Advertising has seen a number of large-scale, high profile agency mergers in recent years. Some have seemed to hit the ground running much quicker than others. One of those, we believe, is VMLY&R, which launched in 2018 after iconic, New York-founded agency Young & Rubicam merged with fellow WPP powerhouse VML, out of Kansas City.
At the helm ever since the agency’s inception has been global CEO Jon Cook.
Jon has actually been with VML since 1996, served as its global CEO from 2011 to 2018, and grew up in the company's proud hometown. During his tenure, VML grew from 30 employees in Kansas City to more than 3,000 employees across six continents. These days, as head of VMLY&R, it's something like 13,000 or more employees across 44 countries.
What's more, in 2020 VMLY&R and Geometry combined commerce capabilities to form VMLY&R COMMERCE, in a bid to provide fully integrated, global expertise in a space that experience unprecedented growth during the pandemic.
Jon is also a true advocate for VMLY&R's commitment to DE&I. In 2017 he helped VML through the certification process with the 3% Movement - the organisation that champions female creative leadership, diversity, and inclusion - and VML became one of the first 3% certified agencies.
LBB's Addison Capper was happy to get the opportunity to speak to Jon about all things VMLY&R.
LBB> You've led VMLY&R since its inception in 2018; what do you remember from that time? What was the mission when you launched and how has that mission statement evolved over time?
Jon> It was an opportunity to help invent the agency of the future, at scale. Rarely do you get a chance to be part of something like that. The mission was — and is — creating the most connected agency for today and whatever lies ahead. We continually strive to be the most contemporary expression of advertising and marketing on a global scale.
LBB> Big agency mergers are understandably tricky processes to navigate, but it really felt like VMLY&R was set up to succeed from the get-go. What are your thoughts on that? How did you prepare to make that a reality?
Jon> We made clear decisions on leadership from the beginning. We had the chance to select key leaders from two great agencies. VML and Y&R had worked together at varying degrees for nearly 20 years. This positioned us well to move forward with confidence. VML would have been 30 years old this month and Y&R would have celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2023, but we decided VMLY&R would enter this world as a new entity — established in 2018. It gives us a startup attitude with incredibly deep roots to draw on.
LBB> You have been with VML in Kansas City since 1996. I feel that it must have such a rich culture as an agency, especially coming from somewhere like Kansas City, as opposed to New York. How did you navigate elements like that during the merger?
Jon> You’re right, the culture in Kansas City is special. I’m grateful to pursue my career where I grew up, close to family and friends. Our KC office is in a former airport terminal in the heart of the city, adjacent to an active runway, and the vibe is electric. Our New York City office is also amazing; Columbus Circle has incredible views of Central Park and the surrounding neighbourhood. Each of our offices includes positive qualities from wherever it’s located. There are certainly commonalities across the agency — for example, our charitable VMLY&R Foundation is active everywhere — but when it comes to culture, it’s not a cookie-cutter approach.
LBB> Geometry also became part of VMLY&R recently as VMLY&R Commerce. What was the thought process behind that? In this day and age, it must be such an appealing proposition for the creative chops of VMLY&R to include commerce knowledge within its walls?
Jon> If done right, the connected proposition of customer experience (CX) and brand experience (BX) blended together allows a consumer to make a commitment to a product or brand — usually in the form of a transaction. With commerce now integrated into our connected proposition — on a global scale — we can provide solutions for every type of commitment: online commerce, retail shopper, subscription or loyalty programs, you name it.
LBB> How integrated is Commerce into VMLY&R? Are they still quite separate entities with the possibility for collaboration? And how do you see that relationship evolving?
Jon> Two years in, VMLY&R Commerce is 100% integrated into our offering. It took time and a lot of energy, but we got there. The inclusion of the VMLY&R Commerce brand signals to the industry that this level of capability is essential in everything we do. Although VMLY&R Commerce is distinctively named, it is globally embedded across the entirety of VMLY&R.
LBB> Speaking of different capabilities, VMLY&R focuses a lot on customer experience. This capability skyrocketed during the pandemic due to clients cutting ad spend. How is that element of your business evolving today, as ad spend has risen?
Jon> Customer experience is the fastest-growing aspect of our business. The pandemic hyper accelerated it because clients wanted and needed to double-down on experiences — in all forms. Accordingly, it’s also where we’ve invested in world-class talent and resources. To be recognised for CX excellence alongside Cannes Lions and other top-tier global creative awards is a massive point of pride for the agency.
LBB> Thinking more generally to today, what are some of the major focus points for you in your role right now and why?
Jon> My primary role is connectivity. Connectivity with our client partners and our capability as we help them reemerge after the worst of the pandemic, deepening the connection between customer experience, brand experience, and commerce. And connectivity with the company and our culture as we return to offices and embrace a balanced hybrid work approach.
LBB> You are passionate about DEI, having helped guide VMLY&R through the certification process with the 3% Movement. I also saw your conversation with Walter Geer. Can you speak a bit more about VMLY&R's current approach to fostering a diverse culture and community?
Jon> We were committed to diversity, equity, inclusion, and belongingness long before George Floyd’s murder, and I’m grateful our focus has deepened and strengthened since. The more we do in this space, the harder it becomes; many of the expected things were quickly considered. We’re approaching diversity in all forms from a holistic perspective, addressing every aspect of our business. And while it’s hard work, it’s an essential commitment that will continue in perpetuity — and makes our agency better in every conceivable way.
LBB> How did you wind up in advertising in the first place? Was it a plan or more a happy accident?
Jon> As a matter of fact, I wanted to get into advertising before I even knew what that meant. As a young kid, I was fascinated by brands and how they presented themselves. I sold ads for my high school newspaper and loved my experience at the University of Missouri Journalism School, which included an eye-opening internship at Disney World. I won’t bore you with the story, but it instilled in me a drive to exceed already high expectations. Today, so many of our people come from completely different backgrounds — engineering, broadcasting, philosophy, science, comedy, education — the gamut. I love that there’s room for all of us at a place like VMLY&R.
LBB> Outside of work, what do you like to get up to?
Jon> We have a small getaway place in Colorado near Rocky Mountain National Park. I love everything about it — hiking, campfires, even splitting wood for the fireplaces. Our three daughters also enjoy it, which makes it all the more special. Speaking of daughters, our oldest is in her first post-college job at an agency in New York. She grew up knowing everything about the agency and wanted to start her career somewhere else. Our other two are in college, one at my alma mater — Mizzou — and the other at the University of Colorado. Lisa and I woke up one day and realised we were empty nesters, but luckily the girls visit enough to make it feel like not much has changed. And I’m the biggest Kansas City Chiefs fan on the planet. #chiefskingdom