Putting Headlights on the Business

ben kunz

Ben Kunz is Executive Vice President of Media Associates, an independent media planning, buying and analytics agency working with clients with $2 to $30 million advertising budgets. Although the company “does media,” its primary focus is on tactic and channel selection and on predicting, controlling, and maximizing advertising investment results.

Ben explains the structure of advertising as having three prongs: the creative/branding/message piece; the increasingly-fragmented media channel piece (social media, Twitter, mobile devices, over-the-top (cable free) television, satellite radio); and data. Ben feels data is critical to targeting, understanding, and optimizing advertising return.

Ben’s company uses predictive analytics, modeling outcomes before starting an advertising campaign. He says, if you can measure what happened, you can turn it around and forecast what will happen – use data to get ahead and put some headlights on your business so you can see where you are going. He gives this as an example: If you are going to spend $10 million on an ad campaign, is it going to drive $30 million back in sales? If you don’t know, run some predictive models . . . this is the only way to control outcome.

Ben says that barring the time and expense of gathering a lot target audience information, the best way to change or influence consumer behavior is to advertise on 3 very different channels over a period of time. He cites Rex Briggs, author of the book What Sticks, who analyzed billions of dollars of marketing spend and concluded that, if a brand presented advertisements on television, billboards, and digital ads, customers responded much more than if they just saw a bunch of Facebook ads. Digital may be “hot,” but it is not everything. Channels should be selected based on the target audience.

Attending South by Southwest for the 10th year, Ben commented on how fast technology had changed. But, he added, human psychology has not changed. Too often, advertisers or marketers get caught up in the “bright and shiny,” when they need to balance their efforts across all channels.

Ben recommends using the 70/20/10 rule, where 70% of the marketing effort focuses on what you expect will work because it has worked in the past, 20% uses innovative, emerging ideas that you have confidence will work, and the last 10% is “the crazy new stuff.” That “new stuff,” could prove to be the source of the big ideas for your clients. He describes TV as “the James Bond of media right now” – a very powerful, but blunt instrument. He notes that 37 million Americans (a number which is rapidly increasing) have cut the (cable) cord and are using other means to access programming. Ultimately, this will make market segmentation much more granular and facilitate market targeting.

In this interview, Ben also discusses the importance of culture, team-building, empowerment, and motivation. Employees need to know “the next rung on the ladder” and how to get there. They need to feel empowered if they are to be motivated. Invest in ongoing learning opportunities. You have to nurture your employees if you want them to continue to be engaged.

Ben has found it helpful to have non-competing partners who can provide the skills his company does not provide. He also touched on the risks of the Internet of Things, a topic presented by past chess champion, Garry Kasparov, at the South by Southwest conference.

Ben can be reached on Twitter @BenKunz or on his company’s website at http://mediassociates.com. (One ‘A’ in the middle)

ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Kischuk. I am joined today, live at South by Southwest, by Ben Kunz. He’s the Executive Vice President of Media Associates based in Connecticut. Welcome to the podcast, Ben.

BEN: Hey, Rob. Good to be here.

ROB: Great to have you on. Why don’t you start off by telling us about Media Associates and what the agency is excellent at?

BEN: Thanks, man. We’re an independent media planning, buying and analytics agency. We work primarily with clients in the $2 to $30 million advertising range. While we do media, our core focus is predicting and controlling results. We do a lot of marketing plans for clients, really helping them figure out how they treat advertising as an investment and how they forecast the return on that, and then figuring out in this crazy world of emerging media, what are the tactics and channels to deploy? That’s what we do.

ROB: Nice. Media can mean a lot of things to a lot of people, so what does the mix of media mean to you and to Media Associates?

BEN: The way I explain it is advertising is three things put together. There’s the creative and the branding and the message and what people tend to think of in the advertising universe. But the media channels, the things everyone talks about – social media, Twitter, mobile devices, over-the-top television, satellite radio – is going through this crazy fragmentation. The third piece is the data. All the data is passing through the media.

Our core belief as an agency is that while creative and branding are super important, the data is critical to targeting, understanding, and optimizing how you get better advertising return.

ROB: Right on. With some of those different media, how do you align all those different channels, all the different available metrics, and the different capabilities and outcomes across all that?

BEN: It’s a great question. It really goes to the heart of how our agency can help a marketing organization. We always start with the audience first, so obviously you have to understand who you’re trying to teach. We work with creative partners and research firms to do a ton of research on not only media usage, e.g. a young woman versus an old man watch different types of TV or on social at different levels – but what’s the insight? What drives the behavior?

I’ll tell you a quick story. It’s actually not one of our case studies, but a Media Plan of the Year recently was of Neutrogena. Neutrogena sells lotions and potions at CVS. They dug into their data and they found out that women who bought the products were loyal, but only loyal about 75% of the time to one product. So, they came up with this campaign where they dug through point-of-sale data and they created these mass customized digital ads called the Perfect Pair.

What they did was, if my wife Betsy loved the Neutrogena skin lotion, she would be served the hand lotion. If a woman was into makeup remover, they’d be served the next best correlated product. Basically, with that one insight, they created a mass customized campaign, ran some banner ads, and they had enormous success in sales.

It wasn’t flashy, but it was just smart, smart use of data against the customer to find out how to reach them in a new way.

ROB: You mentioned banner ads, you’ve mentioned TV. Are there any of these media channels that maybe have fallen out of fashion to the point where there’s actually better opportunity there than perceived?

BEN: A hundred percent. We’re sitting here on a beautiful deck at South by Southwest in Austin, and this is obviously a digital-leaning conference. Everything’s changing, but television still works great. That’s about half of our business now. Out of home, billboard advertising. There’s a reason Google and Apple and technology firms are running all these billboards.

Our experience, if you back out of the details, the best way to change or influence a person’s behavior is to hit them from three very different angles over time. There was a great book called What Sticks by Rex Briggs who analyzed billions of dollars of marketing spend and found out that if I can touch your brain from television and a billboard and digital, I’m going to break through in a much bigger way than if I just hit you with a bunch of Facebook ads. While digital is hot, it’s not the entire ecosystem.

ROB: This is one of those things – I think people underestimate how many ads they see. There’s this conversation that comes up from time to time where someone says, “I was talking to my friend about this product, and then I saw an ad for it. They must have been listening to my conversation.” You really wonder how many times they saw that ad the week before and just didn’t notice it. That may be the reason they think people are listening to them.

BEN: There’s a kernel of truth behind every conspiracy theory. No one’s listening to what you’re saying and then targeting you based on your audio, but data has gotten faster. We’ve always used it. Think about direct mail in the 1970s. If you shopped at JC Penney back then, you’d get a catalog in the mail 2 months later. But now it’s so immediate that it freaks people out.

But I do think privacy is very important, but at the same time it’s always been about data. To your point, we’re immersed in so much advertising – it’s like when you buy a car. You never notice a red Ford, but if you buy a red Ford, all of a sudden you keep seeing red Fords on the road because you’re more attuned to it.

ROB: One thing we see is that billboards are also going digital at a decent pace. I don’t know how far that will go, and you may have some thoughts on that.

BEN: I think what’s interesting – I went to a panel here at year ago at South by Southwest and a couple of the lead designers at Google were on stage, and one of their theories which I found interesting was we’re moving from a world of, if you will, mass media that later led to laptops that now led to device-centric media. Advertising chases devices now. Your mobile phone or your laptop are the signal they’re chasing you by.

But we’re moving to human-centric media where there’ll be ambient marketing all around you. It is like Minority Report. Pretty soon you’ll walk into a building and the screen will recognize who you are and serve you an ad for your favorite brand of sneakers based on your demographic. It’s freaky, but we’re going there. It’s unstoppable.

ROB: In terms of buying, how digital is TV going? Are we going to get to a point where TV can be bought like Facebook ads?

BEN: Absolutely. TV is the James Bond of media right now. It’s very powerful, but it’s a blunt instrument. But 37 million Americans have cut the cord and now are doing what’s called OTT, over-the-top, where they’re finding ways to watch TV by not paying for cable, but hooking in through a device or Roku or smart TV. That number is growing very, very rapidly.

What’s interesting about that movement is you can get much more granular on the targeting. You can target people based on very, very specific demographic data, which has always been a little tough to do on traditional TV.

I think where we’re going – we’re talking tactics, but the whole world of marketing is really approaching what Don Peppers has called 1:1 marketing, where if you can get data about somebody – and not just their demographics, but their behavior – you really can get targeted and become more relevant.

ROB: If we look back a little bit, when did you join Media Associates and how did you end up there?

BEN: I’m old. [laughs] I confess, I’m 52. I’ve been at Media Associates 12 years, but prior to that I was client side working with several organizations, marketing organizations, and I started out way back when as a marketing consultant and a business journalist at the very beginning of my career.

When I joined Media Associates – it’s interesting you bring this up, because hopefully some people in our audience are focusing on growing their agencies. We were very small when I started, and we’ve quintupled the business in the past decade. Now we place about $160 million a year in paid advertising. We’re independent; we’re not a giant. But it’s been really exciting building a team like that. That’s what I’m all about.

ROB: What have been some of the keys maybe that they weren’t doing before you joined, and things that you started to do, learn, or introduce along the way?

BEN: It’s been a great team effort. But I was thinking about this: how do you grow an agency? I think it comes down to what you do outside and what you do inside. Rob, we were talking about this right before we fired up the microphones. Basically, you need to have a good service and methodology that’s distinctive.

For our agency, we moved more into what we call predictive analytics, doing more modeling of outcomes prior to running a dollar of advertising. I would encourage anyone out there in marketing land, if they’re building an agency, to really take a tough look at what they’re doing. How do you build something unique in terms of methodology?

Internally, the big thing – and everyone talks about it, but culture is so important. At the end of the day, it’s all about the people you have. We haven’t been perfect by any means, but we’ve really tried hard to do things to give people at Media Associates – we call it career stratification. You know where you are on the ladder, you know the next rung, you know what you need to do to get there. Giving people more flexibility, more trust.

If you can empower people to be motivated, it’s so much more important than if they’re sitting at their share for 40 hours punching the clock. As cliché as that sounds, culture is like relationships. If you don’t focus on your internal people, it’s like not focusing on a marriage or a boyfriend or girlfriend. You have to take care of people for them to want to continue to engage with you.

ROB: Are there any core beliefs or principles that you specifically articulate and reinforce to your team, or is it more along the lines of what you were saying about the personal autonomy and that sort of thing?

BEN: I think the core belief I have on how you structure a marketing group or any organization is you have to move away from command and control to empowering people.

It’s interesting; management was invented in the 1800s when they invented trains. It cost a lot of money to build railroad tracks between cities, so they would have trains running between two different cities. Initially they had accidents where two trains would collide into each other, so they figured out if they had a really rigid command and control structure, the trains would run on time and they wouldn’t run into each other. So, it’s top down, centralized. The people at the top knew what was going on, and if you were the guy running the train, you just took orders.

But today, in a knowledge economy, I bet you have people in your organization who may be in their twenties who are so smart at what they do, and they have more knowledge than you’ll ever know about their area of expertise. You have to lock them. So, you have to flip the organization on its head, and instead of telling people what to do, you have to empower them and mobilize them so they can tell you what to do.

So, you’re more the orchestra leader; you’re not playing every instrument. It’s hard to do. Everyone I think has a tendency, when they rise to management, to want to grasp tightly and control their FTs and be the boss.

ROB: Especially after a mistake, right? When something goes wrong.

BEN: Yes. [laughs] But at the same time, if you’re trying to build an organization in this modern world – we’re at South by Southwest – there’s no way one human can know everything. You need to empower your team members to bring those ideas to you and not tell them what to do, if that makes sense.

ROB: That definitely makes sense. You also mentioned on the growth side how you talk to the world and having that specific proprietary advantage.

BEN: Yeah, externally. Inside your walls is culture. Outside your walls is process, product, what you’re building. It’s funny; I think the mistake every marketing group thinks, whether you’re working for a client or working for an agency, is you’re pretty certain you’re really unique. And you’re not, if you’re honest. Uber is a taxi service with a really good UX.

But what you can do – Uber set an interesting example – is you can figure out how to create a distinctive position, how to minimize friction, how to take the RadioShack parts and create something new. Uber didn’t invent an app, it didn’t invent GPS tracking, it didn’t invent taxis, but it packaged it in a really innovative way that just caught wildfire.

I think it’s possible while there’s an open market niche and there’s nothing that has really been invented that building a unique service can be done. The first step is being honest with yourself and saying, “hey, we’re not unique, but what can we do to move more in that direction?”

ROB: Right, and there’s always new things that create opportunity, create problems. You having been with Media Associates for 12 years, you’re doing a lot of media now that didn’t exist when you started.

BEN: Yeah, it’s funny. If you think about it, this is my 10th year anniversary coming to South by Southwest. I came a few years after Facebook started to scale. Twitter launched here, Foursquare launched here. The Apple iPhone, I was here the first year everyone had one and it wasn’t connected to AT&T and everyone was really upset.

It’s changing so fast, but at the same time, human psychology has not changed. I think the mistake I’ve seen advertisers or marketers make is they get caught up in the shiny. A funny story I heard is measuring marketing only be digital metrics is like me measuring your health by only looking at what you eat for breakfast. I can maybe drill in on that one area, but I don’t know if you’re smoking cigarettes or running a marathon at night.

Digital and mobile is important, but it’s still only a part of the ecosystem. The trick of it all is how you really plan across all the channels while you’re bringing the new stuff in.

A classic approach we take is the old 70/20/10 rule where 70% of the marketing is what you think you know works, 20% are emerging ideas that you’re confident will work, but 10% is the crazy new stuff. You’re going to do something that you have no idea if it’s going to work, but if you invest in that peripheral new thing, that’s where the big ideas may come for your clients.

ROB: Got it. Very, very interesting. You mentioned measurement; how do you think about measurement and what’s possible in terms of measurement timelines? You mentioned that you’re focused on both predicting and expressing results to clients.

BEN: Yeah, it’s simple. You’ve got to turn it around. Everyone in the world measures what happened, but if you’re clever – and it’s not that hard to do – you can look at benchmarks and trend lines and do forecasting on what will happen. It’s critically important. Marketers at the end of the day report to a CEO who reports to a board who reports to shareholders, and they have to grow. They have to hit their numbers.

My theory is the data exists, and you can pretend it’s not there and fudge it and measure it on the backend of your campaign, or you can get ahead of it and put headlights on your business. The strongest metaphor is, here’s a question for marketers: do you have headlights out front?

Do you think if you’re going to drop $10 million in the market on an ad campaign or a marketing initiative, is it going to drive $30 million back in sales? If you’re not fully confident in that, you’d better start running some predictive models – because you can predict. It takes effort, but that’s the only way to control the outcome.

ROB: That sounds daunting, I think, to some marketers. Predictive models.

BEN: They can hire Media Associates. We’ll help you figure it out. [laughs]

ROB: [laughs] There’s the answer.

BEN: Yeah, obviously.

ROB: I was wondering how somebody might think about getting started if they want to, but they’re kind of scared and they don’t know what to do.

BEN: Seriously, we do it, other smart agencies do it. If you don’t have the answer, ask the question. Take your agency aside and say, “Hey, this is great. You’re giving me this dashboard and I’m seeing what’s going on and we’re optimizing and we’re moving money into Facebook and away from Google Display.” But ask the key question: “How can we predict what’s going to happen if we run different scenarios?”

Challenge them. Throw down the challenge to your internal marketing team or external team and say, “Hey, how can we put headlights on the business?”

ROB: I think related – we were talking about the strategy and that differentiating strategy that an agency has. I think what you see is a lot of people try enough to make a slogan or a positioning statement, but it’s not always true. It’s always a process of refinement. How do you think about refining the truth of who you are and where you stand out?

BEN: There was a book that came out way back when, like 1980, by Jack Trout and Al Ries called Positioning. It’s the classic book. It’s about 70 pages long, really fast read. If you think about the classic brand wars of the 1980s, Coke versus Pepsi or Hertz versus Avis, or 7up versus all the – 7up were the “un-cola.”

The point of the book is in your head, you have a ladder if you’re a consumer, and you only have a few rungs. You only know a few brands in each category. The marketer’s job is to grab a position on that ladder. Honestly, unless you’re really into watches, you’re going to know five watch brands. So you have to be focused in your messaging and find a way, in the context of your competition, to have a clear, unique focused message.

I think the other mistake I’ve seen marketers make is they get very product-centric and they get really into the granularity of the features of their products. “You’re wearing a shirt right now and it’s made out of cotton with 5% polyester and it was knitted by who-knows-what talented people.” But at the end of the day, that’s not the value of your shirt. It’s maybe the style of it or the brand behind it.

ROB: Makes sense. Ben, what are some things that you’ve learned along the way that, if you were starting over at Media Associates or before, agency-wise, you would do differently?

BEN: Growing an advertising business I’ve realized is all relationships. I think if you’re working for an ad agency and you’re focused on growing it, I can’t underplay the importance of networking at the right level. Basically, I think partnerships are critically important. Playing well with other agencies, finding ways to help them, and eventually the karma will come back and they’ll help you.

I think it’s important to slow down and really focus on product or service development. You need to always do that.

The most important thing, I think – and here’s a little theory – organizations are knowledge transfer mechanisms. You need to bring ideas in from the outside. I’m sitting here at South by Southwest, it’s half junket, half party, but it’s half amazing learning.

You need to invest in ongoing learning for your organization and you need to send emissaries out to go to conferences. It may cost you money; you may not come back with a lead, you may not get a sale the next month, but the biggest ideas we’ve ever had have come from things like South by Southwest or conferences in New York City where you come home and you’re like, holy crap, if we move in this direction, we’re going to make a lot of money and help our clients grow.

So, I say it’s all about networking, learning, and having information flowing into your organization to help you improve your products.

ROB: You talked about partnerships. I think that’s something that many agencies are afraid to talk about sometimes because it makes them feel incomplete. It makes them feel like they’re not the “everything agency” that they wish they were.

BEN: Yeah. The analogy I would use is finding a new client for an agency is like targeting someone with a washing machine. Many years ago, I was on a call with the head of marketing for Maytag washing machines. He said they had the worst business in the world. A washing machine runs perfectly for 11 years and then it breaks, and people immediately buy a new one.

Clients are kind of like that. If you cold call a client, they’re pretty happily probably with the agency they have right now. But if you have a network of partners that aren’t competitive, but they’re complementary, you may get a call saying, “Hey, I know Joe Schmoe and they’re running this marketing group and they’re having a problem.” It’s a way to bring relationship funnels into your business far beyond your own relationships.

Also, it’s just good karma. Helping other organizations grow, it’s always come back to me. A little selflessness in business goes a long way, I think.

ROB: For sure. Sometimes you’ve partnered, but sometimes you’ve also added services to your business. How do you think about the decision of what things to add? Have you ever added something that you wished you hadn’t and taken it back? How do you think about that?

BEN: HBR had an article a couple years ago on outsourcing, and their theory – which I love – was if it’s core to your position and service, it’s in-house. If it’s non-core, outsource it. For our agency, we actually had this decision to make on analytics. We could’ve outsourced all of analytics, partnered with a hot analytics shop, but it’s core now to our business. Predictive modeling in media and advertising campaigns is core. We so we built out a robust analytics team, our own systems internally.

But you could take something else, like we don’t do a lot of direct mail. It’s not a big focus for us. Clients who need it, we have partners. We can bolt them on. They’re wizards at list management. But I don’t want to get into that business, so let people play to their strengths. But if it’s core to who you want to be, you need to build that internally, I think.

ROB: It’s interesting you mention direct mail. That seems like one of those old things that’s new again also.

BEN: Yeah, direct mail – we do synchronize it with a lot of our campaigns. There’s a tactic, for instance, where you can retarget off of a website visit with direct mail. Think about that. Everyone hates retargeting. You visit a website and rat-a-tat-tat! You’re sprayed with banner ads.

But imagine a B-to-B client trying to generate a lead from a chief technology officer. The CTO hits the website and bails, and a week later he gets a personalized letter in the mail, signed in blue ink, with a letter from your head of information services. Sally Smith the CTO will go, “holy cow, you really got through to me.” So yeah, direct mail deployed right can be a great breakout format.

ROB: Very interesting. You mentioned you’re partly here to learn. What have you been learning so far this week that has been interesting and meaningful to you?

BEN: I had a great day yesterday; I got to talk to Garry Kasparov after his speech. He’s the former world chess champion that was beat by the computers in like 1997, and now he’s working with a security company. He talked about the Internet of Things.

It was the scariest session because basically your house is filled with a dozen devices now, and soon 50 devices, connected to the internet. During the speech they had a very friendly Russian hacker illustrate how he could hack into a house, take over all the devices, and – check this out – he hacked into the Sonos speaker system and then using the speaker, he instructed Alexa to order a Tesla on behalf of the customers and burnt through their credit cards. So that was interesting.

But seriously, the idea that digital is turning into electricity – you don’t walk into a room now and go, “Hey man, this room’s electrified.” It’s just everywhere. Digital and devices and the internet are soon going to be in everything, all the way around us. That was kind of cool.

One other one, Poppy Crum today is a wizard. She’s Chief Scientist at Dolby Laboratories, and she gave a speech talking about empathy and technology. But her whole thing is about how devices are picking up signals from us so that your future devices will know your heartbeat or your galvanic skin response and be able to figure out if you’re feeling good, bad, emotional, and then use that to tailor communications back to you.

Yeah, a couple cool ideas that technology is going everywhere in devices, but it’s also becoming implanted into our bodies. Cool ideas.

ROB: It’s interesting, and it’s also interesting with Kasparov that you have this meta lesson there of reinvention as well. Most former chess champions are not known for something else. Obviously there’s a deep intelligence there, but to do something –

BEN: Oh yeah, he’s amazing. His back story is he left Russia – he’s not a fan of Putin; he’s been a critic of Trump. But beyond being political, he’s actually trying to launch an initiative in the United States to rebuild democratic dialogue in the middle, which I really admire. If you’re on the right or you’re on the left, you’re conservative, you’re liberal, his whole point is let’s talk to each other and value democracy. He’s created this whole platform around rebuilding democratic conversation.

That’s what I love about South by Southwest. You run into these people who are world famous and will actually talk to you, and they’ll give you a new angle you never thought of.

ROB: He doesn’t have a high degree of faith that Twitter will be the place that we talk constructively about the middle?

BEN: He’s an optimist. He had a great line at the very end. I had just a couple minutes to chat with him, but he said he thinks the future is a self-fulfilling prophecy, and if we really work at it, we can make technology be beneficial. Or if we run around in fear, we can turn into a surveillance state and have Orwell running everything, Orwellian future. But he’s more of an optimist, which I like.

Hopefully technology will help humans. He had a really interesting point that humans plus technology are the winning formula. Technology alone, it has brute force, it has more memory than we have, but it can’t make the intuitive leaps of logic that humans still are really good at creatively. Humans, however, with technology amplified, can perform better.

An airplane pilot, the plane flies most of itself, but the pilot is up front, landing, taking off, guiding the AI system running your next commercial flight. You don’t really want no pilot in the front of the plane, right? [laughs] I want a human with some skin in the game up there. It’s a good metaphor for where we’re going with technology.

ROB: Excellent. Ben, when people want to find you and Media Associates, how should they find you?

BEN: They can find me – I’m on Twitter @BenKunz. Our agency is Media Associates. One ‘A’ in the middle, so http://mediassociates.com. I’m happy to talk anytime, have someone ping me. Reach out. We’re here to help clients grow, and we love to share ideas where it makes sense.

ROB: That’s great. Thank you so much for your time and expertise. It’s good to talk to you.

BEN: Thank you, man. Yeah, it’s been good. Let’s get back to South by Southwest.

ROB: Indeed.

BEN: Thanks.

ROB: Thank you for listening. The Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast is presented by Converge. Converge helps digital marketing agencies and brands automate their reporting so they can be more profitable, accurate, and responsive. To learn more about how Converge can automate your marketing reporting, email info@convergehq.com, or visit us on the web at convergehq.com.

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