Now chief opportunities officer at Murphy Cobb Associates, Cath Cimei is applying her prolific industry experience to brands to navigate the future of marketing and production
For a natural multi-tasker like Cath Cimei, the path to where she is now – the chief opportunities officer at MCA – was always going to take the non-linear route. Cath started her move with the European Commission in Canada straight after university (“Why not take a job where once every six months I could fly to Brussels, to take the diplomatic exam, by way of England to see my family?!”). A move to the UK and a deferral from a fashion design course led to an affiliate coordinator role at MTV, after which her clear knack for business growth and process refinement led deeper into the marketing side of music and radio. This continued in her role as head of affiliate marketing at Unique Broadcasting, bartering programming to commercial radio stations within the UK, building up the network from 30 to 265 stations.
Hungry to do more, Cath tells us as a “fresh-faced and ceaselessly energetic” young professional, she was after three things in her next role: finance, global travel and technology, but one thing she swore she wouldn’t touch was an advertising agency - “absolutely no way!” However, one “very persistent” head-hunter convinced her to take a meeting with Barry Jones (then MD of DDB). Before the meeting was over, the offer of a global business director role was on the table and she hasn’t left the advertising industry since.
Today, her role at MCA brings together the wealth of experience from across global markets to help clients and agencies find the most cost-efficient solutions without compromise on creative. With a proven track record of implementing network strategies and the ability to take the “noise out of the system”, Cath has also taken on a bigger role to expand opportunities with new and existing clients.
Cath spoke to LBB about finding her passion, how being a polyglot came in handy in an increasingly global business environment, and why she never regretted deferring from that fashion course.
LBB> Starting from the beginning you got your first experience transforming brands as Global Client Services Director at DDB. How did it all go when you landed the role with Barry Jones?
I spent a year on the plane. Leading a new way-of-working across six regions didn’t come easy; I had to establish myself and get the ways of working into a sensible order with no knowledge of advertising whatsoever! I then started to get crushed by emails, daily, asking me why clients could no longer speak to their local agency, but rather go to a regional office to manage their campaigns…the short answer - this is what the clients want and this was the role I agreed to play!
I would get on the plane to visit clients in the market, meet with the DDB agency and tell them “This is how it's going to work for you.” I would have to tell people that they’re now working with London instead of France; Singapore instead of the Philippines. After a whole year of travel, my favourite client in Dubai referred to me as Wonder Woman as I had to fend off a lot of opponents and complaints. Once I discovered where the money was buried, the system started to work!
In a way, it was the perfect job for me. At the end of that year, we’d won the rest of the divisions for Philips, the ‘founding’ client of our new way of working. In the middle of year two, we started to manage all the digital implementation by bringing in all the localisation of websites and banner campaigns into the London team and then, as our Global Procurement Client lead stated, we were “woven into the tapestry” of the client’s organisation.
LBB> DDB went through some huge changes while you were there. What happened when the agency won Unilever?
We set up an internal agency when we won Unilever. Then I became the Global Client Services Director for the new agency, called Gutenberg, a name taken from one of the companies within the DDB family. After that we started bringing on new clients, appointed a new client leader for Philips (now MD of Gutenberg, re-named Cain and Abel), won Unilever, and kept going. By the time I left DDB, we had 12 global clients within our team as the reporting structure had changed to New York and many more global clients came our way.
LBB> Looking back on that period now, could you see the evolution of client demands and what brands would start to really need over the next decade?
Barry Jones saw that evolution clearly. He put Philips forward against Tag, the incumbent. Barry put together the team that I ended up leading and DDB and four months later, he left with his mindset of starting a whole new agency….one year later Hogarth was launched.
For all of us, it was the time of decoupling your localisation from your origination. That turned into decoupling your digital from your creative agency, which then led to asking where does social fit. Does it decouple or stay with the media? Digital became very much about a creative idea that’s then handed over to the development team, instead of a middle process of multiple suppliers. Basically, the digital function had to be centralised to align with the other creative work for TV and print. When working with Philips, I recognized that by centralising the work, we started to get creep from markets like Korea, Russia, and Brazil, who truly needed substantially local strategy and campaigns. Every time we did something, we had to completely restructure at the local level. We decided to reintroduce fees and a local team but held onto the same reporting structure to keep the necessary visibility with our online systems.
LBB> Tell us about the rise of digital, its effects on decoupling, and how your role evolved to meet the changes and demands presented by this new development?
Digital became the next big thing for us to do and the task was to centralise the digital function. A lot of it was about centralisation but then we had to recognise that in centralising all the work, we would lose the local need to reach the consumer. Some markets were really specifically local and given that we had built a local-language team to handle work directly with local markets (in their own language), these individuals became very busy! Most importantly, we retained the reporting structure and used our online tools to share work and maintain visibility, not to mention costs! Spend visibility has been a focus for me throughout my career in advertising.
When I joined the industry, I went in straight at the Business Director level – not for my knowledge in advertising, which was non-existent, but for my experience in network management. I took it upon myself to learn everyone’s role, from Account Executive and up. It was only by doing this that we discovered how each of our clients were working across their whole communication mix.
I was headhunted by McCann from this experience and joined the Board of Craft, which was a much bigger picture in production. We ended up on the holding company pitch for Microsoft and I disappeared from doing anything else when we won. It was exhilarating and exhausting at once as we collectively worked, globally, to implement the new model in just three months.
LBB> You’re clearly passionate about the business, what is it that really drives you?
I had become that person who was passionate about implementation and the process of advertising supporting the brand and creative, rather than being in the thick of the creativity. I liked multi-management, process, finance, contracts, compliance, tech, and, of course, travel – and these became the areas that really drove my passion.
That’s where my role with MCA comes in. I was perfect for the Pat Murphy mindset! He seeks those of us who are driven to protect the creative product; he realised I could do anything I put my mind to! In a way, I’ve ‘arrived’ at my role here as Pat will call me up for anything and there wasn’t a name for that (until he invented it of course and it fit!). It’s only in the last year with the restructure that I have a proper idea of what I should be doing for the company, with opportunities being the main focus. I look at how we apply opportunities to any company, not just new business and growth. It’s also about working with current clients who might have issues or cost-saving goals to achieve, or how we can improve the way we work with clients, bringing in more types of communication.
LBB> But how about the creative side? You did a degree in drama and languages, started in fashion, moved into the music biz and have worked with some of the world’s most highly regarded creative agencies and brands. You must have a passion for the creative side too?
Well, that’s just it. I have always loved creativity and creative pursuits but perhaps I go about them in a different way to most. I started my life in fashion design. I couldn’t draw but I was trying to make ball gowns, which drove my mother – a traditional seamstress – absolutely crazy. I changed every garment I ever bought, or simply made one to fit my mood. When I first moved to the UK, I was offered a spot at the London College of Fashion, but decided to postpone it by a year to work at MTV instead. The buzz got me and though I didn’t pursue fashion design, I found my passion in the business side of a creative industry instead.
LBB> We hear you speak multiple languages. How has that benefited you and do you think that's a reason localisation and transcreation has always appealed?
I haven’t ever worked in an all-English company. I find the language requirements of working in different markets really interesting. I was born in French Canada, to British parents, studied for a year in France, before pursuing a degree in Drama and Language (Spanish and French); eventually my passions combined! The language background helps me with international communication. It was one of the things that benefited me working at MTV and landing the job at DDB. International communication is not for everyone and building up a language team to speak to markets in the local language was the key to our success.
Oscar, who recently (sadly) left MCA to go to Hogarth, told me: “Your whole ethos permeates through the building.” Barry Jones (my boss from DDB) took some of the learnings about language and central implementation when he set up Hogarth and we can see how well that worked!
LBB> Do you think that brands need consultants now than they ever did before?
To be honest, it comes back to the effects of decoupling, which has left a chasm between agencies and the area they have decoupled such as localisation, digital or now more prevalently, production. When we decoupled the agency relationship away from the local markets, you couldn’t say that the whole thing would be run from an office in London or Singapore or Mexico and not have a middle team. That’s why I ended up becoming a kind of consultant for my agencies to illustrate to the clients how it would work and support both sides. If we won that client, we’d set up a similar team or we would put in a hybrid model by changing the role of the account manager into more of an implementation manager.
We used to have creative strategies done by creative agencies and then those agencies would manage the production companies. Now, the creative agency is increasingly becoming decoupled from production, who are still finding themselves in need of creative strategies. We’re filling that middle niche.
LBB> Are there any misconceptions about the role of the consultant that you’d like to dispel?
At MCA, when you look at all of us and the clients we’ve worked with across the world throughout our careers, it’ll be close to 2000. No creative agency will be able to come close to that. Personally, I have worked with about 65 local, regional or global clients. That’s the true benefit of anyone coming to work with a consultant. People think we’re just cost-controllers and it’s an entirely false image. We look at how clients invest their marketing spend – we can open doors for service providers, production companies, media, small design agencies, all types of communication. We are entirely impartial and will work with any supplier the client requires, as well as seeking new and innovative companies who are shaking the production industry as we know it. As we have consultants based in almost every market across the world, our clients benefit from a world of expertise, in the true sense of the word!