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Sarah Fay, the chief executive of Aegis Media North America, is known for her smarts, a genuine warmth, and not incidentally, the fact that she's one of the most powerful women in advertising in North America, if not the world.

A 10-year veteran of Carat, Fay has steadily risen in the ranks until she ultimately achieved the top slot in 2007, when the company merged the digital and traditional media assets of Carat and Isobar into a single integrated operating unit.

We caught up with Sarah to ask about advertising in a recession, trends in media buying, and what's been surprising and inspiring her since she took up the reins at Aegis.

That we're in a deep recession is hardly news. What are you seeing in terms of how this is affecting media buying and selling?

I don't know what's happening in the market, as the numbers keep going up and down. Google just came out and with its best earnings numbers ever. [Search marketing consultancy and portfolio company] iProspect is going gangbusters. We're projecting 20 percent growth for them this year.

I have to be careful about being exact because the company is very careful about divulging actual rates. But it is a very soft market in general, with a lot of fluctuation. We're doing everything possible to take advantage of that by helping our clients to drive rates down. There's no actuall one direction that things are headed in in terms of media mix, but for our clients who are more the early adopters of digital, we're seeing a retrenchment to what's familiar.

Big consumer goods companies are just getting into the digital space, but their reliance medium is still television. Print is suffering the most. [CPG companies] are hanging onto TV, but at the same time, they're doing everything possible to drive down the cost.

For digital, it's kind of back to the real basics. This could mean banner ads, and paid search advertising is certainly maintaining or strengthening its position. A lot of CPG companies are still ramping up in search. It’s a small enough expenditure, and from a philosophical standpoint everyone else is jumping into it, so you have to be there too. We haven't seen a pullback in any of our digital agencies in terms of spending.

What about Web 2.0 and social media initiatives? Any pullback there?

We're fielding social RFPs. Some of the big marketers certainly see social media as important. But social media takes a lot of finesse and is not for the faint of heart. It's not about just dipping a toe in the water. You really have to commit to it if you want to do it right.

It's the same thing with mobile. We're getting some of the companies we handle in the direct marketing space wanting to enter mobile. They see the efficiencies, and it's a new medium to test and learn.

Do your clients still have experimental and discretionary budgets in this climate?

'Experimental' is not a really good word right now. 'Experimental' says 'spendable', and most of our clients are public companies. We're not implementing anything that isn't critical. For that reason, Google TV makes it onto a really, really high percentage of our buys. We've kind of woven it into the fabric of our agency. We know it works. We know it works every time.

Which is presumably not the case with Google Print, which was just closed down. Was that a service you were using?

Not as much. Most of the print contracts that we're doing are individual with the magazines. We're also not doing so much in terms of direct response in print.

During the years you headed Isobar (the digital marketing services network), you very aggressively added new companies into the portfolio. What's your position now on acquisitions?

I think that everybody's a little more conservative these days. We're not just looking for a good deal, we're looking for a very sound agency. Economic rockiness means let them get through the rocky period in good shape.  And of course, we usually acquire businesses on an earn-out basis. The owners have two or three years to get the maximum potential. I don't like to do a deal when everybody isn't set to make their money.

I think that even agencies that may have recently had themselves on the market are pulling back. All you're doing is taking on a problem if you acquire them in this climate. That said, we're still on the hunt. We're still looking at companies. We're still looking at the good strategic fits with the business. Right fit, right price, healthy growing business.

From your vantage point, what advice can you offer marketers and advertisers -- large or small -- on getting through tough times?

We actually did a white paper called Advertising Progression Through a Recession. The premise is you must take a long term view, which is particularly true of strong brands. If you have a strong brand now you're at an advantage, as people kind of revert to what they're comfortable with. Having the strongest share of voice or presence, or something dynamic, like a product announcement, can put you in a better position. When others are pulling back, it's a great opportunity to take advantage of the noise factor.

So how easy has it been to convince clients to keep spending in this environment?

Most of our clients are part of public companies, so they do have to be flexible on cost. The end game is to actually help them with cost and to help them into an optimal position in the market. The home run is to get them to create more impact with what they're doing. A big part of what we do is focus in on the consumer. Even in a down economy, there's a lot of consumer research you can do.

With media spend contracting, are you encouraging clients to create more brand and product related content?

Undeniably.  Not only is content a growing part of the marketing mix, but so are ways to collect data that's used to understand how the consumer is interacting with the brand, and how to continually engage with those consumers. In time, an email database becomes a nest egg, a launching pad for new product announcements and for getting core messages out.

But when I talk about email, I'm talking about CRM type of email, about the type of people who raise their hand and say they want to be communicated with. There's this whole flipped model of trying to create the biggest reach and trying to bring people in versus going to people who love you and giving them more to talk about. There's just more credibility that comes in from an exuberant message from a happy customer. In every single buying influencer study, the top reason why someone bought a product was a recommendation from a friend.  That's why Web 2.0 is so important. It brings the consumer in to support a brand or product.

You've been at Carat a long time, and have been running the show for about a year and a half now. What surprised you most about the role? What's been unexpected?

I think that I didn't have a view to all of the assets of the network. Before you're given charge of everything, many things are in your peripheral vision. You're given the opportunity to work with the agencies, but not like when you're in charge of them. I was astounded by the opportunities to do more of that. The whole reason to be a network is the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. I really came into this with an understanding that I was overseeing the various parts and pieces. I see my charter as bringing those parts and pieces together. Clients don't want to be the integrator of lots of agencies, they want a holistic approach. That was our opportunity, but it was relatively untapped.

It's still a very exciting time to be in the industry. All the emerging media we said was coming, such as iTV back in 1999, is finally here.  Even from an end user perspective -- back then,  we didn't have an OK button on the remote. David Verklin [Fay's mentor and predecessor as Carat NA CEO] is doing the Canoe project. We've got a technology-oriented government in Washington. It's been a lot slower than anyone expected, but it is all happening now.

One reason is accountability. Once you do accountability in marketing, it rarely goes away. We're still in the wild west phase, but meanwhile the people who were trained in traditional media are starting to get comfortable in digital. People don't really see barriers, what's their territory versus another territory.

The inauguration of Barack Obama also gave us a feeling of hope, and lifted people across the industry. I think this guy can do something for us. Plus, he's got his own CRM campaign! His campaign was a demonstration of great marketing.

Rebecca Lieb

Published 27 January, 2009 by Rebecca Lieb

Rebecca Lieb oversees Econsultancy's North American operations.

Follow me on Twitter, or connect with me on Facebook.

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