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Underscore Marketing's Jim Meskauskas

Eunice Park
Underscore Marketing's Jim Meskauskas Eunice Park

Jim Meskauskas is chief strategic officer for Underscore Marketing, a next-generation media and strategy shop founded in May of 2002. Meskauskas started out in traditional media planning for Nestle and Burger King, and has worked as a planner at Left Field and as a Media Supervisor at Hawk Media and at USWeb/CKS. He also was the chief internet strategist and media account director at Mediasmith. A founding board member of the Society for Internet Advancement in San Francisco, Meskauskas also writes for several online publications, including iMediaConnection.

iMedia Connection: What's your biggest frustration these days?

Meskauskas: The biggest frustration these days seems to be a continuing lack of standardization among the top publishers of creative units, both in terms of dimensions and file sizes. There are still so many different ad units on any given page that often times the people representing the sites themselves are confused. Traffic coordinators contacting agencies for required sizes that those at the agency never bought, last minute unit size changes due to site redesign, and general inconsistency among file loads are a regular bane of my existence.

An equal frustration is a continuing lack of respect from account management for the time and energy it takes to research, plan and execute a successful online media campaign. More and more media agencies and departments are treated like juke boxes, where a coin is dropped, a button pushed, and everyone expects to hear the song they like. Regardless of what some pundits may say, media is still, by and large, the red-headed step child of the advertising family and its continuing commodification isn’t helping.

iMedia Connection: What's easier this year than last?

Meskauskas: Working with AOL is by far the biggest pleasure I’ve had working with a publisher in recent years.  For those of us who hail originally from a traditional media background, it is nice to receive the kind of attention and service that media planners and buyer used to regularly receive from offline publishers and broadcast outlets. They are among the few publishers that don’t disappear once the IO is signed. The rest of the online publishing community could learn a lot, especially now that the market is picking up and some of the old arrogances are creeping back in.

iMedia Connection: What's one of the most successful branding campaigns your company has executed recently, and what made it successful?

Meskauskas: Since fall of 2003, we have worked on the online branding campaign for Schering-Plough’s Claritin brand, introducing it as a prescription-strength allergy medication available over the counter. I would say that what contributed most to the success of this campaign were large-sized ad units, and what I like to call “ubiquity opportunities,” such as road blocks. Full Screen Ads on iVillage and road blocks on CNN.com were instrumental getting us high cume really fast -- communicating Claritin’s brand attributes to the widest number of people in the shortest period of time.

iMedia Connection: What's one of the most successful direct response campaigns your company has executed recently, and what made it successful?

Meskauskas: I can tell you that our DR efforts for Claritin were among the most successful. What made it successful -- alas, I cannot say.

iMedia Connection: Have any of your clients successfully utilized any emerging technologies, such as IM, wireless, iTV, etc.?

Meskauskas: Actually, no.

iMedia Connection: Are you working with search and local search for your clients? Why? And how's it going?

Meskauskas: A little, but not much.

iMedia Connection: What are you telling your clients about rich media?

Meskauskas: We are telling them “Use it, use it, use it!” Though I always cringe at the moniker of “rich media” because to me it should eventually all be just “media.”  Saying “rich media” is like saying “electro-vacuum” or putting the letter ‘e’ in front of anything having to do with the Internet. But there is no doubt that bigger, more engaging creative is better than smaller, less engaging creative. If it can move, walk, talk -- well, maybe not talk -- the creative is bound to do better. Even video (of which I am, personally, no fan) I’ve used for a client pulled extremely well with users. Rich media is THE media to be using in almost all instances where noticing value is imperative.

iMedia Connection: What can't the Internet do, as much as we wish it could?

Meskauskas: Though it is capable of creating an “engagement branding” experience, it still cannot make me “feel.” It is not capable of carrying emotional import. Though, in my opinion, it doesn’t need to. Unlike many Internet zealots who still think the medium is the end-all, be-all; I feel that the Internet shouldn’t be used to replace extant media forms but compliment them. I don’t need online advertising to make me sentimental about my family or have warm thoughts about house pets. I’ve got TV for that.

iMedia Connection: How is the agency-seller relationship these days? How could it be better?

Meskauskas: Just because the market is improving doesn’t mean that you can treat me with disrespect. Don’t tell me how you don’t need my money so badly that you won’t offer me the rates I’m trying to negotiate, and then keep me on the phone a half hour to explain how things are so great for you and so you don’t need to sell to me. That’s bad form, it doesn’t really make any sense, the rest of your business isn’t my concern, and finally, it demonstrates you do not understand that this is still a relationship business. Do you really want me out there telling all my peers in the about this experience? And, if you know me at all, do you really want my analysis of the situation out there in the ether?  I know I wouldn’t!

iMedia Connection: Are you having issues with Terms and Conditions?

Meskauskas: Only with a few publishers, mostly second-tier and trade publishers. Yahoo, AOL, iVillage, NYTimes and others have no problem with them. But there are a few who still make me feel like I either a.) need a law degree to work through the issues, or b.) need to teach folks some of the fundamentals of the English language.

iMedia Connection: Are you working with your clients' non-interactive agencies? How are you perceived -- as a partner or still as an oddity?

Meskauskas: Yes, actually, we are, and I have been very pleasantly surprised at how we are seen as an important, if sometimes mysterious, part of the marketing mix. We work with a number of agencies that handle offline duties for clients and though sometimes not everyone understands everything we do, they are accepting of our role and often times open to our insight. And so far, the offline partners have ALWAYS respected our contributions.

iMedia Connection: What's the one thing you wish clients would understand?

Meskauskas: It would be nice if more clients understood that just because the medium we deal in is carried on a computer, it doesn’t mean that work can happen with the push of the ENTER key.

iMedia Connection: What's the one thing you wish publishers would understand?

Meskauskas: That they have the most to benefit from providing good, human service. Over-reliance on impersonal methods of communication like email mediates too much a relationship, making the buyer less interested each go-round to give money to that publisher. Remember, I’m giving YOU money, not the other way around.  And, PLEASE CALL if there’s something that you don’t understand.  In the last few weeks, there have been some complications (minor, but complications) with a publisher. Though there was a moment where things could have gotten tense, the representative at the site had the sense of mind to actually pick up the phone and make sure that things didn’t spiral out of control.  It is a lot harder to be rude and get angry with someone who is represented just by word in an email than it is with a person whose voice you hear.  We could actually all do better to remember that we are dealing with people and not just email accounts.

iMedia Connection: What remains the industry’s biggest stumbling block?

Meskauskas: Standardization. I know it is repetitive, but it is true.  As soon as we can stop worrying about dozens of different rich media specs and creative types, agencies will be able to start yielding greater efficiency and publishers will be able to turn campaigns around faster on their end.  This means everyone makes more money; agencies can yield higher margins and/or work on more projects and publishers can clear buys faster with fewer make goods.

iMedia Connection: What are you reading these days?

Meskauskas: Epic of Gilgamesh, Innovator’s Solution by Clayton M. Christensen, Michael E. Raynor, Markings, by Dag Hammarskjold, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less by Barry Schwartz

iMedia Connection: And finally, tell us something we don't know yet, but that we will this year.

Meskauskas: A publisher, or publishers, will successfully monetize audience-based media currency, finally connecting advertising with people instead of just impressions.

Facebook's popularity for social login on e-commerce websites has declined moderatelyfrom 49 percent to 43 percent during the past two quarters. Despite the decrease, it still enjoys significant popularity, which can be partially explained by the explosion of social commerce during the past year. Increasingly, retailers are offering social shopping experiences on their e-commerce sites that leverage a consumer's Facebook social graph. We believe that the opportunity to incorporate friends into the online shopping experience will continue to influence the proclivity to choose Facebook when registering on retail sites. Yahoo's share of social logins on retail sites has plummeted since 2009, mostly due to Google and Facebook.

On media websites, Yahoo and Google are running strong as the second and third most popular providers.  Despite a modest decline duringthe past several quarters, Yahoo continues to perform best in this vertical -- perhapsas a result of its realignment as a content network during the past several years. Twitter's share within this segment has yet to accelerate, but its potential for future growth makes it worth keeping an eye on.

It's also worth noting that Windows Live (Hotmail and MSN) -- historically a strong performer on entertainment and gaming sites -- has experienced a notable decline in share of social logins during the past year.

On mobile applications, Facebook and Google lead in popularity, followed by Twitter and Yahoo. Twitter's improvement in popularity on mobile devices could be a result of its OAuth integration with Apple iOS 5 for social login, which has further socialized mobile users to rely on Twitter as an authentication mechanism on portable devices.

More than ever, people are sharing comments, purchases, reviews, and other content from the web to their social networks. Facebook and Twitter are far and away the most popular sharing destinations, but Yahoo, LinkedIn, and MySpace maintain preference on niche sites that are catered to their audience (B2B sites for LinkedIn and music sites for MySpace). During the past two quarters, Twitter's popularity as a sharing destination has increased at a more prominent rate than other social networks.

Social login opens the door to collecting a rich amount of profile data from a user's social network account. Each social network provides a different set of profile data on its users, which can help speed registration or enable more data-driven marketing and ROI from personalization and improved segmentation. Here is a look at the profile data contained within a social profile that users can choose to share with your site:


What do these findings mean for your business?  As you work to add a social layer to your site to improve engagement and drive conversions, social login and sharing should be fully integrated.  We hope these findings provide a useful benchmark as you optimize your on-site social media strategy.

For marketers

Social login helps solve the challenge of how to collect more accurate data on your users without sacrificing registration conversion rates. Social login shortens the registration process to a single click and gives you instant access to rich demographic, psychographic, and social graph data on your users. This social profile data can be leveraged for content personalization or product recommendations and more tailored segmentation and targeting. Social sharing lets your users broadcast content and activities from your site to their social networks, increasing brand advocacy and creating an effective source of qualified referral traffic to your site.

For Developers and technologists

It can be a big headache to implement the plumbing to each social network API on your own. These networks use different protocols under the hood, such as OpenID, OAuth, hybrids, and proprietary technologies. As a result, coding social login on your own requires a significant investment of time, engineering expertise, and ongoing maintenance as the networks change their APIs, often without advanced notice. Your social login and sharing solution should allow you to easily connect to all the social networks by writing once to a single API. By cutting deployment times from weeks or months to a couple days, you can focus on your core competency while trusting that the social and user management tools on your site just work.

Michael Olson is product marketing manager of Janrain.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

You are investing, so act like a VC

Venture capitalists are famous for making a decision about whether to invest in a company within the first few minutes of a pitch. They expect entrepreneurs to tell and sell their opportunities in no more than 10 slides.

As an early partner, you are an investor -- even if cash does not exchange hands -- because you'll be investing valuable time and brand equity. As such, put yourselves in the VC seat and evaluate the opportunity the same way they would.

First, make sure you are dealing with the top brass. If the partnership is really important to the startup, the CEO is not going to be so busy that he or she can't make the time to attend the meeting. Then ask the executive to explain the pain point the startup is addressing and who its target customer(s) are. Most important, why is the company's product or approach better than what is out there already? If the executive says there's nothing out there like the company's product, then that person is either a true genius (because no one else in the world could figure out a similar solution) or the pain point and market opportunity is not strong enough to warrant a new product.

If executives can't explain all of this in plain English -- in fewer than 10 slides -- then they would never get past the first meeting with a professional investor, which should tell you something.

Let the startup do what it does best -- problem solving

The beauty of working with a startup is that entrepreneurs think outside the box. The reason they start their companies is that they are passionate about finding a way to solve a specific consumer or business pain point. They dream about how to build a better mouse trap.

Take advantage of entrepreneurs' unique problem-solving skills. Outline a specific business challenge for your brand or client and ask them how they would solve it leveraging their teams and technologies. Be sure to keep an open mind and don't be trapped by your preconceived ideas about how this should work. Listen to what they say and ask for details about execution if it sounds too good to be true. Even if you don't end up with a partnership, you'll reap the reward of some great new thinking.

Be realistic about resource requirements

The greatest risk for a partnership is not that the startups' technology won't work; that's been tested and vetted in more ways than you can possibly imagine. Rather, the greatest risk comes when there's too much drain on the startup's resources.

Startups have everything to prove, so they will do what it takes to make your partnership successful. And for today's "bootstrap" startup, any unexpected burning of dollars and hours can be fatal. Established companies have to remember this and approach the project with reasonable expectations and accept the limitations.

A startup will not be able to customize its product for you, nor should it. The very reason you chose the startup is because your company believes it has created a better mousetrap.

Use tomorrow's metrics to make today's decision

While I use the term "partnership" throughout this article, let me be clear: Any relationship between an established company and a startup is a test. The implication is that if metrics of success are not completely aligned with business goals, the test will be set up to fail.

The best way to determine if a partnership with a startup will make sense is to go through the exercise to define respective business goals and corresponding metrics of success first. For example, if a startup offers new ad serving technology, it might need to prove to investors that agencies want the product because it decreases campaign management time. As an agency, your business goal is to find new ways to cut costs and increase profit margins without compromising service. Therefore, the partnership is well aligned.

By comparison, if that same startup's goal is to use your test as a case study in a widely circulated white paper, and your clients would be angry to learn you increased your profit margins by testing new technology on their campaigns...well, you get the picture.

Leave the lawyers at the home office

I would never promote forming a partnership of any kind without some written form of agreement and outline of deliverables. However, if corporate counsel gets in the middle, you might as well consider the opportunity dead on arrival.

A good corporate counsel might ask for ownership rights to some portion of the technology, or to maintain some level of exclusivity. Both have serious repercussions if the startup will be seeking future capital, so don't even bother asking. Furthermore, burning money on legal fees means the startup has less capital for product development, which helps no one. And I can guarantee you that a corporate counsel's goals are directly opposed to the startup's goals, since each wants maximum protection with minimum strings attached. Thus, the legal fees can quickly escalate. So leave the high-powered attorneys at the home office. Cover your bases, but don't turn this into a major legal negotiation.

Armed with these five simple guidelines, I hope established agencies and brands will consider joining the tech startup ecosystem. With an improving economy, increased investing, and a low cost of entry, new tech startups emerge every day. If you don't believe me, then just check out BetaBait, a daily email newsletter that announces startups actively seeking beta testers. This is a great resource for finding the right startup because you know they have a "real product" but have not yet cranked up the marketing since they are still in beta -- the perfect time to form a partnership.

If you find a startup that sounds interesting, reach out to the founder and start a conversation. You'll be amazed at what you can learn about the marketplace and new trends in technology in just a 10 minute (or slide) conversation. And you just might find the "next big thing" before your competitor does.

Karen Macumber is the CEO of Lifeables.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

"Handshake isolated on business background" image via Shutterstock.


We hear this type of story too often these days. The story goes like this:

Someone in a brand's marketing department tweeted something offensive. It wasn't representative of the brand, and now the brand's PR department is doing damage control instead of telling the trade press how good the social media team is at engagement.

That's the generic version of the story. But KitchenAid gave the flop a political twist when someone there tweeted a tasteless joke about President Obama's dead grandmother during the debates. The quote read: "Obamas gma even knew it was going 2 b bad! 'She died 3 days b4 he became president'. #nbcpolitics."

OK. So KitchenAid scrambled and pulled the tweet and issued an apology. No surprise there. But the real fail here wasn't the tweet. Heck, it wasn't even the sin of failing to log out of the brand account before posting a tasteless tweet on your personal account. Nope. The real failure here is that KitchenAid didn't put a personal face on its Twitter account from the start.

Here's a part of the brand's apology:

"During the debate last night, a member of our Twitter team mistakenly posted an offensive tweet from the KitchenAid handle instead of a personal handle. This tasteless joke in no way represents our values at KitchenAid."

Represents is the operative word. If a brand wants to auto-load and tweet messages that have run through numerous copywriters, then it really doesn't need to personalize its Twitter account. But if it wants to play in real time, it had better put a public face on its Twitter profile -- because only a person (with a name and a face) can represent your brand in a conversation. Just ask Scott Monty at Ford.

European Commission

File this one under that heading of "what were they thinking?" Or maybe, "what were they drinking?"

The idea was actually a noble one. The European Commission wanted to get more young women interested in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Great!

Unfortunately, its plan was to grab the web's attention with a misogynist video that patronizes women. Well, it got the web's attention with more than a million views, but it also got a lot of dislikes and nasty comments on YouTube -- for good reason.

So how could this happen? Probably too many men making the decisions and not enough women. Face it: If your creative team isn't anywhere near the target demo, you're courting disaster.


Automated ad serving is part of life in digital. But if you're going to play that game, it's important to make sure you understand the parameters of where your ad can be served. This year, clothing retailer Express learned the hard way that it's probably not a good idea to integrate marketing with news stories.

Here's what happened. Using a technology known as "in-image advertising," Express had hoped to leverage current news stories by offering users a chance to buy clothes that were similar to photos featured on Yahoo News. Unfortunately, as the photo below demonstrates, the technology played out in a disastrous way when Express unintentionally offered users the chance to buy a scarf that looked like one worn by an Afghan militant. (The news story in question was about a bloody attack in Afghanistan.)

Now, this clearly wasn't human error. But it does bring into question the wisdom of some of these whiz-bang ad serving technologies that always seem to wow the industry in a demo -- and then make us all cringe when something like this happens. Because as NPR pointed out, there are plenty examples of news integrations like this one backfiring.

Belvedere Vodka

Stupid. There's really no other way to describe the thinking -- or lack thereof -- behind Belvedere Vodka's "rapey" Facebook ad. Here's the photo.

The ad is totally indefensible. To its credit, Belvedere pulled the ad fast and issued two apologies. The brand also donated money to RAINN, an anti-sexual violence group. But then another problem emerged. A few weeks after the rape ad ran, the actress in the picture filed a lawsuit against Moet Hennessy USA, which makes Belvedere. Her claim? That the brand had used her likeness without permission, allegedly misappropriating the image from a sketch performed by the actress's comedy troupe.


So not only is the creative horribly offensive, but the people who did it also forgot to get legal clearances.

Maybe they were drunk. Really drunk.

Pizza Hut

Here's an idea that never should've left the meeting. Pizza Hut posted an online video inviting the participants at the Town Hall Presidential Debate to ask the candidates whether they preferred sausage or pepperoni.

While that might sound like a great way to inject the Pizza Hut brand into the conversation (tens of millions of Americans watch the debate live on TV and the web), it backfired pretty quickly, with news outlets blasting the idea and accusing the brand of making a mockery of the democratic process. Pizza Hut responded by backpedaling and pulling the ad from its YouTube page.

Still, at least one ad professional, Donny Deutsch, defended Pizza Hut. He argued that young people would be attracted to the chain's message, especially in a media environment that conflates news with entertainment. But the trouble with Deutsch's argument is that the young people who subscribe to Pizza Hut's YouTube channel were among the first to take the brand to task for this dumb idea.


You can't fool the internet. If you're a high-profile brand, you can count on the fact that somewhere, someone will always take the time to challenge a claim that seems impossible.

The idea was for Nokia to demonstrate the Lumia 920's optical image stabilization (OIS) feature for the video camera on its mobile phone. The trouble was, it didn't demonstrate the technology. Instead, the brand shot a video with a professional camera and then tried to pass it off as its OIS technology.

The misleading video was first spotted by The Verge blog, which caught the fake simply by picking up the reflection of the professional camera crew in the video.

Nokia has since apologized, but as The Wall Street Journal points out in the video below, the OIS technology is actually pretty darn good -- which makes the decision to fake it especially dumb.


Twitter can be a tough place for brands. The platform often rewards snarky, and -- at times -- troll-like behavior. And unlike a website or Facebook page, the brand doesn't have much control over the narrative. Just ask McDonald's, which had a seemingly simple Twitter campaign blow up in its face.

McDonald's began the campaign with a simple hashtag (#McDStories) and two seemingly innocuous tweets.

Unfortunately, those tweets were quickly hijacked. Regular folks came out of the woodwork to mock the chain's quality, while others shared unflattering stories of drunkenly consuming McDonald's food. But the worst part was when PETA managed to ensnare the McDonald's Twitter team into a debate about animal cruelty. In short, it got ugly. Fast.

But the real failure here wasn't losing control of the conversation. It was the inability to see it coming. In a general sense, brands like McDonald's should be aware of what people are likely to say about them on Twitter. But for McDonald's, there was a specific warning last year when Wendy's "Here'sTheBeef" Twitter hashtag was hijacked.

There are ways for brands like McDonald's to use Twitter, but these promoted hashtags aren't it. The fact that the Twitterverse is littered with examples of brands that have failed on this front is proof that McDonald's really should have known better before it tried this one.


Here's the thing about an advertising stunt: If it works, you're a genius. But if it fails, you get hurt.

To cast a negative light on Shell Oil, Greenpeace came up with a strange bit of subterfuge. The idea was to team up with the activist comedy troupe The Yes Men to create a fake page for the oil company that encouraged people to come up with new slogans for Shell. The page was quickly overrun by snarky environmentalists who shared their own (intentionally bad) ideas for new Shell slogans. Of course, that was the idea all along.

But as Mashable rightly pointed out, that kind of stunt has a serious drawback. While it doubtless energizes Greenpeace's core audience, the polarizing prank only undermines its ability to connect with a new audience.

While Greenpeace stands by the ad, even articles praising the stunt point out that many people who saw the ad probably didn't know it was fake. Which makes one wonder why Greenpeace would bake in a potential backlash from the very people it's trying to convince.


Usually, Nike ads represent the gold standard for the industry. But during this year's Olympics, one of Nike's videos unleashed a lot of unwanted criticism online.

For Nike, the video was about hard work. But a lot of bloggers read it differently and said so. Jezebel accused Nike of mocking a fat kid to sell shoes. BuzzFeed labeled it a fail. On YouTube, the comments went in two distinct directions -- one group talking about the video as an example of greatness in us all, while the other group is just laughing at fat people. On the other hand, Salon defended the ad -- to an extent -- and praised Nike for a video with emotional resonance.

There's a theory that says great ads get people talking. By that measure, this Nike video succeeds. But the value of sparking a conversation is diminished by polarization. Most Nike ads don't polarize the brand's audience; this one did. That's a mistake. And the failure here was Nike's inability to understand the nasty -- often polarizing -- nature of the web. Frankly, anyone who has ever read comments on YouTube would know that a fat kid running would spark an ugly conversation that a brand wouldn't want to be a part of.

BBH Labs

This one goes to an agency, not a brand. And for a lot of reasons, it's probably the worst thing we saw in digital advertising this year.

The idea was something called "Homeless Hot Spots." The plan was for BBH to make a name for itself in the mobile technology market by using real-life homeless people as mobile Wi-Fi hotspots.

The campaign did get BBH a lot of attention, but none of it was good. Wired slammed the idea as something "out of a darkly satirical science fiction dystopia," despite claims by BBH that it was really helping the homeless men who had signed up to be walking hotspots because it was, after all, a job.

While it's true that BBH did pay their homeless hotspots $20 per day (a whopping $2.50 an hour -- although they did get to keep their tips!), you don't have to be Karl Marx to catch the exploitation. It was a dark, sick, cynical, and stupid idea that never should have left the drawing board.

The digital divide presents a real challenge for this industry and for our society. Shedding light on the topic is a good thing. Exploiting it so that your company can get a slice of the growing mobile market is pathetic, and it makes everyone look bad.

Michael Estrin is a freelance writer.

On Twitter? Follow Estrin at @mestrin. Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.


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