The Media Store ushers in its second life not just as ‘Toyota’s old agency’

After The Media Store was decimated by the departure of its foundation client Toyota, in 2021, the agency is now back on its feet and puffing its chest, energised by new staffing, clients, and a refreshed ownership structure. Mumbrella's Calum Jaspan speaks to CEO, Stephen Leeds and COO, Jacquie Alley about the agency's 'second season'.

The Media Store launched its new positioning as the ‘Media Reimagined’ at its 25th anniversary recently, which comes as it emerges from one of the more turbulent periods any agency could have to weather.

Initially launched as Toyota’s bespoke media agency in 1997, it was a relationship that lasted for the best part of the agency’s history, so intertwined that it often stifled The Media Store’s attempts to lure in other accounts of similar stature.

In 2015, The Media Store appointed Toyota media executive, Craig Jepsen as its CEO, with the agency then following the Japanese car brand in its relocation to Melbourne two years later, led by its now-CEO, Stephen Leeds.

[low quality] Ad space taken out by TMS to thank Toyota at the conclusion of its relationship in 2021

Toyota handed its creative and media accounts to Publicis in 2021, in a move that was almost the beginning of the end for the agency, which saw its headcount drop from 55 to 15 in a matter of months.

Despite a grueling few years, the agency is now back on its feet, and is going to market with what it is calling its ‘second season’.

The second season includes revitalised staffing, recent client wins including Travel Texas, as well as News Corp-owned betting firm, Betr, which it helped launch to market in late-2022, and a change in ownership.

In addition to taking on Cure Cancer as a pro bono client, TMS’ headcount is now back to a healthy 32, with Dentsu veteran Sam Cousins joining the ranks at the start of April as chief strategy officer.

This all comes at a time when the agency celebrated its 25th birthday in December, and in turn launching its new proposition ‘Media Reimagined’.

“I don’t know that we ever officially announced the transition of ownership from Warren [Hill],” says CEO Stephen Leeds, speaking to Mumbrella alongside chief operating officer, and co-owner, Jacquie Alley.

Leeds, a former Ten and ARN exec, was promoted into the top job in 2018, with Alley working her way through the ranks at the agency since its inception in 1997.

In late-2019, months before Toyota announced it was pitching, ownership officially transitioned into the hands of Leeds and Alley, who she adds are both “second generation” media owners, with her own father being the aforementioned Hill, founder of the agency.

“So as owners, we’ve seen the year-and-a-half of the pitch, then saw the disappointment of the announcement and the transition period which lasted six months, and then of course the transition into a business without Toyota,” says Leeds.

“We had to deal with that Toyota brand association for 24 years as a company, that we were perceived as Toyota’s agency by some, others perceived us as an agency that was part-owned by Toyota, and others perceived us as only being able to work with Toyota exclusively.

“So there is still a job to be done, less so now that unshackles us from Toyota, because I joined in 2017 and I’ll tell you now that I was so impressed with the sophistication of The Media Store, who were perceived as just a one-client agency, and didn’t get any respect or credit for what they offered to Toyota’s business or any client’s business.”

“It was always going to be our struggle, whether we won it or not,” says Alley, adding that the agency had always had trouble growing due to the magnitude and consuming nature of one key client.

Alley says the agency has been invited into more pitch rooms than it ever has in its 25 years since the announcement.

Alley and Leeds at the agency’s 25th birthday celebration

Despite the disappointment, the pair saw it as an opportunity to reimagine The Media Store as “something other than Toyota’s agency”.

“Everything’s changing,” Alley says, with Leeds saying “it’s all aligning” at the one time.

Alley says it was time for her dad, Hill, to “pass the baton on”, with Leeds and herself “already really running the company for a number of years”, so the succession and transition “just made sense”.

“We have different strengths, bring different things to the table, so it was kind of a natural progression to put our own skin in the game.”

During this period, when the agency lost around 40 staff, Alley points to the loyalty of what the agency now refers to as its “founding clients”, Simply Energy, RMIT and Hino Trucks, as keeping things moving, but also helping springboard the agency back into focus.

Alley says during this period, the agency didn’t really do anything different, though this is starting to change now with its ‘re-imagining’ and influx of new and returning staff.

“We’re starting to consider what those new capabilities look like as everything continues to be fragmented and clients want different things. That’s kind of where we’re at now, re-imagining what we look like, what our brand looks like, what our team looks like, and what our client mix looks like.”

Hill has been very supportive of the transition, Alley says, despite part of him thinking, “don’t do the pitch because it’s stacked against you,” she added.

The pair said they saw the opportunity to transition a legacy brand into the future though, and with so many great other parts in place, “it would’ve been crazy for us to start again,” Alley says.

The Media Store team

With that client list now diversified, partly not by choice, Leeds admits the pair “always realised that putting all your eggs in one basket has risk attached to it”.

“New business doesn’t happen overnight, and there’s a fine line that has to be managed from one month to ten years. So I think it makes sense to mitigate the risk by spreading your client base, no doubt.”

This doesn’t mean everything went the way they wanted it to, though. “Don’t get us wrong, we would love to have won that pitch and had Toyota with our foundation client in a new ownership structure.”

There were challenges either way, but how it shook out meant the agency had to reimagine itself, as well as prove itself in the process, he adds.

“It’s always easier to win clients when you’ve got clients. But as Jacquie says, the calls that were forthcoming suggested that our brand was strong enough to continue.”

Now in its new era, they say they did consider and debated at length a name change, but ultimately decided it wasn’t going to be a “set and forget” mindset.

Leeds says with the new ‘Media Reimagined’ positioning statement, The Media Store probably has more relevance today than it did when it was founded.

“Because what is media nowadays? That’s what this whole Reimagined Media is all about. We decided that there’s more cache in that brand and more relevance in that brand today, so let’s keep that, and then we’ve got a job to do in our communications to make sure that we’re seen as the Media Reimagined business and not Toyota’s old agency.”


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