Media: Double Standards - 'Skills can be learned, so skills are not enough'

All Response Media's Andy Sloan and the Mike Colling & Company founder discuss the issues and trends within direct response advertising.

ANDY SLOAN - chief executive, All Response Media

- How has economic pressure on your clients impacted demand for your services?

Sub-prime lending was a very big driver of direct response advertising in the early noughties. At the end of 2006, that bubble burst and so our recession started in 2007, long before the phrase "sub-prime" entered the common vernacular. That excepted, the demand for flexible, accountable media planning and buying services has increased in the tougher economic climate. Overall, I would say that we have had a "good" recession.

- In what direction have you taken your business in the past year - what are you doing more and less of?

Ever since we launched in 1995, initially under the name All Response Media Interactive, our business direction has been changing to reflect an evolving consumer interaction. Over the past 12 months, the move to digital has accelerated significantly.

Ironically, however, not least because of the removal of Google agency commission and best practice funding, what is termed digital media has not been the primary driver of this growth. Search marketing is a zero-sum game in that it is predicated on competing for "share of search".

What we are doing more of is growing the search cake primarily through offline media and ensuring that our clients capture an increasing share of that larger cake. This manifests itself in greater spend on TV advertising, massive increases in TV sponsorship, more radio and outdoor advertising, and an exponential increase in data analytics.

- How important is it to have specialist skills when offering response media?

Very important, but a skill can be learned, often very quickly - so skills in themselves are not enough. The effective application of those skills depends on something a lot less tangible, often described as "culture". All Response Media planners and buyers are working in the same media as their "brand" brethren, but they are usually approaching client problems from a different starting point, which leads to different solutions and practices. Unsurprisingly, the most talented people in our discipline demand to control and influence the whole of communications planning and implementation, and are left unfulfilled if they are just handed what is often seen by their above-the-line colleagues as the "shitty" bits to do.

- One of you runs an independent agency, the other is part of a holding company. How does this affect your services and culture?

All Response Media has several equity holders (43 per cent is held by the management team), but a much wider stakeholder set, which includes the people and clients. Fortunately, the long-term objectives of those stakeholders are pretty much aligned and are the same as those of an independent agency. It is no accident that we remain strong as a separate brand in the UK.

- What is the greatest challenge you face in the year ahead?

Keeping and developing talent (we always seem to be a happy hunting ground when a big agency decides it must "try to do direct properly this time") and overcoming the myth that advertisers secure the best media rates at large buying points. Consolidation eventually leads to the emergence of challenger brands. Like our clients, we will continue to challenge even harder.

MIKE COLLING - founder, Mike Colling & Company

- How has economic pressure on your clients impacted demand for your services?

We have seen significantly increased demand. Our core proposition is the creation of new growth for clients, and that is highly prized right now. Where we can clearly demonstrate that we can deliver on this, clients are investing. Business modelling is a real topic at the moment. Clients are looking to interrogate what the cashflow and ROI impacts are of making a media or marketing investment. They want to know how it will impact this year's numbers and pay back in the long run. Equally, long-term retention of existing customers is top of agendas. Clients are focusing on creating truly sustainable value, rather than just buying short-term volume business. It has always been an essential part of our offering, but clients are more interested in our business modelling services this year.

- In what direction have you taken your business in the past year - what are you doing more and less of?

We have seen four key trends emerge, and each has a strategic impact on our business. 1) More segmented campaigns, with messaging and communications strategies matching the needs of a coherent group and fewer campaigns addressing the whole of a client's audience. 2) New business models for trading with media owners. There has probably been a greater shift in the past nine months than in my 20 years in the industry. 3) Many more campaigns using multiple response channels as they show real incremental value for clients, but lots of work on multiple customer journeys and systems to support them. 4) A greater emphasis on integrated results modelling, which allows us to determine the true value of a media channel. The numbers behind "it's not all down to search".

- How important is it to have specialist skills when offering response media?

It is an essential prerequisite.

- One of you runs an independent agency, the other is part of a holding company. How does this affect your services and culture?

Our raison d'etre is our people and our clients, not our margins. So we have been able to invest in hiring, training and in remuneration over the past 12 months.

My peer group at network agencies have not had the same privileges. We measure success and reward it openly. As a result, our service and ability to innovate have never been better. That brings us back to the first question of growth.

- What is the greatest challenge you face in the year ahead?

Continuing to create sustainable growth for our clients. I think the world is going to get worse before it gets better, in the medium term, and that will bring fresh challenges. The greatest of these will be balancing the need to innovate to create growth with the natural instincts of many people to focus on safe delivery of the numbers. We think of it in terms of maximising the risk of success.

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