The best offense
Economists gave the nation a lump of coal this holiday season. They declared the country formally in a recession, and said it had been in one since December of 2007. Many of us had already figured this out for ourselves, of course, but MediaVest USA was characteristically ahead of everybody else.
"We started planning for a recessionary economy a year ago," says Brian Terkelsen, executive vice president and managing director of MediaVest's content marketing division, connectivetissue, describing the rationale behind the agency's aggressive pursuit of digital out-of-home opportunities in 2008, particularly in cinema (a channel for which it held its own "upfront").
"Recessionary defense," he explains.
The fact that such a significant shift in investment would be breaking new ground for its clients didn't faze MediaVest leaders - it never does. "The research wasn't all there on how much do you take out of TV to put into cinema, and we're still working on that," says Donna Speciale, MediaVest's much-admired president of investment and activation. But she adds, matter-of-factly, "It's a huge educational curve for many clients."
She knows it's a smart, effective solution. So no worries.
That is the prototypical MediaVest response to a challenge - an adroit "combination of art and science and people and talent," in the words of agency CEO Bill Tucker - that makes this shop so consistently superior. But the anecdote also reveals what just may be the secret sauce that powers the excellence machine that MediaVest has become in the past few years.
Plotting how to alter your activations and protect your clients from a recession you see coming - a year away - is the very definition of leadership. And that is as apt an illustration as any of the mindset that allowed MediaVest to create game-changer after game-changer in the past dozen months.
This is the sixth year in a row that a part of SMG has been named Agency of the Year. (And MediaVest sibling Starcom was a close second this year.) We know many of you won't like that, particularly those readers who work at the several other agencies who also made compelling cases for the honor in 2008. But we respectfully urge you all to get over it. Because we're ready to give the award to the same people 60 years in a row if they deserve it.
You see, there were shops with great pitch records in 2008, but we don't focus on how fat an agency's new-business coffers are when we evaluate candidates. There were agencies that generated a lot of buzz last year, but we don't base the award on which agency was the most popular or had the highest profile.
We applaud the agencies that had the best years. But we're looking for the agency that moved the industry forward. And so we just ask one seminal question: Who did the most to innovate and advance the business during the past year?
In 2008, MediaVest was that agency.
In ways large and small, the shop continued to be a step ahead in strategizing about change and exploiting it, in creating new solutions and finding new opportunities. All while doing the basic things just as well as its peers - cross-platform deals, for example - but finding a novel twist every time. As Lisa Donohue, president of MediaVest's new planning entity, Truth and Design, puts it, "We do what we say."
Here's just a sampler of how MediaVest's year unfolded:
>> In an industry first, the shop took over the Bon Appétit masthead for Starbucks in May, turning the whole page into a simulation of the coffee seller's colorful, wood-framed, handwritten chalkboard menus, including Bon Appétit staffers offering up their favorite Starbucks blends and food pairings.
>> The peripatetic agency became the first shop to partner with TRAnalytics to link TV ad effectiveness to sales by combining set-top box viewership data with demographics, psychographics and behavioral purchase information.
>> It was the first agency subscriber to NetMRI's fused print and Web site data, taking a vanguard position in the search for better understanding and measurement of the print-online readership relationship - and enabling the agency to profile MRI targets against 2,300 Web sites compared to 40 using MRI alone.
>> In 2008, connectivetissue reached a milestone: 5,000 minutes of content. And the division routinely creates or produces content for many different channels, working with activators and investors but also with the MediaVest shopper team, and its advanced TV unit (MediaVest is now the largest player in VOD in the United States, by the way).
>> It partnered with Google on a neuroscience online video overlay ad study.
>> And as winter's chill gripped the country, MediaVest became the first in the United States to deliver heated bus shelters (starting with 10 in Chicago, which could really use them) on behalf of Kraft's Stove Top Stuffing.
The agency also found time to compete for new business with its usual relish, earning a spot on the Schering-Plough agency roster when it won the drugmaker's global prescription brands, worth an estimated $225 million in new billings. And it added media agency-of-record duties for the estimated $150 million-plus TD Ameritrade business.
No wonder Rex Conklin, media director for MediaVest client Wal-Mart, calls the shop "indefatigable." Leadership can be expressed in quantity as well as quality, however. And MediaVest seems determined to leave no channel unexplored, no behavior unexamined, and no buying or planning experiment untried.
The diverse list of new approaches we listed above are just the high points; there are any number of other 2008 MediaVest innovations or novel takes on conventional activations that would prove the point even more forcefully. And - another measure of leadership - that advantage is not lost on clients.
"The biggest difference is the depth and breadth of their expertise," explains Conklin, an asset he notes allows the agency to "challenge us to think differently and to take advantage of opportunities that may be a little less traditional but offer competitive advantage."
When one of your core agency traits is "daring," you'll lead more often then you follow. And when another trait is "hunger," you will consistently innovate.
MediaVest's "biggest strength and impact to clients [is] to be change agents," says Laura Desmond, who led the agency from 2003 to 2007 and is now CEO of Starcom MediaVest Group Worldwide (and one of Forbes' 100 Most Powerful Women for 2008). "To be a change agent, you not only have to be fearless and deliver thought leadership to your clients, you have to commit to weaving it into the company's DNA so that everyone - literally everyone in the company - from top to bottom believes innovation is their job."
A case in point is Truth and Design, which the agency put into practice in earnest in 2008 (another in a growing list of examples of the agency's puzzling but strangely endearing fondness for offbeat monikers). The best way to describe how this forward-looking approach works, ironically, is to reference advertising's recent past.
When account planning debuted in the U.S. market 25 years ago, very few people understood the British insight-developing discipline. Asked to explain it to his Yank colleagues, one intrepid Brit at DDB offered, "Say you're sitting down at your first strategy meeting. The research director walks in and gives you all the data about the target market - demographics, lifestyle, all that stuff. But the account planner walks in and says, 'This is a guy who still stands up when they play "God Save the Queen."?' That's the difference."
Truth and Design is kind of a communications channel version of that. It's a brainstorming technique supported by licensed software that captures ideas and thoughts in real-time on a computer screen. There are no flip charts. No bullet points. Just a Truth and Designer putting information into the software that builds out what MediaVest calls an "idea web."
Another T&D technique is a "truth map," what Truth and Design president Donohue calls "the convergence of human business and consumer truth." What strikes the observer almost instantly is how all of this would be instantly recognizable to any copywriter or art director - as the process by which a creative brief is developed.
For the shop's Westin Hotels client, which targets business travelers and their hectic lives, the truth-map process produced an insight - that the hotel chain offers an oasis of calm in a sea of chaos - that resulted in truly imaginative activations, such as a putting a Zen garden in a busy San Francisco business district and a "waterfall" flowing down the steps in Grand Central Station.
It's no coincidence that this is probably the agency with the youngest staffers, on average, among the dozen or so top-tier shops. And it has an uncanny knack for getting its more junior members fully committed to "daring," "hungry," "innovation" and the rest of the corporate mantra.
In 2008, MediaVest launched the Impact Circle, a gaggle of 15 agency executives from all disciplines and every level of the MediaVest executive hierarchy - senior veeps all the way down to planners and buyers (or, ahem, activation associates) - who meet regularly to talk about ideas, leadership and how to value employees.
Attendees at MediaVest's Christmas party at the Edison Ballroom this year (held on a Monday, because the Circle was informed that Mondays and Wednesdays are now the weekdays of choice to party in New York), didn't celebrate the great work they did over the past year so much as they recognized the other, personal achievements of their colleagues: the marathons they ran, or the Habitat for Humanity homes they built.
That's because Circle members went to every supervisor in the agency and asked them to talk about their team and their accomplishments as human beings.
"I've worked for a lot of agencies - and on the client side - and what has kept me at MediaVest is the collaboration, the ability to work at all levels, and the fact that everyone has a voice, from the most junior assistant to the most senior executives," says Jen Soch, vice president and activation director of the advanced TV unit and an Impact Circle member.
In that kind of culture, planning for a recession that's more than a year away - which nobody else is really ready for - is just another day at the office.
As Speciale says, "We raise our own bar."
"And apparently," concludes Terkelsen, "we're going to keep working."