Media Leader of the Year: Shelley Smit on future-proofing UM

The CEO was given the title at the 2021 MIAs for accelerating the agency’s win ratio and reinforcing a culture that's impacting retention rates.

Shelley Smit (1)
The 2021 Media Innovation Awards awarded Shelley Smit the Media Leader of the Year title during last week’s virtual gala

Long before the pandemic hit, Shelley Smit, CEO of UM Canada, had an agenda to future proof the agency, its people and clients. And in 2021, her leadership helped the agency record a new business win rate of 75%, which included clients like Nestlé, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Enterprise, and HelloFresh.

But what does “future proofing” really mean? First and foremost, Smit says, it starts with people.

While UM’s culture was already great, she says, some of the new measures implemented over the past 24 months has helped to strengthen and “cement the culture.”

One of the workplace initiatives Smit spearheaded includes Better Thank U, a peer-to-peer recognition program where team members are asked to nominate someone who is making an impact on a weekly basis. They submit their nomination to Smit and an EVP or VP on the business, who, in turn, communicates back to the person nominated to further recognize their contributions.

A remote-work culture can create a disconnect amongst team members, Smit says, which can lead to overlooking accomplishments. “[Better Thank U is] a way of ensuring recognition of those day-to-day little wins, like a great presentation or insight,” she explains.

Smit also implemented regular “just checking in” communication sessions, as well as a bi-weekly Curiosity Cafe, where teams celebrate personal achievements and great work, along with Curiosity Connects, where people across the company are randomly connected for 30-minute sessions to find out more about each other.

But in addition to recognizing achievements and connecting people, Smit says creating engagement on the job is also important. Teams have regular conversations about how people are feeling about their role and the work they’re doing, ultimately encouraging employees to “shake it up” if they need a change, like moving to a different client or discipline.

Her efforts to nurture the agency’s culture has meant that people want to stay. Over 43% of UM’s employees have been at the agency for over five years and its turnover rate is under 10%, well below the industry average of 30%.

The agency has also been clarifying and even repositioning roles.

The media world has changed dramatically over the past couple of years, with much more focus on digital. As a result, UM has been changing the job description and title for media buyers to be called integrated investment professionals. The agency’s employee structure now speaks to skill sets, rather than siloes, with capabilities encompassing overall buy strategy, negotiation skills, and/or channel optimization activity.

“These are all skill sets around media investment, so why were we only having them focus on TV? [Integrated investment professionals] would be responsible for all investments across TV, radio, outdoor, and digital,” Smit says, taking what would normally fall within a traditional planning role.

Futureproofing her people was, admittedly, an extension of the larger, global UM strategy and commitment to its clients, with Smit pointing to the agency’s Growth Accelerator approach that was put into place pre-pandemic to help brand be prepared for what’s coming next, “whatever that may be,” she says.

Smit says her role and responsibility has been to ensure UM Canada is training, implementing, and optimizing client work with the methodology and toolsets provided at the global level.

More specifically, Growth Accelerator is designed to maximize UM’s planning process, which is fueled by a database including “29 million opted-in Canadians,” Smit says, courtesy of Acxiom Marketing Solutions, which IPG purchased back in 2018.

When Smit’s team works with a client using the Growth Accelerator process, it conducts a workshop that includes the client, as well as other agency partners. They run surveys (through the Acxiom data stack) of approximately 5,500 Canadians, Smit says, to identify key drivers, objectives, and determine optimal media channels ranked by what they’re trying to achieve in the client brief.

It’s a process, she says, that allows UM to provide a different perspective and dig deeper than the brief, “allowing us to have great conversations about what’s really important for [a client's] campaign.”

Although, while tools like the Growth Accelerator are integral to business success, Smit believes that UM Canada’s success boils down to the agency’s futureproofing philosophy around its people.

“Futureproofing our talent at UM is partly around training and implementation of these tools and approaches, but also around looking at career growth, effective application of skills and knowledge within disciplines and developing our talent to, in turn, help futureproof our client’s businesses,” adds Smit.