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The art of the brand relationship

The art of the brand relationship Brad Berens

Brad Berens: I have the great pleasure of sitting here and chatting with Sean Finnegan who, in addition to being the CEO of OMG Digital, is our keynote speaker for this month's iMedia Brand Summit. Sean, good morning.

Sean Finnegan: Good morning.

Berens: I'll get to the topic of your keynote shortly, but I wanted to open by contextualizing what it is that you do, and your new job compared to your old job. OMG Digital has been called one of the biggest, if not the biggest, media buyers for digital media in the world. Clearly, you are a guy whose decisions count. And, you are relatively new to this position. So, I was hoping you could let the iMedia readers know how your new job is different from your old job, which was United States Director, I think. 

Finnegan: My previous position was U.S. Director of OMD Digital: a unit in North America. I had a variety of responsibilities within OMD, principally managing the digital service, but then simultaneously managing our web marketing needs and clients, as well as working on the integration of digital into the greater OMD offering. And at the same time we were doing that, there was also a focus on deeper strategic partnerships and acquisitions, and a global coordination between all of our assets. 

And, in this great space, that led to an opportunity to pull together all our key digital media assets on a worldwide level. This was the brainchild of Omnicom senior management and I was appointed to help lead all of our digital media investments across the holding company, and then help to better make sense of that global volume into some key systems, all to the benefit of our clients.

Another charge is to elevate the conversation and the capability of other areas' crucial and critical functions, such as OMG NEXT (our futures unit), Ad Operations, Metrics and Analytics, and a few more that will soon emerge.

Berens: That's an exciting answer. It sounds to me like you are saying, "If it has ones and zeroes, and it is digital, at some point it goes through you and your team."

Finnegan: Our focus and our deliverables are on being an incremental resource and support to everything that is occurring. What OMG Digital is not is the culmination of every digital asset in the company. We are a strategic shared services function.

Our philosophy, if you will, is -- while making sense of everything on a global scale -- to translate it back to the local agencies for their own interpretation and competitive advantage.

Berens: I understand. You are a worldwide facilitator, rather than a dictator.

Finnegan: Right. And, I think if you know me, I am a better facilitator than a dictator.

Berens: Let's talk about integration, which is one of the words that I pulled out of your answer to the last question. At iMedia, as you know as a longtime iMedia Summit attendee and friend, we have the mission to advance the cause of interactive within all of marketing.

Over the last two or three years, I have been seeing the conversation shift from "when is digital going to get a seat at the big kid's table?" to something more robust, like, "how do we go about integrating digital? How do we keep all of the people at the table talking with each other in a productive fashion?"

Finnegan: Right.

Berens: So, my question is, to you: do you share that feeling? And, how would you characterize the maturation of digital advertising over the last two or three years?

Finnegan: It has been great. It has been interesting. And, the conversation has changed dramatically before our eyes: expanding from vertical web marketing initiatives to a time when the philosophy that digital is everything is starting to take root.

The growth of our industry is not necessarily hinged upon one more percentage point on allocations, or the latest technology, or application, or widget to convince a client to have a better program, although those things are all obviously important. 

But the growth of digital -- "digital" being defined as a macro term, and not just one vehicle -- is dependent upon its integration and the spreading of the intelligence we get from digital through every aspect of our organization. 

Let's take OMD Digital, for example, where there are nearly three hundred people, with five different units supporting it. But, truly, the growth of digital within OMD is going to be about the fact that the audio and the video, the television and radio buyers, all begin to evaluate and purchase and strategize on the digital aspects of their components, such as interactive television, podcasting, streaming, et cetera. 

It is also about opening channels for strategic planners to be able to have insight and oversight of any and all media touch points: not stopping at traditional and digital not stopping at the web.

Digital impacts everything, from metrics, to research, to how we bill. It is truly a philosophy that is pervading every aspect of our business. And, I think you have seen that evidenced by some of the key personnel moves in our industry, where some digital people have been taking the opportunity to elevate from web marketing and into more of a macro digital role.

Berens: And, who would you be thinking of? I am of course thinking of Sarah Fay over at Carat, and….

Finnegan: Yes, certainly Sarah and, there are some key leaders that have been brought up, even at the holding company level: Bant Breen from IPG, Mark Read at WPP, the movements at Publicis. These are all great people and interesting migrations. 

Our focus is on our clients and new ways to bring value to our clients: through the many different technical and digital services that are out there, the different dynamics that are occurring within our space, whether through acquisitions, strategic investments, et cetera. That is our principal purpose.

Berens: I think that you are also very modest not to include yourself in that list of luminaries, because you coming to your new gig is one of the biggest things to happen to digital in a long time. Let's tease out one other thing. You said, "Digital not stopping at online." And, when I hear that, I think what you mean is digital moving beyond the laptop, beyond the desktop, to things like mobile, to the closing of what I call "the last 10 feet" between the television and the computer.  Is that what you mean?

Finnegan: I do mean those things, and those are things we have oversight on today. However, I also look at this as a hierarchy and timeline where you have the digital planner and the traditional media planner moving closer to one another as digital becomes the common platform.

As the general strategist begins to understand and derive implications from interactive television, based off of his television knowledge, we are moving toward the digital strategists migrating toward interactive television from the knowledge of our executions on broadband.

So, you are starting to see everything intermingle and mix. Integration, interestingly, is going to be empowered and executed through the power of people, and not necessarily technology. This is an irony, because the way that we can get to more efficiency and more of a digital expertise is through people, and not necessarily through systems. So, it takes people with big ideas, and open minds, and creative collaboration, and excitement about change than anything.

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Interactive advertising as a relationship business

Berens: I think it is also fair to say that as any industry matures it becomes a relationship business. And, now we have a real relationship business where, the value of who you know, and how well you work with people, is more important than it was five years ago.

Finnegan: Yes, that has always been one of my lynchpins. And, if there is anything that I am proud of it is the relationships that I keep, and that I am able to develop and maintain. I learned that from an early age, growing up on the south side of Chicago, that no matter what the predicament, or even positive experience, relationships were the core of everything.

Berens: We are going to get back to relationships, because that is the theme of your keynote. But, I do want to jump on that Chicago reference for a moment, because you grew up in Chicago. When I met you, you were living in Chicago with your wife and your children.

Finnegan: Right. 

Berens: And then, I heard that you had moved to Connecticut, I believe, and are working out of the New York office. So, what is it like to transplant from the windy city -- as an adult -- to the Big Apple? How has that been for you and for your family?

Finnegan: I actually started my career here on the East Coast. When I graduated college, I started at BBDO back in 1994; so, I was here through 2001.

I was able to spend five years in Chicago, from 2001 to 2006. Back then, when I was given the U.S. Director role, I was heavily encouraged to come to the worldwide headquarters here in New York City.  But, we had a wonderful time in Chicago. It was certainly nice to be closer to our family; and, being Irish, as we are, there are not just a few of them out there. And, there are not a few of us either. Melody and I have six children. We are enjoying Connecticut, and it is a nice combination of living in the country, and then I get to work in the jungle of the city everyday, so it is a nice balance.

Berens: I am still just so daunted by the number of children that you have. I have two, and I am overwhelmed, so, I stand in awe of you and your wife, Melody. 

Let me ask you, though, to expand on what we were talking about a moment ago. We were talking about how, working within the industry, relationships are key; particularly as the industry matures. And, that is a wonderful segue because the title of your Summit keynote presentation is "The Art of a Relationship." There, we are taking this relationship theme and expanding it out to how brands are going to have relationships with their customers. And so, I would love to know what you are chatting about.

Finnegan: I am thankful to do this keynote, and quite honored to be asked. It really does have a deep connection to my learnings on relationships growing up, and the people that I surround myself with, or do not surround myself with. The power of a connection, and the power of the manner in which you relate to somebody, is now the currency of success in anything you do. It is extremely interesting.

Technology is arguably allowing us as humans to understand a little bit more than we probably want to know or should know about one another. But, it is also expanding the dialogue, and being able to get down to a micro level about people's interests and behaviors. 

I personally do not derive a lot of benefit through case studies in marketing, or any sort of media theory. I certainly scan all of these things. But, a lot of the strategy, and a lot of the success that our brands have in connecting with their customers, and anything that I may contribute, come more from human relationships than it does any sort of business direction. 

For example, I read many books and articles in three principal areas: history, science and religion, finding anecdotes, analogies, allegories, and the like that show how much has been the same through the ages, particularly in terms of personal nature and convictions.  But, at the same time, and with the power of digital, things are changing. 

The art of a brand relationship is much like the one you and I could have as friends: it is the same dynamic that should be translated by brands. And, right now it has to be. You, as a brand, cannot get away with a one-way dialogue. 

Not only that, but when you do engage with someone, you cannot continue to speak to them in a manner that says the same thing at an eight times rate. 

As technology allows us to get down to the household level and creatively and dynamically deliver ad assets based on the behaviors exhibited by different people within a household, marketers must possess the assets to have that conversation. Logistically and structurally, with an agency's help, they must be able to deliver on the content.

Berens: There is a term for somebody who every time they see you says exactly the same thing to you that they said the first time. And, the term is autism. This is what you were just describing: the banner ad, or the email that says the same thing each time is like autism. 

If you, like me, have had experience working with people who suffer from autism spectrum disorder, one key element is an inability to change the message based on nuance, based on the situation, based on context. And so, what you are describing as the thing that you are working to conquer we might call "brand autism."

Finnegan: That is an interesting way to put it. Through technology, we now have the vehicles and the abilities to capitalize on our brand relationships. Moreover, it is glaringly apparent to the user whether you are willing to engage with them and evolve the conversation, versus just continuing to repeat yourself. 

We all have people in our lives, and you know that the conversation with them is one-way. They just talk and are not necessarily good listeners. And, to frustrate the conversation, they continue to repeat themselves and tell you the same story they just told you yesterday. As marketers, we need to move on from this. We need to be genuine. We need to anticipate needs. We need to be relevant, and like-minded. And, we need to make sure that we are not conveying any sort of sense that we are using people; and, to do that we need to know a name and a face. 

I should point out that this is all within the construct of personally identifiable information. I am a gigantic believer that you should never engage in a dialogue with anyone unless there is mutual consent, and even the perception and knowledge of mutual consent, as we have all triple opted into things and later forgotten that we did.

Lastly, I like to use a social analogy: you and I are friends, sitting and having a conversation. Then somebody comes over to talk to us. Certainly, we will be civil; but, at the same time, we do not want him to interrupt our conversation. And frankly, if we want to involve him in the conversation, we would probably prefer that he has something interesting to add to the conversation. That is where we need to be in our marketing campaigns.

Berens: I think that is certainly a great way of conceptualizing things, because the last thing people want is anything that is going to interrupt what they are trying to do, particularly in the part of the internet that is still very much a lean forward utility where interruptive advertising, like pop-ups, and that sort of thing can become very disheartening for the user, and therefore bad for the brand. 

You were saying that you do not necessarily read and get a lot out of case studies; and yet, I hope that you are going to be, in your keynote, presenting a couple of them, because Omnicom has had some pretty big successes in relationship marketing. I am thinking of the Doritos campaign. Can you give us a sneak peek at the different examples of what you might be talking about?

Finnegan: I certainly will talk about Doritos and the evolution of where we have come since "Crash the Super Bowl" and its impact. There is another case study in State Farm and a MySpace execution: it is an unbelievably powerful example of tactical integration within one of the most powerful social network sites out there. But it happens in a manner that engages and converses with relevant customers and friends in a manner that derives mutual benefit, and then also extends -- and hopefully continues to extend -- the conversation down the line. 

I will be showing some of those integratable assets and some of the success metrics on that. And then, what our plan is to be able to capitalize on that to make sure that we just do not let one big hit fall flat, and that it continues to be one element and aspect of the conversation.

Berens: And the relationship that evolves over the course of time.

Finnegan: Exactly.

What keeps Sean Finnegan up at night?

Berens: You mentioned your bookshelf, and you mentioned history, religion and science. I am currently in the middle -- as I usually am -- of about seven books. But, two spring to mind that might interest you. One is a book called "A Perfect Mess" by Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freedman, which is about the unacknowledged value of clutter in our lives, and countering Americans' obsessiveness with being tidy. 

The other (which is a truly fascinating book) is Daniel Goleman's book, "Social Intelligence," which is a follow-up to "Emotional Intelligence" from 10 years ago.  It is a remarkable book and I am thinking of asking Goleman to come and chat with our iMedia audience at some point. What is on your shelf? What are you excited about? What have you really enjoyed lately?

Finnegan: I love biographies and autobiographies. One of the books I am reading right now is called "Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage," by Alfred Lansing. Shackleton was Irish-born, so there might be a little bit of a connection there, and he set out on a series of expeditions that met with unbelievable challenges. The book is about his need to rise to the call of leadership, to motivate a team of men not to give up and to persevere through ungodly conditions. 

Omnicom has a training program called Omnicom University that is taught by Harvard business school professors for senior managers. And the next book on deck, recommended by the University professors, is "The Power of Now" by Eckhart Tolle. It's about focusing, being "in the now" and taking every interaction, every instance of what you are currently involved with and just going deep on it, even at the expense of other matters.

In this age of a headline world where there are 62 ways to read the same piece of news, or translate information, or communicate to the variety of subsets of people in your life, I think it is pretty hard to focus. When you finally do sit down and stare into someone's eyes and get the true meaning and content of what they are delivering, it has real value, and it is probably a lost art that needs to be revived.

Berens: The currency of that kind of attention -- that total attention -- is becoming increasingly precious in an age of multi-tasking, or more characteristically, I think, an age of what Linda Stone calls "continuous partial attention," where it is hard to focus on one particular thing. A lot of people think that by doing many things at once they are somehow getting more done, although, there are some new studies that are suggesting that it does not actually work that way. I am certainly going to go look up "The Power of Now," and I will make sure that we link to it somewhere in this interview. 

Let's wrap up with the pessimist and optimist questions. What keeps you up at night? There is so much changing; so much going on. What is it that you worry about?

Finnegan: One thing is the speed in which we need to have everybody in our global network operating on a digital level. We have -- all of us, in our agencies -- people who go home, have a DVR, have an MP3 player, have a gaming console, certainly are texting, and are living the digital life. And, what we need to do is continue to translate that intuition, and that interest, into their day-to-day tactical responsibilities. We have now enacted a series of planning and executional programs to enable that. 

What keeps me up at night? We have started to break down the walls, but how do we continue to break them down? How do we involve everybody? Clients included, of course. There is truly an opportunity and a need for the people with any sort of digital experience, or intuition, to involve all parties into their respective responsibilities. The days of "you do this and I do that" are thankfully waning. And, this is all coming from a structure and philosophy we need to have in order to best service our clients who are clamoring for more of a dialogue with a very fickle and fragmented customer.

Berens: It does sound like you are counting ceiling cracks from time to time, worried about that one. On the other hand, I still think that it is always worth saying (and, I say it frequently when I have a captive audience) that the internet is the best thing to happen to the human species since electricity. It has changed how people communicate -- democratized communication and media -- in phenomenal ways that are only growing more profound. It is an extraordinarily exciting time to be alive, and to be working in media. 

And so, let's end on a happy note! What is it that excites you when you look at it and think, "Boy, two more years and that is really going to happen!"

Finnegan: Right now, I am excited about the power of metrics and analytics. Historically, this is something in our industry that has been an isolated mystery, executed by a few people who were never really allowed to spread their wings into the greater operation. When you can sit down and architect and guide billions of impressions into concise analytics, and then to be able to extrapolate and translate, and make use of behaviors and start to get a sense of what is truly going on -- even the freakonomics of a particular situation -- that is truly cool and interesting. 

And it all leads towards an ensuing accountability that we are going to continue to have to abide by and embrace and appreciate across media. In the future, clients will be requesting the same level of insight and accountability into traditional media as they do in digital, today.

Berens: That is a great place to end. Sean, thank you so much for joining me today.

Finnegan: Thanks, Brad.

Brad Berens is the editor in chief and chief content officer for iMedia Communications. Read full bio.

A trusted advisor to companies of all sizes and a respected voice within the interactive media industry, Dr. Brad Berens has enjoyed a wide-ranging career that features storytelling as an organizing theme. These days, he divides his time among...

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