UM CEO Daryl Lee Named AdWeeks ‘Executive of the Year’

May 8, 2016 | Share this article

A casual conversation with Adweek’s Media All-Stars Executive of the Year, UM global CEO Daryl Lee, reveals the quick intellect and worldliness one expects from an agency chief as he contemplates a client’s business problem. Less obvious may be his grassroots people skills—the personality insights that someone might not even recognize in themselves.

Take UM’s U.S. president Kasha Cacy, for example. Two years ago, after that top U.S. job opened, he and Cacy—then the agency’s global chief product officer—were rushing to a client pitch meeting when Lee gave her a sidewalk ultimatum: He offered her the role, telling her she had until the next morning to decide. Never mind that she had been advocating for another exec to land the job.

“He’s very good at looking out for people and knowing what drives and motivates them,” recalls Cacy, who has worked with Lee three times over the past 15 years. “He’s competitive, but it’s not about personal ambition. He wants us all to be the best we can be. All of his energy is focused on delivering the best possible client solution.

“This industry is ripe for change, and he wants to be part of that change, whether it’s putting more women [or] LGBT execs in management roles,” she continues. “It’s driving diversity not because it looks good but because he wants to create a different kind of culture with different points of views.”

Growing up in South Africa during apartheid made Lee a student of human nature at a younger age than most. From his first post-university endeavor in helping to organize the country’s first general elections in 1994 to his current efforts to create a more diversified culture at UM, the 45-year-old exec has always believed in a multiplicity of voices.

“My first job out of college was setting up democratic elections with a bunch of naive young liberals, and there was an incredible dynamic of change. I love the idea of inclusion,” he explains. “Diversity is half the job, but the real job is to open the culture up to the individual elements you don’t understand. It’s about merit, not entitlement. I grew up in South Africa at a time when cultural separation was so forced. I lived through that and saw the value in creating a more inclusive culture. That’s how companies can remain innovative. You can create a great product, but you also need a great product story.”

In selecting UM as Adweek’s Media Agency for 2015 this past February, Adweek recognized the revenue gains of the Interpublic underdog agency during Mediapalooza—the most competitive new-business year among media shops in recent memory. But that larger result was possible because of Lee’s team building and bolstering of morale during a stressful time of wooing new clients even as the agency defended restless ones.

“The high points of the past year are not the high points [themselves]. From where I sit, it was the low points where they learned to fall and pick themselves up that were more important. Those were the galvanizing moments,” says Henry Tajer, Mediabrands’ global CEO over the unit that oversees IPG’s UM and Initiative networks. “Last year, when a number of pitches were called, before we had won anything, we said, ‘This is going to make us or break us and the latter is not an option.’ Daryl and his team engaged with [Mediabrands] and the rest of IPG in the new-business process. He injected a lot of positivity into the organization.”

Lee’s optimism goes back to when he was recruited as a management consultant by McKinsey & Co. in New York. The English literature student from Oxford and Rhodes Scholar thought he’d end up in academia, but in management consulting he found he could combine his creative interests with a business career. “What I still rely on from management consulting is to shape a problem rather than respond to a brief. We have the ability to bring a lot of analytics and logic to solving a problem,” Lee reflects. “It also allows me to bring storytelling to problem solving. It ties two halves of my mind and world together.”

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