Why PMG’s Nike win doesn’t seem all that unusual for the indie media agency

Just because you hit the big time, doesn’t mean you forget the little guy — or where you came from. So it is with independent media agency PMG, which has followed up its gigantic August win of Nike’s North American media AOR business — in which it beat out several holding company media agencies — with two smaller wins, Digiday has learned.

According to the agency’s founder and CEO George Popstefanov, Texas-based PMG has landed media and creative AOR duties for Nothing Bundt Cakes (PMG’s first win that includes its creative tools) and entered into a new sports marketing and media AOR partnership with wellness tech brand Therabody.

“We are excited to partner together with PMG across insights, strategy, creative, media and measurement to lead in a category that continues to build relevance and improve the lives of everybody,” said John Solomon, Therabody’s CMO in a statement. “Already we are seeing the power of their strategy and approach to driving meaningful connections for our brand.”

This caps a 2022 in which PMG’s revenue is expected to grow close to 30 percent over 2021, said Popstefanov, who didn’t provide actual revenue. That comes after 77 percent growth in 2021 over the first year of the pandemic. He said the agency has enjoyed around 35-40 percent of compound annual growth rate (CAGR) since its 2010 inception.

Like many independent agency founders, Popstefanov is a holding company refugee of sorts — a CEO who left the holdco world after the company he worked with, Range Online Media, was bought up by iProspect, a Dentsu shop in 2008. He holds no hard feelings, however.

Popstefanov started PMG in 2010 and from the outset envisioned a media agency that embraced tech and engineering before it was cool. In fact, his first two employees were engineers, he said, who are still with the nearly 600-staff company a dozen years later.

“Being part of that holding company for a little bit made me realize there’s different ways to do this,” he said somewhat politely. “For me it was really about building a technology-enabled services company, focused around people and doing something different.”

But it wasn’t just to be technologically savvy that Popstefanov went down the engineering path. The aim was to match results better to investments. Agencies now call that performance media. 

“PMG’s performance media heritage and philosophy that performance extends across all marketing activity is among the things that set them apart,” said Jay Pattisall, vp and principal agency analyst at Forrester, who covers PMG. “This mindset, their investments in technology to afford them a holistic view of the customer journey and their investments in creative capabilities/creative optimization, are key to PMG’s success.”

Specifically, PMG has been able to apply its proprietary marketing technology called Alli to all of its clients, which include Ralph Lauren, Apple, Gap and Kohler, which it won at the end of December 2021 (and which Popstefanov likes to point out was won against a defending holding company that he declined to name — but was Omnicom’s PHD).

Part of PMG’s secret sauce is that its team of technologists are “cross-trained in media so they understand the challenges we are working to solve,” noted Ashley Stewart, PMG’s head of brand and marketing communications.

It’s worked well enough that Nike, on top of handing media AOR to PMG, is licensing Alli and implementing it with its other global agencies (IPG’s Initiative), said Popstefanov. (He did not provide terms of the license agreement or its financial value.) And he feels the agency has benefited from focusing on the tech side for as long as it has.

That edge has worked well, not only for PMG but for other independents. “Many performance agencies are flexible enough to apply to creative and content or build creative services offering off the back of their media practices,” said Pattisall, noting shops like Tinuiti and Wpromote. “The holding company media agencies are often one step removed from creative and content by virtue of their structure. In today’s media environment, that can make a difference.” 

But that edge won’t last forever, Pattisall said. “This is something that many full-funnel agencies claim and deliver,” he said. “The emphasis on CTV, streaming and retail media partnerships open a new world of audiences and measurability. PMG are not alone in mastering an ‘All Marketing Must Perform’ world.”

With Media.Monks and Stagwell both operating as new-generation holding companies that have invested in digital-first and tech-intensive solutions, on top of the agencies Pattisall mentioned, the market’s getting a bit more crowded for what PMG offers. 

Nevertheless, Popstefanov pointed out a distinction: PMG is privately owned. “I don’t envy Martin [Sorrell, CEO of Media.Monks’ parent S4 Capital] and I don’t envy Mr. [Mark] Penn [Stagwell’s CEO]. They’re both running public companies.”

And, according to Stewart, there’s something unique about working at PMG, which has won agency of the year and best place to work accolades from media publications over the last few years.

“I’ve never worked at any ‘agency’ like PMG,” she said. “The culture, transparency, vision, taking care of people and providing job security are all truly genuine.”


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