OMD USA CEO John Osborn Leads Media Agency Into Era Of Artful Intelligence

By June 16, 2018 October 4th, 2018 News

This article was originally published by Forbes.

On the eve of the 2018 Cannes Creativity festival, much of the news coming out of media agencies and their parent holding companies is challenging at best.  Margins have been squeezed by corporate procurement departments, calls for further transparency in billings have been sounded by the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) and strategic advisory firms have entered the fray with Accenture Interactive announcing their foray into programmatic ad buying.

In the face of such challenge, one media agency chief is brimming with optimism.  John Osborn, CEO of OMD U.S., who recently moved from running sister creative shop BBDO to helm the media behemoth in September of 2017, thinks the timing couldn’t be better. “I was drawn to it because of the opportunities and challenges that exist in the industry. I’m encouraged by OMD’s maniacal focus on bringing brilliant simplicity to the media solutions that we provide,” says Osborn.

Osborn sees talent as being the key point of differentiation for OMD when competing in a complex media ecosystem with an increasing arms race in data and technology. “Over the past six, seven months we’ve been setting ourselves up for success with that along with our clients in a number of ways. One is with talent. We brought in some great new members of the family, people like Rolf Olsen and Laurel Rossi. Rolf is our head of marketing science; he’s our chief data officer. And Laurel is our chief marketing officer,” says Osborn.

“We’re leveraging the collective experience and skills of our operating committee, and increasing their involvement in solving clients’ business challenges and driving results,” further states Osborn.

As Osborn sees it, the agency balances both talent and technology. Technology provides accelerated access to information that we need, but ultimately it’s the talent, the human factor, that turns that data into the insights that serve as the fuel to providing client solutions. “You need the technology and you need the talent.  It’s a combination we call ‘artful intelligence.’ You need the human factor and you need the intelligence factor.”

Collaboration is a term Osborn uses often and he sees it as a further point of differentiation.  “We recognize that we live in a world where solutions come in different forms and shapes and sizes, and I think that for us that means partnering – with other agencies or with platforms like the Oaths, the Facebooks, the Googles of the world for example. We’re developing a series of best practices here that we’re calling ‘radical collaboration’ to develop a cadence with those partners that is going to reinforce our ability to bring better solutions to the table faster on behalf of our clients,” says Osborn. “The goal is simple—we want to help clients make better decisions, faster.”

Osborn sees his work at BBDO facilitating the creative process as a key asset that he brings to the media strategy and buying side of the house. “In the creative world,  the focus is on storytelling. And I think there is a brilliance in that that can be applied in a relevant, poignant way in the media world as well.” As a result Osborn has been spending a lot of time with BBDO, TBWA and DDB as well as non-Omnicom creative partners who had not historically worked as closely together.

As for the newfound competition from strategic advisory firms, Osborn believes in focusing on his clients rather than the competition. “We’re going to do what we think is right from our business perspective and based on what our clients are telling us. And that means immersing ourselves in their business so we understand their core opportunities and challenges.”

While algorithms drive today’s media platforms and optimization strategies, Osborn sees AI (artificial intelligence) as key, but not the only means to better performance. Looking for the right emotional cues is as important as recognizing the right forms of data.”

Osborn grew up is North Hampton, New Hampshire. He and his sister were raised by a single mom who moved the family to Dedham, Massachusetts, then Needham, Massachusetts.  “When I got my license, we then moved into Boston proper. And so, when people say, ‘Where’s home?’ I usually say Boston,” says Osborn.

While attending Dartmouth he had the opportunity to intern for Massachusetts Senator John Kerry.  “I was able to do a stint in Washington for his press secretary. And what fascinated me about that experience was to see how consensus is built in Washington. By the same token, I was a little bit let down in that, in Washington, it seems that while much goes on there, nothing really happens. A lot of motion, but no movement,” says Osborn. 

In his senior year, he was recruited by several ad agencies and wound up working for Saatchi and Saatchi. He was there for three years and then made the jump to BBDO, where at the tender age of 29 he was entrusted with running Pepsi, the agency’s largest account. “I worked with extraordinary people over the course of roughly a 25-year career at BBDO. And more and more down the stretch I was involved in conversations that underscored the real importance of not only having a brilliant message but being able to communicate that in the right context in the right way to the right audiences,” says Osborn.

“When this opportunity came up at OMD and I looked at it as a chance and a challenge and I made the leap. And it’s been great so far.”

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