April 13, 2010

Mike Lowenstern, The Media Musician


Long before MTV and MP3, the medium of music was one of the first forms of communication to be embraced by electronics. As we looked back to Sunday July 25, 1965, when folk singer Bob Dylan "plugged in" his guitar at the Newport Folk Festival (now on YouTube) and "went electric", we already knew that record players and radio were filling the earthly air with musicians from Amadeus to Woody Guthrie's work for hundreds of millions of people.


In a more contemporary age, music was one of the first forms of content to excite people (and apparently computers) through digital communication. For example, we know from Kubrick's "2001" film that HAL's first task was to learn the song "Daisy," years before he got "un-plugged" out in space.


There's always been a space between music and digitaria, yet we had no idea how rich it was until we interviewed Mike Lowenstern, Director of Rich Media Development, MRM Worldwide, who you may already know or recognize from EyeWonder's trade campaign. Here's what else we learned:

Wendy: How's it going?

Mike: It's going very well!

Wendy: Great! Before we get into talking about the business, tell me a little about yourself. What were you doing before you entered the new media arena?

Mike: Well, up until about 2 years ago, I was a full-time classical musician with the New Jersey Symphony and The Klezmatics. These are the two most well-known groups I was involved with.

Wendy: Wow!

Mike: It supported my habit of eating and paying the rent! I also worked in advertising as a side job. I did all 3 of my degrees in music, and as a part of that program of study, I performed quite a few recitals over the course of the school year. Part of this experience required that I invite my colleagues to attend my concerts. I learned to promote them heavily! There were 3 or 4 recitals on any given day. You could say that's where I got my start in marketing!

Wendy: For sure.

Mike: As anyone involved in the music business knows, promotion is at least 50% of the work you do. Probably more like 80%. So, advertising was in my blood from an early age. Ultimately, it wasn't that huge a leap into interactive advertising business, because of my interest in computer music and programming.


Wendy: How did you end up getting into the interactive business?

Mike: I was working at Grey Direct in 1997. That was the year they started their e-marketing division. I was more or less drafted to learn Flash and produce online media solutions for our early clients: British Airways, Lucent and Nickelodeon. Prior to that, I had been doing direct marketing for them.

Wendy: That was a great place to begin.

Mike: It was also a welcome relief for me. All of a sudden I didn't have to worry about "hanging daggers" for the legal copy on credit card offers. It was bliss, notwithstanding the fact that Flash 2 was pretty limited at the time... Between then and now I've watched the development of the interactive business explode. For me it's been equal portions of using my (dusty) crystal ball as best I could and, well, hanging on for dear life. It's never dull, that's for sure.

Wendy: I agree. What does your average day look like?

Mike: The group I lead includes 3 developers. We produced over 4,000 individual ad units last year, so we're pretty busy. We build both standard and rich media ad units in our group, and while rich media is a fast-growing part of our business, we're still tasked with creating standard units for our clients. On any given day, we produce an average of about 10-15 units. Of course, this is in addition to helping with concepting, administrative work, and managing outside vendors for anything from CGI to Video, to specific functionality for RM units. Oh, and sleeping and eating.

Wendy: That's great! How much does personal technology like email, mobile, SMS, instant messenger and other ways of communication affect how you operate with your associates, friends and family?


Mike: Email and IM are crucial to getting our stuff done.

Wendy: What type of technology and/or content type do you see coming down the road that excites you most, such as mobile, nano-gaming, peer to peer, video etc...?

Mike: The idea of non-intrusive advertising - well, there's an oxymoron for you! - is what excites me most. Technology-wise, I personally have issues with mobile - e.g. cell phone - advertising, but I think that's going to be more and more important as time goes on.

Wendy: That's interesting.

Mike: My ultimate goal is to provide technological solutions to our clients that will allow behavioral targeting that learns as the user interacts, such that a subsequent exposure to an ad will be more tailored to the user's individual preference. It's more relevant and ultimately more rewarding for everybody.

Wendy: What business categories do you think will explode in the next 2 years? Industries which to date have not used new media as much as they could for their consumer marketing efforts?


Mike: I think "smart" banners will be at the forefront of advertising. They're less intrusive, more relevant and more targeted. Personalized advertising is the future.

Wendy: Are there any categories such as automotive, financial, CPG, FSR, travel, health, pharma, fashion, technology that this relates to?

Mike: I think we'll see all them online.

Wendy: What do you enjoy most about working in this business?

Mike: First and foremost, my colleagues. I come to work to explore and learn, and I love working in an environment where open collaboration is a core value.

Wendy: I agree.

Mike: I learn that much more - and more quickly. While many of my colleagues are involved in website development, which I liken to a building a complex machine, I make watches - complex, but contained in a small package. But nevertheless, information transfers between us, and we are always learning from each other.

Wendy: That's a great analogy. What are your biggest challenges?

Mike: I think the biggest challenge our industry faces is the dulling of America's advertising senses. We all know that we're inundated with marketing messages hundreds and hundreds of times a day. We've become inured to those messages.


Wendy: Some people in our industry prefer to ignore that.

Mike: My job is to peel that away to get the message through and establish contact, which is especially important in a direct-response field like online advertising. But, even when that works, online users expect a banner interaction to be an interruption, where they are taken to a different page to continue learning about a product or service.

Wendy: Yes.

Mike: I'm trying to modify that expectation, especially in our rich media work, to provide all of the "landing page experience" within the ad unit itself. That way, the user ultimately won't need to leave the page they're on, and they will hopefully be more likely to interact with future communication. That's the goal at least, to improve the experience from the user's perspective.

Wendy: How much more education do you think the industry needs?


Mike: Part of my job is to develop the technologies required to meet the goals above, part of it is fostering the necessary contacts with specialist third-party vendors to pick up where our capabilities leave off, and part - a large part - is being evangelical about my ideas for the future of my field. Some clients are less willing to embrace change than others, but they and their large-scale media buys are exactly what are needed for this quantum shift to gain any sort of traction within the industry.

Wendy: That's very interesting.

Mike: The industry runs on proof: Metrics and Analytics. But I believe strongly that the metrics that were used to gauge success in 2001 are no longer as valid in 2007 and beyond. Brand interaction doesn't need to happen on a landing page, and so it would follow that if we can track the user's brand experience in banner, we wouldn't need to track click-throughs to landing pages. The metrics would be more interesting anyway.

Wendy: I think you're right.

Mike: Okay, I'm off my soapbox now!

Wendy: What advice would you give a college graduate who wanted to get into the interactive business?


Mike: Enter the workforce with an open mind. Most of the people here I work with don't have degrees in web development. Well, actually none do. Looking around, we've got a few of CompSci graduates, I have a PhD in music, there are a couple of communications grads, and a couple of graphic artists. My boss played trombone off Broadway. All you need is a love of learning, because that's what we do 90% of the time. We learn, and then immediately apply it.

Wendy: Go on.

Mike: Other important skills: Learn to communicate efficiently. Write concisely. Listen intently. Be open to the notion that there are several ways to do something, and many of them are right. And above all, know your craft. These were the same principles that guided me in my previous endeavors, so in that respect, they apply pretty much to any other field.

Wendy: Thanks, Mike!

Mike: My pleasure, Wendy!


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