GroupM North America CEO Kirk McDonald exits in senior shake up

The header image shows a headshot of GroupM's Kirk McDonald.

Kirk McDonald, who has served as the CEO of GroupM North America for the past three years, is leaving his position.

GroupM officially confirmed his departure earlier today (October 30). Interestingly, just earlier this month, the agency had denied his exit when Digiday first got wind of it. 

According to the agency, McDonald has chosen to step down and will be exiting at the end of the year. While the group searches for a replacement, Mindshare’s global CEO Adam Gerhart will step in to cover McDonald’s responsibilities.  

In a statement, GroupM CEO Christian Juhl said: “I’d like to thank Kirk for his many contributions to our company. A champion for innovation and responsible investment, he has been a strong and inspirational leader for us and our industry. He has also been a valuable partner to me and the global GroupM leadership community more broadly.”

While specific details regarding McDonald’s departure date remain elusive, sources privy to his exit have been informed of his decision. These sources, speaking anonymously to safeguard their relationship with the executive, report that McDonald has personally confirmed his departure – with some saying the topic of his leaving came up as long ago as Cannes Lions. 

His exit comes amid a wider restructure within GroupM, which has also led to the exit of other regional CEOs, layoffs and the shakeup of its programmatic business GroupM Nexus. 

McDonald joined GroupM in 2020 from Xandr, the programmatic pioneer formerly known as AppNexus, where he was chief business officer of the WarnerMedia-owned ad tech unit. Before Xandr, he was president of PubMatic, an ad tech business that helped publishers monetize by selling impressions programmatically to advertisers. He has also worked at Time Inc, CNET, among others.   

On one hand, McDonald’s exit from GroupM comes out of left field. He has undeniably been the face of GroupM, participating in prominent panels, engaging with the media on topics spanning the agency model to macroeconomic concerns including the economy, and the importance of championing media buying groups’ support of black-owned media.

But, on the flip side, McDonald’s departure isn’t entirely shocking. This year has been quite a year of shake-ups among top agency brass.

Just recently, Doug Rozen, the head of Dentsu’s media division in the Americas, announced his departure. Around the same time, James Shoreland, CEO of U.K. and Ireland at IPG Mediabrands’ Initiative, revealed he was leaving the agency after seven years. Prior to that, Susie Nam, the CEO of Droga in the Americas, declared her departure after 14 years, and Annette King left her role as CEO of Publicis U.K. to join Accenture Song as its global head of communications earlier this year.

Departures of this magnitude are almost expected whenever agencies try to streamline operations and become more integrated in response to the ever-shifting demands of advertisers. GroupM, in particular, has been notably proactive in pursuing these changes. Last month, it nixed the legacy brands like Finecast and Xaxis that made up its Nexus programmatic division in favor of focusing on two core areas — one focused on providing services and the other geared towards opt-in media solutions, primarily oriented towards performance-driven inventory sales.

But a string of client losses, notably at GroupM’s EssenceMediacom – which finished merging the digitally forward Essence with the more traditional Mediacom at the beginning of this year – has hurt GroupM’s bottom line. One ex-GroupM executive noted that more than $1.5 billion in media spend was lost in the last year, including General Mills, Shell and L’Oreal. 

One former WPP executive said GroupM’s global CEO Christian Juhl is essentially implementing a second phase of transforming GroupM into a more digital-forward business. The exec, who spoke on background, noted that phase one has been the consolidating of brands (such as the merging of Essence and Mediacom).  “He’s gonna bring in people that are really dialed into today’s media landscape, which is highly competitive, highly fragmented and highly digital … He’s beginning to lean into regions. He’s leaning into talent. And he’ll begin shifting that business.”

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