, before looking externally.

She says she has found everyone at the group “really supportive so far” and is looking to once again build “the best possible team” around her.

This includes fellow former OMD chief operating officer Nathan Young, who was announced even before Buchanan moved into the role, and then more recently Initiative’s Scott Laird chief people officer.

Buchanan says these appointments are to provide the “capability” that the group needs and the “complimentary skillsets”.

She adds that there are no further direct report vacancies in her team and that Laird’s appointment was a “big piece of that puzzle”.

Scott Laird

“I do believe you, you win or lose on whether you’ve got the right people, and whether this is a supportive culture, and he was a very conscious hire,” she adds.

Having got the global and regional and national leadership on board, and now a fully-fitted-out management team, Buchanan says her next focus is the GroupM employees and clients.

Buchanan has since done a series of townhalls at the various GroupM agencies, and will do a few more, once state borders permit.

“I want to know the agency brands and I want to know what motivates them,” she says. “Clients are buying the sizzle and pop of those teams.”

By getting to know the brand, the team and product, she says she will be better able to understand what motivates them and can then alleviate pain points to better support them.

One of her other priorities is GroupM’s overarching approach to the future of work, called Strive, which will encompass all aspects of the employee experience from flexible working to parental and carers leave, mental health and wellbeing, international mobility, and office environment.

“My view is we need to be building programs and initiatives that galvanise the workforce, especially in the current climate,” says Buchanan of Strive. “We need to build programs that make people want to stay and then build programs that make people want to come.”

Along with above, Buchanan is also looking at diversity and inclusion and sustainability at GroupM, noting that the above topics will have overlap with the broader global GroupM outlets and WPP as a whole.

She says she is used to working with regional and global counterparts and expects the initiatives and programs to get underway without too much issue.

“We’ll get engagement and make sure it is not contradicting or rocking the boat.

“I’m quite used to working in a structure with a regional and global structure,” she adds. “I think fundamentally, if you’re doing a good job, and you’re progressing the business and doing the right thing by the business, and you’re winning, you get a lot of autonomy, but you have to prove that.”

As with anything she approaches, Buchanan admits that when it comes to internal programs, if you over-engineer them they still won’t be perfect, because people want to have input, and that takes too long. “We’re launching something within what, four or five weeks of me being here. It’s not perfect.”

As for clients, while Buchanan says there is no big fish she is looking to catch, she see’s excited by the opportunity that the AQKA Media and Essence merger provides the group.

“I think the AKQA Media merger into Essence opens up a really interesting opportunity for that brand,” she comments.  “A full media offering at scale in Essence, which has got incredibly sophisticated digital capability, is really exciting.”

The transition of the business is well-under-way according to Buchanan. “We’re bringing 250 people together under the Essence brand with incredible capability, great client base, CommBank, Google, Airbnb, an incredible client base. The portfolio of clients will enable us to do great things and learn from different clients.”

“We’ve definitely got some gaps,” Buchanan acknowledges. “You can have all of the prospecting and you have the due diligence around that, but a big part of this is also just opportunity that arises.”

Having survived the brunt of COVID at Omnicom, Buchanan says they are seeing big opportunities in the market as we come into “probably the biggest summer that we will have ever experienced”.

“Take travel and entertainment and how you start to navigate that in a post-COVID world. It’s like a war, right?… Coming out of that experience consumer behaviour fundamentally changed, attitudes changed.

“And we’re seeing a moment in time where you’ve got these categories who haven’t been active, are going to be active,” she explains.

For GroupM, she says the opportunity is to be a “trusted partner” that clients can call on when got a big problem or opportunity to solve.

a combination of the international infrastructure, the net, the strength of the network and the local depth of capability and the,

“If you get the product right. Get the people right. And get the culture, right. You’re a good partner,” she explains.

Leadership goals: get it done and be straight-up

Buchanan is somewhat of an anomaly in the industry in that she has not chopped and changed lots during her career to climb the ladder, having worked at just two main agencies for significant periods of time.

Loyalty is something that has rewarded Buchanan, even in her early days. “I think you take all the bits that resonate with you, and I’ve had great role models,” she says.

Her first boss was the celebrant at her wedding, and is a “great friend” and a “really great partner in crime”; while former client Michael Smith has taught her about the importance of humour at work. “Especially in tense situations when people are stressed, which in agencies is a lot, humour brings sort of lightness to people’s day,” she tells.

Michael Smith

She also cites him Smith for showing and teaching her about loyalty. “He was the one that backed me at a very young age to run the Optus Singtel account,” she explains.

“I was 25 and he said, I want you to run this $110 million piece of business. I think the loyalty for him was that you showed your loyalty and he paid it back with the opportunity he wanted to give you. Even when I left, I think back to leaving MPG, he said ‘this is the right role for you. Go do it’ and I have such respect for that moment, to show you care more about an individual than about your role in the company.”

When it comes to how she wants to lead in her new role, Buchanan says she is “very action task orientated”.

She adds: “And I’m also a big believer in progress over perfection. And as a perfectionist, I’ve learned this, the hard way in an agency, you can have a tendency to be overly holding the grip, and that comes from pitching, I think, where you’re kind of trying to make it perfect so you can convert it into a win.”

“I’m big believer in you look up, you do the right thing and you commit. Quickly, openly, honestly, transparently.”

But if the staff and clients at GroupM are expecting Buchanan to sugar-coat the realities of the environment and what needs to be done to be successful, they may be in for a shock: “Going through COVID, I think if anything, it took taught me, give it to people straight,” she says. “I think I’m pretty straight-up. And if you don’t know the answer, you tell people you don’t know the answer, but it doesn’t need to be jazz hands and sizzle.”

While GroupM might have a full stable of leadership under Buchanan’s guidance, the management of WPP locally is still up in the air, with a country manager yet to be appointed since former CEO Jens Monsees departed soon after the full acquisition by WPP Plc.

Buchanan won’t be drawn on who is likely to fill the role, and sticking to her previous statement about being straight-up, politely says its “outside of my pay grade”.

Whoever ends up in the role, it would appear they have someone loyal in the team in Buchanan.


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