Selecting a Media Agency of the Year isn’t always clear for the editors of this trade publication. Often it is like picking a needle out of a haystack, sorting through scores of rationales, case studies, arguments and lots and lots of sizzle. Sometimes it is completely transparent. 2016 was clearly the latter. In fact, the year began and ended with it, literally, at least as far as the nation’s biggest advertisers were concerned.
Asked which word or phrase most epitomized the world of marketing in 2016, the Association of National Advertisers’ members voted “transparency” the “word of the year.” Anyone who followed the industry closely for the past 12 months could have seen that coming, because visibility into the media and advertising services supply chain has grown increasingly opaque due to changes in the type of media, data and business processes used to reach consumers.
Media-buying transparency is not a new issue, for sure. It is as old as commercial media and as quaint as Philadelphia retailer John Wanamaker’s oft-cited “I know that half my advertising works, I just don’t know which half” quote. The first modern-day ad agencies -- legendary shops like N.W. Ayer & Son, and J. Walter Thompson -- were formed from media reps spun out of newspaper sales departments, and commissioned to become agents of the advertisers buying those media.
So it should be no surprise that confusion over who is representing whom continues to persist. But as digital media-buying practices have created new forms of opacity -- in data, commissions, rebates, arbitrage, kickbacks and other, less-than-transparent business practices -- the anxiety of big advertisers has risen along with it.
It reached a fever pitch in 2016, a year that began with a landmark study about the transparency of modern-day media-buying practices, the release of a highly publicized report commissioned by the ANA, which was followed by a tepid and somewhat reactionary response from its agency counterpart organization, the American Association of Advertising Agencies, and ended with the ANA members picking “transparency” as their word of the year.
And partly for those reasons, it also ended with MediaPost picking Empower MediaMarketing as our Media Agency of the Year.
While transparency is not a new issue for Empower -- it was the reason the agency was founded by Mary Beth Price, a long-time Procter & Gamble executive, more than 30 years ago -- it exploded as the raison d’etre in 2016.
The Cincinnati-based agency was founded on the basis of “Midwestern values,” and it began the year by exporting them to the ad industry’s media-buying mecca, Madison Avenue, naming Missouri native Andrew Susman to open a New York City outpost. Susman, who had spent years on the supply side -- launching, marketing and ultimately selling what was one of the first content-marketing platforms in the industry -- had worked closely with the ANA over the years to create transparency, trust and openness in the field of content marketing, so he naturally extended that relationship with Empower.
The agency became an associate member of the ANA, which was not unprecedented -- a number of agencies have ANA associate memberships. But what it did next, was. It withdrew its membership from the 4As over the agency trade association's failure to embrace the ANA-commissioned transparency study’s findings, as well as the ANA’s recommendations for fixing the problems.
“We did it for two reasons,” recalls, Jim Price, Empower founder Mary Beth’s son, who is now the agency’s CEO.
“We didn’t think it was in the best interests of our clients to be associated with agencies that didn’t support their clients on transparency and trust. And because transparency has been a key foundation we set for Empower for the last 32 years: being the independent in the world of holding company competition. It’s not just the right thing to do, but it is the right way to operate.”
By right way to operate, Price says he means that transparency isn’t simply a cultural imperative for Empower, but part of its operating system. The company has learned that such transparency works better for both the client and the agency.
“We’ve found it has led to extremely strong trust and bonds between our clients and the agency that have enabled us to work better, faster and more efficiently,” he explains, adding: “When you have client trust, you can drive innovation faster, because you have a level of fluidity where there is less second-guessing, and nobody questions how that works.”
Price describes this phenomenon as the “economic value of transparency,” and says when an agency has it, it fosters innovation because there are faster approval processes, less overhead and quicker turnarounds -- “without saying, 'Mother, may I?' every time, which means that we have better speed to market.”
On that note, Price says he is still accountable to his mother, Mary Beth, to ensure he is guiding the agency by the principles she began with, but it’s not just a family credo. It’s a point of differentiation from other shops -- especially those owned by some big agency holding companies, which have grown increasingly opaque in where their business interests lie.
“We think of agencies as being the head of the supply chain, and if we don’t set the policy on transparency ourselves, how can we expect the rest of our supply partners to respect that?” Price says, adding that pulling out of the 4As was just another way of distancing Empower from that pack. “It was an opportunity to put a stake in the ground around what we feel like we’ve been doing, from the beginning.”
But mainly, Price says it’s just leading to better work, because the agency can make better decisions and make them much faster.
“When trust goes up, speed goes up. When trust goes down, speed goes down,” he says, citing examples where the agency was able to move clients in new directions -- sometimes seemingly radical and counterintuitive ones -- because it has the client’s trust.
Long-time Empower client Famous Footwear is a good example. The client historically was a TV-centric marketer, concentrating almost all of its media budget on television, but the footwear marketer wanted to shift its focus toward a more digitally oriented consumer segment: millennials.
“They wanted to approach it differently so we flipped it from 100% traditional to 100% digital,” Price recalls, noting how Empower developed a “data-driven” approach to digital targeting that enabled Famous to target consumers “at a personal level and adaptive.”
The strategy depended on working with a “handful of creative providers to create custom segments,” and leveraging search and site retargeting managed through Empower’s in-house trading desk, ClearTrade.
The final execution enabled Famous to combine digital and linear TV audience attributes and shift its seasonal and flight-based TV schedules into a continuous digital marketing campaign that reaches “people buying shoes 365 days a year.” As part of the program, Empower is able to simultaneously target digital using TV insights, while also executing on linear TV by leveraging digital attributes.
Price is especially proud of Empower’s approach to programmatic, and says ClearTrade was built on a foundation of 100% transparency so that clients can see 100% of the dollars going in and 100% of the outputs coming out.
The client trust associated with that approach enabled Empower to transform the way an undisclosed consumer packaged goods client used programmatic to reach consumers. The unit enabled the CPG client to achieve local relevance in its plan by swapping local grocery deals based on ad calls. Price says the deal epitomizes how transparency leads to trust, which leads to speed, innovation and reduced workflow and overhead.
Over the years, MediaPost has flattened out the way we categorize candidates and winners of our Agency of the Year awards competitions. We don’t distinguish between big agencies and small, independent or holding company-owned ones. Our criteria for choosing winners includes what the organization achieved in the past 12 months in terms of driving vision, innovation and leadership. Empower, like a number of other agencies big and small, is a perennial that always operates a best-in-class approach. It may have won for its approach to transparency in 2016, but it is also always envisioning, developing and adapting for its future.
Some of the things that manifested in 2016 -- things like ClearTrade, the agency's principles of transparency and client focus -- began years ago. Similarly, Price has been investing in the agency’s future by developing and acquiring assets that will enable it to transform media services as the media they plan, buy and execute through change, the way consumers engage with brands.
“Today, the media agency means an entirely new thing to people. And media is everything,” Price explains. “Media is more than distribution. It’s the right place, the right time and the right message in the right location -- and we have built the data and analytics tools to be able to deliver an audience. Now we’re adding creative to the mix.
“We’ve hired a chief creative officer, we’ve acquired a creative agency that allows us to truly weave together media and content.”Ultimately, Price believes the agency will evolve from one known for empowering media to one that empowers “experiences” that drive consumers to its clients' brands.