Jaffe Juice: Interview with Robin Kent

In April 2002, Robin Kent was named chairman and CEO of Universal McCann, the media arm of McCann-Erickson Worldwide. Kent joined Universal McCann in 1996 and was appointed EVP, Regional Director for Europe, Middle East and Africa in January 1997. In addition to his Global Chairman role, Kent acts as Regional Director of UM North America, focusing on elevating the quality of client servicing and new business development in the United States. During his time with UM, Kent has overseen significant investments in strategic tools, including Media In Mind™, a worldwide study that uncovers and correlates media habits and consumer behavior. Kent was named one of AdAge Global's "Top 100 Marketers" (AdAge Global, July 2002) in recognition of his "fresh thinking and initiatives."

In this first of a two-parter, Joseph chats with Kent about media neutrality and Universal McCann's Communications Planning approach, and how they relate to divvying up the media budget. He also talks about creativity and research, which might sound strange in the context of a media agency, but then again, this is a Jaffe Juice.

Jaffe: Can you give a preview to your Keynote at the iMedia Brand Summit in Tamaya, NM – The Perfect Storm: When Digital Marketing Reaches the Tipping Point?

Kent: There are a number of factors within the interactive and traditional marketplaces that are happening at the same time and in aggregate that I think are going to push this industry over the edge – an increase in broadband penetration; youth using the Internet as much, if not more than traditional media; double digit CPM increases in the recent Upfront. Those three things alone will move us to a place where it's going to put us over the edge in terms of digital hitting Prime Time.

Jaffe: I'm certainly aware of many agencies that are scrambling to incorporate a digital offering in the face of clients demanding some kind of digital solution. It's becoming a sort of ante up right now. So with that said who's leading the charge within the organization right now? Is it the sole push of the interactive department, is it the clients or is it part of the company's culture across the board?

Kent: There's a bunch of everything there. For us it's a cultural thing. We don't believe in the silo mentality. We recently changed the structure internally to echo away from that. When I first got to America, everything here was in silos – the TV people didn't talk to the planners etc. We've broken all those barriers down – we got everybody together in a room, formed a management committee and started working together. David (Cohen) is the expert in interactive, but every single one of us has a view and opinion of where it's heading.

Some clients want to experiment but a whole vast array of clients aren't there yet. Those in the Interactive group are the impassioned evangelists/educators, but interactive responsibility permeates throughout the entire organization and that wasn't always the case as recent as five years ago.

I don't think there's a plan that leaves a planner's desk these days that doesn't have an interactive component to it. We had clients that said, "Our plans all look the same" – all TV and magazines. We've made great strides to be able to plan PR, events, promotions, the Internet, together and have the research to back it all up – and we're doing it with really big clients, with case histories to match.

Jaffe: The industry harps on about the disconnect or chasm between media consumption and spend and how this gap has to be bridged. What are your thoughts about this approach?

Kent: I'm not sure how you can do that. We have clients who spent over $500MM. Ten percent of that could pretty much buy the Internet. So it doesn't hold water. And then you have other clients who spend 20% of $2-3MM. We focus on the best mix of communications channels to achieve our clients' objectives – and in some cases it's a small amount, while in others it's huge.

We base this on understanding the consumer insights into why and how they use the various media and this becomes the foundation in terms of how media is incorporated.

Jaffe: I think you'll agree with me that there hasn't been a better time to be working in the media business than right now. Anyone with half a brain can probably take a leadership position in terms of breaking through the clutter of agency mediocrity. Can you talk about some of the steps you've taken, are taking, or will be taking, to leverage this evolving landscape?

Kent: It comes back to, "What is our position?" And we believe today that our position is to be the architects of the whole communication process. And we genuinely believe that nobody else – and I don't mean other competitors, I mean within McCann WorldGroup – there's nobody else in the system that can take that lead role.

The reason is that we start off by being media neutral. If you give a brief to a PR company, they'll give you back a PR response. Give a brief to an event company, they'll give you an event response, etc. And give a brief to an ad agency, by and large, they'll give you a 30-second solution – slightly tongue-in-cheek, but you know what I mean.

Whereas our role, with being media neutral, we basically say: "What are we trying to achieve? How best can we reach the consumer? What are the best channels to reach the consumer?" And then we go ahead, lay it out and make it happen.

That is kind of a no-brainer for you and me, but going back two to three years, the first barrier that came up was with respect to whom should be leading this process. But who other than media people – and probably media planners – understand the relationship between consumer and the channels?

So we kind of started from that position. Next, we brought in account planners – not media planners, but traditional account planners – to put us in a place where we can be creating what BMP created in the UK in the ‘70s – they gave birth to strategic planning. I think we can give birth to communication planning.

What we had was a load of people who understand the consumer and the channels. What we now have are people who understand the relationship between the brand and the consumer.

Another area is the relationship between the consumer and the culture within which they live. And one of the things that defines culture very strongly is the media that you consume. And then it's how the brand fits within that. That contextualizes everything we do.

Jaffe: Media neutrality sounds good in theory. In practice, it's obviously a lot harder to implement, based on the fact that there's a huge kind of political minefield to have to cross. Any comments in terms of how you've been able to sell this through?

Kent: We found a way through that, and the way is first of all getting over this "whose job is it?" That was the first hurdle. But the beauty of McCann WorldGroup is that within the group, we've been ordained to lead this new area. And it makes sense to everybody, apart from those who do live in their own little silos, as we have the people who have the knowledge to do it and the ability to.

What we then had to do was broaden our scope. Hence the introduction of traditional account planners. We also brought in a digital expert who happens to be an ex-creative director – there was a great piece in the New York Times when we hired him that said, "Universal McCann hires creative director," which went down well as you can imagine, with the creatives in this building.

But the point being is that with his creative background, he understands the creative possibilities of the new digital medium. He's able to explain that to clients and create it, and help educate – especially creatives – to think beyond the 30-second TV commercial.

And starting this month we're bringing in an account person who'll be switching from McCann to come and work at Universal McCann. So you could argue actually, that with creative, account planning and account management …

Jaffe: …you're beginning to look a lot like a full service agency!

Kent: Isn't that spooky?

Jaffe: What's old is new again.

Kent: You can put two creative guys in a room and get them to come up with an ad campaign, but you can't put two communication experts in a room without any resources, or backup, or knowledge – and expect them to come up with a really robust communications program that's going to work.

Also, in order to convince clients with large budgets to change chunks of that budget in different directions, or to change the message even if it's not changing the communications vehicle, you need to have hard facts. You need to be able to back it up.

In this regard, barriers to entry in terms of doing what we're trying to build are actually massive. Because it's not just about the skill set, the time, and the energy, but there's a huge capital investment in terms of pulling that together – as well as the research that can back-up everything you do.

One example of that is we spend $1MM a year in the States alone on a research methodology called Media in Mind, which also exists in 55 markets around the world. The sample size here in the states is about 5,000, which is as big as Nielsen. It's a seven-day diary, a 2,000-plus questionnaire, and it basically helps us understand how the consumer consumes media and all the other channels.

And because we build on it each year, we have to keep reinvesting in it. In fact, in the most recent wave launched in June of this year, we've actually for the first time built in questions related to product placement, sponsorship, events, PR, direct. So we can now look at the consumer's consumption of all of those and start to have some support data and evidence behind smart people. Because smart people come up with great strategies, but if you can give them the tools to help them think better, they're going to come up with stuff that's going to fly.

So with the investment in research, the people and structure we've put in place, we've got a communications company built for the 21st century.

Jaffe: I spend quite a bit of time in my writing leveraging some of the lessons learned from interactive and how they relate or what their implications are to broader advertising. Last week, I wrote about reality advertising and the fact that advertising is the most unreal – and if you think about it, it's so ironic. And maybe that's what's happened with creative, is we've gone to depicting things that are so unreal, and consumers are so smart now that they're saying, "What the hell are you trying to convince me to do?" What do you think about this idea? Is advertising per se going to become more "realistic"; more useful; more informative – taking a leaf out of Interactive's book – or, are we going to continue to see that struggle between art and science, so to speak.

Kent: Creativity always tends to follow what's happening in the world, doesn't it? Because that's what it borrows from. Well we are getting reality-type commercials. What's the one for Reebok?

Jaffe: Terry Tate. To give another example, the Coke stuff that you guys did, where you actually served a purpose – advertising as a service provider, where you actually kind of became embedded or part of someone's personal experience, in terms of coloring their home page with relevance and meaning, to the point where, consumers were saying, "Can I keep this?" That was advertising that actually provides value and is a utility, which I think is very real as opposed to unreal.

I love asking media people questions about creativity, and actually seeing that you guys are a lot more articulate than a lot of the traditional people.

One of the things I did when I started at TBWA\Chiat\Day was that I started writing creative briefs because I realized that in the void vacated by the dot-com boom and bust, there was no strategy; no thinking; nothing that grounded Interactive with a foundation; and nothing that centered it around the most important part of the process – the consumer. And of course, the first thing in any brief was to answer the all-important question, "What is the role for advertising?" If you don't know that, you know nothing.

Kent: It's about orchestration, and I think as you say, people are used to looking at the way TV works, and how TV works with magazines, with radio, and so on. So adding the other elements to that, whether it is Interactive, events, or promotions is part of that orchestration.

Traditional advertising people are more focused on looking at just one answer to one specific problem, rather than looking at how it translates across everything.

Jaffe: My old boss used to rap me across the knuckles every time I said the word advertising. "Advertising is a swear word," he would say. "Instead use the term, communications."

Kent: It's a shame that media is one of these words that's been completely spoiled, because the definition of a medium is something through which something can travel. And that's fine. That's perfect. That is exactly what we do, is we plan media. But the problem is, you say that, and people think you're talking about TV and magazines. Media's a word that's been ruined.

Be sure to see the conclusion to the Robin Kent interview next week when Joseph and Robin discuss the unbundling of media, media and creative, compensation, and big ideas, with even a challenge to the interactive industry thrown in to boot.

 

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