Sparking Innovation: A Conversation With Y&R's David Sable

David Sable, global CEO at Y&R, brings multi-disciplinary expertise to addressing the challenges of digital disruption with experience at general, direct and public relations agencies, as well as on the client side.  As part of his efforts to keep Y&R ahead of the digital curve, he has created an innovation unit, Spark Plug, and brought back channel planning. The following are some of the highlights of a recent conversation I had with him about the implications of managing a major agency amid such change.

ELLEN OPPENHEIM: Do you think the line between creative and media agencies is blurring, and, if so, how do you feel about this?

DAVID SABLE: People talk about it blurring.  I don’t agree.  



Some of the media agencies are developing content units.  Do they tell the clients’ stories? No, they don’t put in the storytelling, the advertising. They can integrate the client’s product into the story, but what people don’t think about is what drives the customer to the client’s product.

I don’t worry about them being competitive with me.  The story the client needs to tell to put into content, that’s mine.

OPPENHEIM: What are the most important lessons you are learning from your innovation incubator, Spark Plug?

SABLE: I wanted to infuse risk-taking here.  Now, we can go to a client and offer ways to experiment, to learn, even though it may not be the “be all, end all, solution.”

Spark Plug can help us to think in different ways. For example, Marc Fischman, CEO of hyperactivate [one of Spark Plug’s members] said, “I sit next to new biz team, so every time they work on new business we talk.“

OPPENHEIM: Has the growth of digital media affected your view on whether it was wise for media and creative agencies to be unbundled?  Why?

SABLE: I believe strongly that the move to consolidate media was smart. Buying media in aggregation is more powerful than buying it alone.  And today, having scale with data is critical.

What’s interesting is that the channel planning piece didn’t have to leave.  It needs to be part of creative agencies.  We need someone to think in broad strokes about media – not about specific placement; a lot today gets bought with engines.  We need to understand target audience, e.g., they may be digital, but they still get Parade and FSIs on Sunday.  Or an older audience is very active online in certain areas. How can you be creative without that?

OPPENHEIM: Y&R has arranged for a Mediaedge employee, Sue Kaufman, to work in your offices regularly.  Why did you do that, what role does she play, and what are the implications?

SABLE: Other agencies complain about the separation of media and creative. It’s done, finished.  You’d have to have your head examined to buy media now. When I was at Wunderman, I engineered the exit of the media business to GroupM. We couldn’t compete any more.

It’s not just about channel planning, but also understanding media today.  Sue arranges meetings with lots of media outlets so we can see what are they are thinking about, how they can help.

The digital opportunities are amazing. So many people don’t take advantage of it, but part of the joke is that Google and Microsoft place ads in newspapers.  Apple buys a ton of print and outdoor. They don’t agonize over what to do.  The key is not being locked into any one thing.

OPPENHEIM: How is digital technology changing how you think about opportunities?

SABLE: We have the concept of “digital exponential.” Mobile is “digital exponential.” You can be out and find a restaurant, read a menu, look at pricing, read a movie review, buy tickets and go to movie.

People thought 10 years ago we’d live in caves – there’d be the death of retail stores and movie theaters.  The reality is that mobile is helping with the explosion of small retail stores all over the world.  You see it here in Brooklyn, Soho, midtown.  You can find these small stores because of digital, not in spite of it.

Also, [with mobile] you don’t have to worry about what you miss when you are out. You’re not tethered. You can go to nice stores, eat in good restaurants and still be connected.

OPPENHEIM: Given ongoing changes in digital technology, how do you think the structure of a creative agency will be different in five years?

SABLE: At the beginning of the last century we had print designers and copywriters. With radio we went from newspaper copy to scripts, so we got scriptwriters. With TV we needed scripts, but also those who understood the visual impact of the screen, so we added producers.  

Today we have copywriters, designers and producers, but we need people who understand CRM and interactivity. On our planning side we will have more data people – not just insights people. It’s not one or the other; we need to marry insights with behavior to do better work.  

Then, when it moves to telepathy, we will have whole new set of people.  Then we will have David Blaine.

A regular MediaPost contributor, Ellen Oppenheim is founder of Oppenheim Media Consulting (and a former Y&R alum).
1 comment about "Sparking Innovation: A Conversation With Y&R's David Sable".
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  1. Mickey Marks from Lisa Marks Associates, Inc., August 23, 2013 at 8:15 a.m.

    Ellen, this is a fascinating interview ... unbelievable how a media agency's ability to "be creative" is still being discounted after all these years ... but, apparently we do excel at arranging meetings ... Many thanks!

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