Friday, April 8, 2011

9 Questions for Allen Stern – MD, Signal to Noise

1. For those that don’t know you, can you tell us a little bit about your background and what you do?
I am the Media Director at Signal to Noise. We are an integrated agency with deep roots in digital. I’m responsible for leading the media team as we invest our client’s media budgets to hit their objectives. Right now, we're working very closely with eBay and NikeStore on their digital initiatives.

2. Sellers consider you, to quote one, “a tough cookie.” What does a company have to do to impress you?
My kids may read this someday, so thank you for paraphrasing what was probably a saltier comment. I’m only “tough” on two occasions. First, when a company cannot clearly define what it is that makes them different? If it is a technology play, then they need to be able to articulate how the technology will work and why it’s a benefit to our clients. If it’s a similar product to what is out there already, that’s fine. Is there a pricing advantage? Is there an inventory advantage? Is it the service? There has to be at least one thing you stand for. What is it that makes your company different?

The second reason I get “tough” is when a company fabricates a detail. I have no tolerance for that. If you don’t know, be honest about it. We can wait for you to get back to us. But if you put something in front of me that does not sound right, and I can check it, I will call you on it. The problem is agencies are under immense pressure and we do not get as much time as we would like to review all the new opportunities out there. So I feel that if I’ve allocated some of that scarce time to a company, they should be respectful. They should come prepared and they should be honest. You kind of get one shot, and if you are not honest, I cannot work with you.

Because so many of the pitches we hear now are technology based; I think it is incumbent on vendors to train their sales people to speak from both a strategic and a technology perspective. I recognize that is a challenge, but we need to understand the product on both of those levels.

3. You started in offline. How do you think that has helped shape your perspective on the industry?
This is my 20th year in media. I was fortunate that I got to spend ten of those years at Y&R & OMD working mostly on Consumer Packaged Goods. Those are great clients to begin a media career because you learn the nuts and bolts of media planning. It was there that it dawned on me that I was not just creating a media plan, but I was selling a media plan. That allowed me to put myself in the client’s shoes and think through what proof points are going to be needed to get this approved. How well does it cover on the objectives of the plan: target; geography; schedule; reach versus frequency? I thought about every plan as if it was my money and was trained to put a critical eye on that plan.

That experience has carried over into my perspective on this industry. The emergence of new formats has been amazing. But at the end of the day I look at them all and try to boil them down to see if they hit the client’s objectives. We are open to new ideas, but being new is not enough. They have to make strategic sense.

4. Do you think consumers have different expectations about ad intrusiveness now than they did before digital? Has the advertising “social compact” between advertisers and consumers changed?
Before digital, consumer annoyance was about too much advertising. There were too many ads crammed into television and radio ad pods. Magazines were “all ads” and cities looked awful from all the bad out-of-home advertising. We learned, though, that as consumers, we were willing to trade advertising for content – just take it easy on us.

In the early days of digital – only eight-to-ten years ago – we ran a lot more intrusive digital ads than we do now. We ran pop-overs. We ran pop-unders. We had monkeys. We had an overlay of a car driving across your favorite homepage every other day. Those tactics clearly did not help this industry and we all carry a lot of baggage around for that period. But consumers were vocal and publishers responded by setting limits on that intrusiveness.

I think consumers are still willing to make that tradeoff. However now, with digital, and specifically retargeting, consumers are reminded that they have given up some level of privacy when they visit a site and then see banners for that same site on every page refresh for the next few days. The technology has become so efficient that we really need to police ourselves with frequency controls or we will wear out our welcome again.

Personally, it feels much creepier to me when I receive 20 solicitations with my exact mortgage amount in my mailbox at home.

5. As you look out on the world of emerging platforms, what is most intriguing to you?
I bought my wife an iPad for her birthday last September. When I watched her and the kids use it, I knew it was a real game changer. Since that time, it has really become an amazing resource around our house. The combination of a tablet with an application like Flipboard is really a window into where consumers could live in the near future. Media planners have to pay attention to where consumers are spending their time. We’re living in a time where there is tremendous convergence between creativity, technology and media. I think it’s a fantastic challenge to get our brands’ messages integrated into these platforms and technologies, not annoy consumers and continue to meet our clients’ objectives.

6. How are you responding to the challenge of consumer privacy that is facing the industry?
Consumer Privacy is an area of great concern for all of us. We are fortunate that our clients have embraced this as well and are taking the right steps to be as compliant with best practices. So in addition to encouraging our clients to make sure their privacy policies are up to date, we are actively getting them on board with one of the certified Ad Choice programs. We can’t wait around on this one.

7. In the years since you started in the business, what have we gained, and what have we lost as an industry?
I think that as the industry has become more fragmented we have lost a lot of the personal relationships that helped get business done. It’s really hard to get to know everybody that you have to at a level that really develops trust. This business was built on relationships between vendors and agencies and that is much harder now.
We have gained an amazing level of accountability since I started. That includes traditional as well as digital. Classic traditional media brand advertisers are evaluating their broadcast and print investments for some level of return against an objective and making more informed decisions. For digital media we always had that approach and it actually ended up hurting us to some extent. We are just now rebounding from the big hole the industry dug by focusing on click through rates. I’m glad that calmer heads can now see the amazing value beyond the click.

8. Which are better, Dunkin’ Donuts or Krispy Kremes? Why?
I am a friend to all baked goods. But forced to make a decision, I have to go Dunkin’. I guess I’m kind of old school and besides, Krispy Kremes are just a little too sweet to eat that second one.

9. How about a sentence of sage wisdom to close this out?
I have no particular sage wisdom, but I’m a big fan of borrowing. One client gave us these directions; “Make better mistakes.” It embraces a mentality of always trying to improve. Yet at the same time it gives license to explore possibilities. Of course that comes with a price. We need to vet the opportunities thoroughly as well as be prepared to make quick decisions on success. I guess that helps rationalize the perception of being a “tough cookie.”

Or sage is an herb that should be used sparingly.

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