April 13, 2010
 

Gene DeWitt's Heart of Gold

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Tim: How's it going?

Gene: It's going well!

Tim: As I was walking through Rockefeller Center downstairs, I noticed more than a few men wearing Fedora-like hats, similar to the one Gregory Peck wore in the film, The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit; which as you know is all about Madison Avenue. What goes around comes around.

Gene: Yes, it's interesting they're becoming stylish again. At the beginning of my advertising career, there were people still wearing hats and grey flannel suits! It was much more formal. That's how it was... and of course the two-martini lunches.

Tim: Martini's are back in style as well so they tell me. When I began my MadAve career, the hats were gone, but the two-martini lunches had morphed into two Margarita lunches!

Gene: [Smiling] That's the way it was back then.

Tim: How do see the marketing landscape today?

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Gene: The marketing landscape is not very different from what it has been in the past. The customer is still the center of the bulls eye and media continue to become more and more specialized and offer more and more options for connecting with the customer.

Tim: How do you see the media landscape?

Gene: I think the most amazing changes that are going to occur in our business in the next few years is not in the media, but in the way media planning and buying are done. We are going to move to a completely electronic market. I'm not sure the agencies are responding to that. If you go into a media agency or a full-service ad agency today, the planners are still sitting at terminals and they're doing magazines separately from television. The Internet people are often separate from the network television people. It just doesn't seem to make sense.

Tim: How about media planning?

Gene: Well, I find it interesting that so much is talked about with the new media and yet it's struck me is that media planning and buying, as least some aspects of it, haven't changed very much at all. I've noticed how hard people are working. People are doing so much more today with far fewer resources. They need more help, but it doesn't seem like they're getting it, at least to me.

Tim: Is that because media strategy is so much more important than it used to be?

Gene: I think the perception has changed for sure. It's ironic that the emphasis on clout was as loud as it was just as consolidation was now making everyone about equal. Every big agency thinks they know everything. [Smiling] And that's really interesting. To prove it, they keep giving themselves awards. It's so funny. Everyone gets five awards a year now.

Tim: [Smiling] Well, they all must be stars!

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Gene: They must be! Unbelievable. How many are there? There are more awards than people. We joke about it, but if everyone is so confident that they know how everything should be and don't need anyone else's opinion, how can things change? I have a brain in my head that says if the world is changing around you, that doing things the way you've always done them means that you are not keeping up. Doing things the same way means you are totally lost. I find that absolutely remarkable. TV reps still call for availabilities; magazine reps still make sales calls; it just seems very antediluvian.

Tim: When you founded DeWitt, what were the challenges and rewards of being an entrepreneur? Are the pressures of someone opening their own marketing services agency different/better/worse from then to now?

Gene: On being an entrepreneur it may be charming for some people today to hear that the biggest obstacle to hiring me--cited to me by prospective clients--is that by doing so it might "it could harm their relationships with their ad agencies." That comes up with large clients where they have global deals with large agencies. It's not that they love their agency; they simply have no say in making a change. Smaller advertisers though are much less inclined to stay with an agency if there's not a good fit. They are much more attuned to their own needs. The loyalty between advertisers and agencies has changed on both sides.

Tim: Since I left the big agency arena, I've noticed a huge network of small companies; free lancers really who have their own business and they do excellent work and they are easier to work with. You get better work. Their business is their bread and butter. And, you know, fear is a great motivator.

Gene: Yes, wanting to get the next assignment!

Tim: What was your own motivation?

Gene: At some point, I'd done everything I could as the agency media person, and I had an opportunity to move into general management in the agency business but I didn't want to leave my media roots. One of the key events for me was when IBM invented the PC. I was at one of the major agencies who I won't mention. There were only six of us who ran the company worldwide. I remember being at an executive meeting where we were discussing how we were going to ratchet up our prowess in technology. I suggested we buy some PCs for the media department. The CFO of the company almost leapt across the table and said to me, "We don't have a capital budget for media, are you crazy?" And I just was stunned. And I tried to make the case that systems benefited everyone, and he just basically said "Look, we don't do that."

Tim: Wow.

Gene: I remember going home and telling my wife I wanted to do a start up. I had a mortgage to pay so it was not an entirely risk-free move. She asked me how I would know if it worked? And I said we'll know if it works when the checks start coming in. And if I need to work on the side, I would. But I just knew that I could not be a media director at an agency any longer. I couldn't do it in part because I'd really become an administrator, which was hardly an interesting job. It was like I "had" to do it. And I was naive enough to think that it would be easier than it was. I don't think anybody would do a startup if they knew just how difficult the first years are. I was so frightened that I didn't take any money out of the company for two years, until my accountant pointed out to me that there was money piling up and that I could actually pay myself. WOW!! One of the best things that the agency I left had was an incentive compensation program that paid me for five years after I left. I had five years worth of accrued change and bonuses. Every year I used to say thank you to them in my mind for funding my business. Little did they know they had funded a startup!

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Tim: We now have a few major companies dominating 80-90% of media globally. What do you think of that? What's the long-term effect of this on the communications business? Have the roles of agencies, marketers and publishers changed? If so, could you address each specifically.

Gene: Well if everyone agrees and if everyone is wrong, the future is bleak. New ideas rarely spring from big companies. As for "marketers", I assume you mean clients. Your choice of words suggests that marketing has left the agency business and migrated to clients. I'd agree with that.

Tim: Sure.

Gene: As agencies have become vendors (vs. partners) to their clients, I think the media realize that it in their interests to become marketing partners to advertisers. Examples include Time Warner, Clear Channel and Google. Clients don't care where productive ideas come from so this trend is likely to continue. After all, advertising began when a newspaper ad seller named J. Walter Thompson realized he could sell more ad space if he helped his customers create the ads.

Tim: Of course.

Gene: It raises questions about the effect that so few companies are running the business. One of the things that everybody knows about big companies in any industry is that they very rarely invent anything. Usually small companies invent things and then they get acquired by big companies. I sense that there is still some discomfort among advertisers who spend $30 to $50 million dollars a year who are serviced by these gigantic companies when it comes to personal attention to their business.

Tim: That's interesting.

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Gene: We've consolidated ourselves into a media buyer/sellers club. I think that media planning and buying is at an inflection point where the pressure on compensation at the agencies has resulted in people who are overworked and underpaid. And not well-equipped to deal with such an incredibly more complicated view of the business.

Tim: Oh yeah!

Gene: Agencies are still using the Donovan System to monitor buys, which we used when there were 3 TV networks and then when it grew to 20. Now we have an unlimited number of networks. No one I know of is working to develop a new system that would allow people to work off of, for example, laptops.

Tim: Can anyone today start a media business like you did when the emphasis is on globalization?

Gene: I think it's a no-brainer. For better or worse, it's all going to become electronic. It's not that hard right now. It was a little harder 20 years ago. The information is readily available today. In the future, I think that there's still going to be some judgment if not locally, then regionally, where literacy rates can be very different going from urban to rural. But the world is becoming more and more similar to use across the board. The data is here and it's a heck of a lot easier to get very close to where you want to be. You don't necessarily need all those offices. You're going to have people on the ground doing creative, usually. I'm thinking of Rupert Murdoch, with his satellite media empire around the world. There are political issues around what people will allow to come into their countries, such as China. Like everything else, a media base in New York can manage a great deal of information globally. I like to think the world will become so homogenous that it will become easier to do global media type of work.

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Tim: I'd like to put my rose-colored glasses on for a moment. One of the things I hope that would occur out of consolidation for globalization is that for as much as it is about self interest, I would like to think that larger companies with stronger connections around the world would bring the value of a "business as usual" to the third world; so that they understand that stability, particularly in each country's leadership will make the their countries and the world a better place. It's okay if you call me Pollyanna!

Gene: Tim, you are so right to equate 'free' media with freer countries. When the media are independent of governments they can become the kind of free and open press we have traditionally enjoyed. In fact, all of us in advertising should be proud that our ad dollars support media's independence from government subsidies and control.

Tim: For sure.

Gene: That said, it is also clear that many countries (not only France!) are very protective of their own cultures and suspicious of the possible 'intrusion' of alien ideas from 'Western' media. China and many of its neighbors---Singapore comes to mind---are very cautious about the media exposures they will permit to enter their countries. And many emerging countries know full well that their regimes would become unstable if they permitted free media.

Tim: I agree.

Gene: The 'homogenization' of global culture via global media therefore has several aspects, one being the emergence of more open media platforms and another being a possible 'dumbing down' of culture around the globe. Therefore, our responsibility as supporters and promoters of the media should ethically extend beyond purely economic interests to recognition of the ultimate effect of the media platforms we support.

Tim: Okay.

Gene: As advertisers become more involved in content creation and begin to identify their corporate persona more with their media platforms, it may be that they will find that viewers and readers around the world, given a choice, would prefer media that contribute to a free and open expression of art and ideas. If that's Pollyannaish, I'll sign onto it with you.

Tim: Great!

Gene: On a more macro level: the globalization of economics is leveling income levels worldwide and creating a whole new middle class in emerging nations. Will these people be more independent and pressure their governments for new freedoms? It's likely they will.

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Rock & roll with never die...

Tim: What effect does the intersection of Madison Avenue and Hollywood Boulevard have on communications long term? Product placement, PR? Media planning and buying?

Gene: Integrating commerce into films and TV programs, when done well, seems to me to be simply a reflection of the economic mosaic of the world we live in. On the other hand, Hollywood is one of those places and cultures that are quite happy to take anyone's money, so caveat emptor!

Tim: Absolutely.

Gene: It's worth noting that really good product placement in really expensive, high quality properties is very expensive and not for the naive. I'd suggest that clients develop an expert checklist to keep themselves on track in evaluating product placement and integration in order to avoid being dazzled by b.s. One key issue is a cost/benefit assessment that compares risk/reward in quantifiable terms; i.e., how much audience/exposure relative to similar platforms in other venues? I'd also insist on transparency in my agency's revenue from each project and the charges levied by other units of the same holding company. It's not only the movie companies that may be picking client's pockets in these endeavors.

Tim: LOL!

Gene: On the other hand, a really good placement can be very exciting. When BMW put the Z3 in a James Bond movie while DeWitt Media was developing and implementing strategies for them, there is no question that this feature plus the integrated support we used to exploit it were responsible for a lot of sales. This was a superb fit of product and program.

Tim: Sounds like it.

Gene: While I think we are obligated to exploit every possible venue to infiltrate our clients' ad messages into the minds of customers and prospects, it is counter-productive to over-saturate entertainment content with commercial messages. At some point, we will turn people off in the manner of the cluttered broadcast television universe and diminish the entertainment value and corresponding marketing effectiveness of these 'new' venues.

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Your Cadillac has got a wheel in the ditch And a wheel on the track...

Tim: That brings me to my next question. Will media planners and buyers ever really become "communications planners", where they allocate a mix of media to coincide with every step of the consumer purchase funnel process?

Gene: Communication planning as a concept does not in my view require that media be scheduled for "every step of the consumer purchase funnel process" because each brand's and each campaign's goals and requirements are different. As they used to say in the military (perhaps they still do), "It depends on the situation and terrain."

Tim: Give me an example.

Gene: Okay, if my goal is to move a backlog of cars off the lot, I'm going right to the end of the purchase funnel where I can find ready buyers and stimulate action now. But my car buying prospects have to perceive some sort of value to my cars, some brand equity and credibility, if they are to consider these last minute purchase inducement messages. In other words, if the product or service is so invisible that no one even knows what it is or does, then I've got quite a task at the beginning of the funnel.

Tim: Right.

Gene: Knowing where and how to apply marketing pressure in each situation is exactly what marks a communication planner from a media planner. It is essential that broadly experienced media strategists sit astride today's multiplatform marketing communications programs. While those of us who 'grew up' professionally as planners and buyers of all media are comfortable with this role and have the experience and perspective to manage it, it's not clear to me that the agencies are training this new breed of big thinkers.

Tim: Yup.

Gene: Media planners today seem terribly over-worked, under-trained and junior to even their currently very 'siloed' assignments. Perhaps in the more electronic media planning/buying marketplace we're heading for, people will be relieved of a lot of the drudgery that distracts them today and be freed up to think more broadly.

Tim: True.

Gene: The purchase funnel concept is interesting from several angles. For example, much of the internet's transaction effectiveness seems to come at or near the end of the purchase cycle. This presumes, I think, a great deal about the brand equity of products expecting to convert branding to sales at the back end. What I mean by this is that it is essential that brands carry value over to the purchase research and consideration process. Otherwise it's going to be all about price. Bottom line: our fascination with generating immediate sales should not distract us from the brand equity that gives our offerings value and credibility in the consumer's eyes; i.e., at least as much attention should be given to building strength at the early stages of the purchase funnel as to the late stages. Otherwise, not much is likely to come out of the funnel when buying decisions are made.

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I've been first and last, look at how the time goes past...

Tim: What's been your most exhilarating experience in the media business to date and what do you imagine it could be in the future?

Gene: I love to sell. I've always loved selling, since I peddled seeds and greeting cards door to door as a six year old in order to buy some chewing gum [laughing]. What a thrill! And I've never stopped. I delivered newspapers in junior high and started my own housepainting business for my high school and college summers.

Gene: Pitching and winning clients has always been a thrill for me. I found pitching my own business particularly satisfying when we were--as was often the case--hired for our ideas and our size. Many of these strategies were cross media deals, which created unique platforms for ads. It seemed so obvious to us at the time but appear to be treated as new thoughts even today.

Tim: Exactly.

Gene: Winning for my clients is also a big kick, perhaps the biggest. I had a meeting recently with the Chairman of a Fortune 500 Company, a client, and he was so pleased with our strategies for media savings that he told us he was going to share them with his board. That made my day.

Tim: Cool.

Gene: I 'play' every day as though I'm in the Super Bowl. Why not do the best you can? What's the alternative? So I'm a firm believer not only in best practices but in setting and exceeding best practices standards. For example, I've always paid my people more than my competitors; it's simple, the best people get the highest rewards. And we're not bottom fishers in compensation. We deliver a great service and expect to be compensated accordingly.

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City of brotherly love...

Tim: What advice/expectations would you give to someone in college and/or someone who just entered the media business?

Gene: Show up. Work hard, Ask questions. If things don't make sense to you, find a new way and sell it to your supervisors and clients. Welcome problems, create solutions. Don't work too hard, though. Take time to enjoy life because there are no guarantees. There is no 'fair' in the real world. In our economy and society today, you are what you make yourself. Your professional equity and security are in what you can do and what people believe that you can do for them, not in your job or even in your company. Learn constantly.

Tim: I agree.

Gene: Besides generating results, constant learning has been an important part of what I enjoy from our business; learning about each client's business, keeping up to date with media trends, trying to develop new ways of seeing and doing things. Learning keeps you alive and interesting. Have an instinct for action. Avoid perfection paralysis. Get enough sleep. Read the general business press. Remember that you are in business, not in advertising. Think broadly and the world will need you for what you have learned, what you know and what you can do. Keep up with and get ahead of change. Constant change is the only constant.

Tim: Thanks Gene. This was great!

Gene: You're welcome, Tim!

Keeps me searching for a heart of gold...


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