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Wenda Harris Millard is an icon in digital advertising and media. As co-chairman of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, and before that chief sales officer at Yahoo, not to mention chair of the IAB, she's long been as out there as she has been outspoken - a passionate advocate for the industry.
In April of 2009, Millard became president of advisory firm MediaLink. Her role is less public, but no less hard-hitting, overseeing a potfolio of Fortune 50 clients such as Microsoft, AT&T, Unilever, Home Depot, Disney, Viacom, Fox Television, Comcast, Bain, GM, Sony, GE, NBC, GlaxoSmithKline and CBS.
We caught up with her to learn more about her latest role, and to hear her always-trenchant thoughts on media and marketing.
Q: It’s been a while since you left Martha Stewart joined MediaLink. Tell us more about your new role, the sorts of things you’re doing, and the types of clients you’re working with.
Wenda Harris Millard: We position ourselves as strategic advisory and business development in media, marketing, advertising and entertainment. There are about 30 of us. What distinguishes us from other folks is that almost all of us have very long and deep operating backgrounds. My partner Michael Kassan, who has many, many years on the buying side, and was an entertainment executive. Then we have people like Cleary Simpson, who was 28 years at Time Warner, and Eric Fernandez, who was head of sports and entertainment marketing at AT&T. We’ve got Michael Ginn, who spent 20 years in the television business. It just goes on and on - Sandy Grushow, former chairman of Fox Entertainment Group.
Q: Essentially an all-star team.
A: It’s an all-star team of operators. When we go to work for our clients, we have walked in those shoes. We’ve seen those opportunities. We’ve felt the pain. We’ve hired those jobs. Right out of the gate, it's a distinguishing factor. Let me just tell you about what the practice areas are and what it is we actually do. Organizational structure and restructuring is a pretty significant part of our portfolio right now. That’s primarily because the world is as challenged as it possibly could be in this whole space: media, marketing, advertising, and entertainment. People are really trying to figure out what talent should rise. What should I import? How do I structure to be able to see around the corner? We do that kind of work for very large Fortune 50 companies, and very large media companies - lots of organizational restructuring, or structuring. Out of that came our executive search practice. We do search for not only for our own clients, but we now go outside our client base. So basically, you know, when we’re doing a restructuring, people say, “Wow, well, who should be doing that? Who should I hire to do that?”
Q: That makes a lot of sense. I didn’t realize executive recruiting was part of your offering.
A: We started it just about three months ago, and we hired Chris Nutile, who was at Razorfish, Yahoo, Google, and spent about 17 years in the search space. If you put all our collective databases together, it's pretty powerful. Again, the big difference with search is we’ve done those jobs. We really, really do kind of have a leg up on people who've never operated.
Q: Are you finding most of your engagements now are digitally focused?
A: Not at all. Not at all. No. I spent 20 years in traditional media and 15 years in digital. At Martha Stewart I put it all together. Now I’m putting it all together for everybody. So there’s no specialty. Digital is part of the fabric of everything. Everybody focuses on digital. You probably suggested that just because I had been focusing on digital for a long time. But I also have 20 years of – you know, classic, if you will, classic media experience. I’m also a classically trained, Harvard MBA-educated. My world is as expansive as our client’s world.
A: Another practice area is regulatory advisory. So, there are a lot of our clients who need to understand the impact of legislation or pending legislation; data privacy, net neutrality, those kinds of things. What if some of that legislation passes, or when it does pass – what are the implications of some of these issues? At the legislative level, what is the implication for advertising, marketing, media, and entertainment? A lot of these companies need a lot of advice on that.
Q: Are you willing to venture a personal guess as to which way the winds are blowing in Washington? Because there certainly is a lot up and at stake right now on the regulatory front.
A: Well, I was the chairman of the IAB before Dave Moore, who’s running it now. And I was very, very involved with Randy [Rothenberg, IAB president] in getting our clients’ attention on some of these issues. There’s a huge amount of work to do, still. There’s not going to be no regulation. Net neutrality, that’s a hot issue. What we do is help our clients understand what this means. We help them understand the agency side reaction, the advertiser side reaction. How are some of these issues going to resolve themselves? And, you know, what happens if A passes and B doesn't, and all that kind of thing? That’s part of it.
But also, helping our clients understand how do people feel about this merger, this acquisition, this deal? What do they need to be aware of? So, it’s just helping our clients understand what’s going on out there in the marketplace, if it really affects them.
Q: Mergers and acquisitions are another topic I wanted to get into with you. We’ve certainly seen a lot of acquisitions traditional companies are making in newer media and digital companies. There seems to be a real resurgence. Do you think what’s going on is more rational, say, than what went on during the bubble? Are you seeing real strategic thought put into this, or is this another little bubble, in which companies are panicking because they’re not “digital” enough?
A: We advise companies in the Fortune space, but also the emerging media and technology companies. And we certainly help both sides of the equation understand appropriate valuations. And we also, by the way, work for private equity firms and VC firms. And it’s not that we’re going be better crunchers or better researchers. What we help them to do is vet the rationality of investments in certain areas. Certainly pricing in certain areas. Do I think it’s a little bit more sane market? Yes, by and large. But one person’s acquisition price – it could be a cost of entry versus a company that might be able to build something-- similar, comparable, better – to the company that they’re looking at to buy. I don't think it’s crazy out there. I think people are very, very thoughtful about how they’re spending their money, and where they’re spending their money. But I don’t see any level of irrationality, as we’ve seen before.
Q: And hopefully we’ll not see again.
A: Hopefully not. But, another area of practice for us is the content space. So, Sandy Krushaw, who as I mentioned ran Fox Entertainment Group for many, many years –works with us on both our branded content, our branded entertainment opportunities, connecting Madison Avenue and Hollywood – as well as working with some of our clients on building out their content. For example, we’re working with an entertainment complex in Texas. At this entertainment complex, they’re going to have something like 17 bars and restaurants, 13 studios. And they want us to help them find the next "American Idol," or the next "Iron Chef." We help people with their content as well. That’s a big part of our practice.
And then another part are all the emerging media and technology companies that hire us to help them design their go-to-market strategy. You know, help them establish their value proposition vis a vis their competitors. How do they articulate it? Who do they hire to get out there in the marketplace and do this? What should their structure look like? How can they most smartly approach the market? Then we accelerate their entry to market. That’s a very big business for us. We’ve got about 22 companies in that portfolio.
Q: It sounds very far-reaching. Do you personally have an area of specialization in the midst of all of these various practice areas?
A: I do a lot of work on the organizational structure. The last part of my career, the last 20 years, has been spent on start-ups and clean-ups. The first thing you do is get your house in order. I’ve done a lot of work in that area, as have many of my colleagues. That’s something I spend a lot of time on. I do spend a lot of time with our Fortune 50 clients, helping them understand how to accelerate, making digital part of the fabric of their organizations. And I work a lot with the emerging media and technology companies, helping them position themselves for market entry or more market success, helping them understand where the market is going.
Q: What are you seeing trend-wise in emerging media and technology companies? Are we having the year of mobile, or are we having the year of local? Is it still the era of social media? Or is it not that easily definable?
A: Eventually we’ll just stop putting “social” in front of “media.” It will be media, the same way that we dropped “new media.” Social media is part of the fabric of people’s lives, and I think will continue to be. I think social is a part of a business life now, and very much a part of how the world is working. Right now, I think there’s a tremendous amount of confusion out there from the supplier side. Like, “Who can really make all this stuff happen?” That’s very, very unclear right now. Very unclear.
So, we do a lot of work with all these emerging companies. A lot of them need much more established value propositions and clarity about who they’re competing with, and how. And why does it matter? Who cares, if at all? I do think there are a lot of companies adding to the expense of being in this business for a lot of the publishers. And I would guess we’re going to have some kind of a roll-up at some point, on some of these companies.
Q: Could you be a little bit more specific when you say, “adding to the expense” of the publisher?
A: If you look at all these companies trying to add value in the chain you’ve got a lot of companies picking away at revenue. So if the publisher used to earn $10, all these companies that are providing certain service levels – it’s really kind of interesting. They’re actually costing them some money on the top line.
Q: You’ve been speaking out against the commoditization of display advertising...
A: My whole life. My whole life.
Q: For quite some time. How do publishers combat this? Is it with pay walls, as we’re seeing at The Journal and The New York Times?
A: Well, that’s a different subject. The commoditization of media from an advertiser’s standpoint, and then from a user’s standpoint are different things. I do support the exploration of where and what are the differentiators that would cause real differentiation in terms of pricing, etc. So, I think there is opportunity for publishers to help establish a value proposition that will get them to higher CPMs, and not have to all be forced to sell their inventory at commodity prices. And we’re seeing this all over the market. People really appreciate it.
Q: Where does it go from here? We’ve seen ad networks and DSPs and real-time bidding, and real-time optimization. It just seems there’s an ongoing pile-on of these middlemen.
A: That’s what I meant by the noise. You’re exactly right, there is a pile-on. We’re gonna figure out which ones truly add value, and which are costing us money and not really adding value. That’s why I think there’s going be a shakeout of some sort.
Q: A lot of people have predicted consolidation of these companies, simply because there are so many of them. We'll see that as well?
A: I think so.
Q: Many publishers and advertising vehicles are moving towards local right now. What do you see as the trends?
A: We’ve been trying to track local for a very long time. One of these days we’ve got to figure out how to make some real money with it. I'm a fan of pursuing that, and I think it’s going to happen. For over 15 years we've been trying to figure out how to crack it. AOL’s doing some very interesting work there. We’ll see. We have to figure out ways to monetize it.
Q: What have I not asked you that you feel is most important to address in the current media and marketing environment?
A: One of the things companies are moving toward and will need to move toward continually and rapidly is not separating out digital. Digital is everything. And digital needs to be a part of the fabric of the way that we all operate: the way we think, the way we approach everything. On the client side, the agency side, and the media owner side, we need to continue efforts to integrate everything we do. Digital is the way of the world. It’s not the future. Digital is very much now. And for those people waiting around for things to happen, that’s a problem.