April 13, 2010
 

Mike McHale, The Interview

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By Wendy McHale

According to Wikipedia there's an old saying in the UK that goes, "Football is a gentleman's game played by ruffians and Rugby is a ruffian's game played by gentlemen." I checked this out after I learned that Mike McHale (no relation) is a founding member of the Marist College Rugby Team.

In our conversation, he talks about how his experience playing on the Rugby field in college has influenced how he helps his clients to win on their playing field, today. Judging from the people who asked to contribute to this article, it seems there are a lot of people who want him on their team. After our chat I walked away with understanding how one can be a gentleman in the ruffian's game we are all playing right now on Madison Avenue.

Wendy: How's it going?

Mike: It's going very well, thanks.

Wendy: Before we deep dive into Cleverworks and the media business, tell me a little about yourself. What led you to choose a career in media and advertising?

Mike: I was ad director of the Marist College newspaper "The Circle" and had my own ad biz where I did promotions for most of the college bars in Poughkeepsie.

Wendy: Sounds like it was a lot of fun!

Mike: It was. I was also a founding member of Marist's Rugby team which influenced how I approach the media business.

Wendy: How's that?

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Mike: Rugby players place their emphasis on 'fair play'. We're in a relationship-based business. Any one who ignores this is going to find themselves on the side lines. Rugby is also a sport that allocates responsibility to each player.

Wendy: Do you think being a founder set the tone for achieving as many "firsts" as you have so far in your career?

Mike: That's interesting. I never thought of it that way. I also think the support I receive from my family has inspired me to do my very best for my clients.

Wendy: So you were also selling ads in the college newspaper. Is that what made you choose the media side of our business?

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Mike: No, I actually wanted to be a copywriter. But my math skills and my love for doing deals drew me to the media side at a very early age. By 24, I was media manager of an ad agency in New Jersey that specialized in automotive and I was hooked.

Wendy: Cool. Before becoming an entrepreneur, you spent time working at media agencies, one of which was Optimedia. You planned media for a variety of luxury brands. And then 3 years ago, you founded Cleverworks. What led to that decision?

Mike: I decided to start Cleverworks because I saw a void in the market that I thought I could fill. There were a couple of things that were needed. First, I saw that there was too much disinformation that media agencies supply to media partners. Media sellers need to know how to decode what I call "double talk." It wastes so much time; so I developed a seminar for media sellers to improve the way they interpret what they are hearing so that they understand what a buyer is really trying to communicate. It's been extremely well received and has evolved into a series of seminars and one-on-one training.

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Wendy: Okay. What's the other?

Mike: The other point that had an effect on me is the John Wanamaker quote of, "I know 50% of the money I spend on advertising is wasted; I just don't know what half." Well, I know which half!

Wendy: LOL! I've never heard anyone actually say that before. What do you mean by that?

Mike: One example is how the media spend is planned and managed for small to medium-sized luxury brands spend are managed in what we all know are big-box media agencies. Small to medium-sized luxury brands require a different mindset that most 20-somethings do not possess yet. Plus, it's difficult for a mega-agency to invest the time to focus on and luxury brands.

Wendy: Give me an example.

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Mike: Sure, consider how many junior planners own or even drive a luxury car brand that they have been assigned to. Or let's say jet travel. Many have never flown Business or First Class. They don't have the mindset to be able to think like this type of consumer, which is very different than their own lifestyle. Upscale and affluent consumers look for very specific things in which they choose to fly with that a planner with 2 to 3 years experience won't really understand until they are the target themselves.

Wendy: They're flying coach taking Amtrak.

Mike: Exactly. Their inexperience with the brand, combined with the fact they too often don't read, watch or visit any of the media companies on the plan makes their evaluation based entirely on the computer run. That's dangerous. It puts the client's limited budgets in places that will have little to no impact that really need. Computer runs can't measure the essential environment and relevance that an affluent-based media vehicle delivers. When planned correctly, you then have a media program which both the marketer and the consumer enjoy. I have 20+ years and have spent $2 + billion dollars in the affluent market so it makes sound sense that we are able to service high end luxury brands with small national media budgets.

Wendy: What have you learned along the way that makes you a successful entrepreneur?

Mike: A couple of things. I was asked what my point of difference was going to be when I started Cleverworks. There are really 2 points. First, it's important to me that when the people who work here go home, they don't complain about where they work!

Wendy: That's no small feat in this business today!

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Mike: It's something we work very hard at. The second is speed to market. I'll give you an example. In a second meeting with a potential client that we had during our first week of operation, I was asked if I had a web site. I said I didn't today, but told them to check tomorrow. I walked out of the meeting to the Apple Store, brought iWeb, designed and posted the site that night.

Wendy: Cool. Let's switch gears. You've planned and negotiated ad trade campaigns for Forbes and The Atlantic trade campaigns that I can recall. What's the key to planning a successful trade campaign? Don't forget, many of the people who read this are media planners and buyers!

Mike: You hit on something. I think "being the target" is essential. All media brands that run trade campaigns, targeting media buyers, planners, and directors must be managed by someone who has these specific types of responsibility. More often than not, someone who has never held one of these positions themselves is almost always going to miss the marks. What appeals to a publisher or SVP of sales for on-line, TV or radio, is probably of little interest to a person on the other side of the desk. The problem is they create their campaigns based on their opinion versus what news matters to the planning and buying audience. We try to be the voice of reason, and we buy all the media for less, so we save them money.

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Wendy: In our business we can get information from many different sources. These days, do you need to look beyond traditional trade magazines and websites to speak to a planner or brand manager?

Mike: I have always been up for creating the next thing. I think "firsts" are important... I think the traditional media choices blended with the cool new "I wish I had done that" is a good blend.

Wendy: Do the plethora of media sites, newsletters and blogs makes sense? Is there overcrowding in the market?

Mike: I think that advertising and marketing people are obsessed with our craft so these new media choices are as buzz-worthy as the traditional sites.

Wendy: But taking into account that we get breaking news on the Internet, is it still necessary to have a print version of let's say, Ad Age?

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Mike: I think trade print still has a reason for being, but the shift to on-line is moving faster than some publishers realize.

Wendy: Combining traditional and digital media is not always seamless. You talk about the need for an integrated plan to be organic. Do publishers get it?

Mike: Not all, but I find most are willing to listen. It's the responsibility of the agency to create ideas that blend the best of our client's brands and various trade media brands possess in order to create an integrated plan that is larger than the sum of its parts.

Wendy: Then how can agencies use traditional and digital media more effectively?

Mike: One way is for agencies to work in a cross platform team structure, not in the old traditional silos (print, TV, OOH, etc) which make buys that focus only on their medium of expertise. Cross-platform teams can offer the best chance for their client will have a campaign that properly moves across all media channels, not as an after-thought or a bolt-on.

Wendy: There is still a real lack of coordination between the traditional and digital departments of large agencies and it frustrates everyone. Can this problem of silos be fixed? If so, how?

Mike: Well it certainly won't be fixed overnight. Smart media agencies should have a group planning director that lives and breathes the brand. Someone who knows the past, present and future of the brand. While rotating planners and buyers every 6-9 months from one account to another for training purposes is great on paper; but it's the client that suffers. The agency in essence is training their staff on the client's dime.

Wendy: You've always been an advocate about spending a media budget creatively. How do you create something like let's say the BMW's "The Hire?" Where do your ideas come from?
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Mike: "The Hire" came from the creative agency, Fallon and the client. I charged my team and myself with taking on the media plan task with the goal of creating something out of the movie marketing handbook, with the twist of affluence. Our goal was ultimately to go beyond water cooler buzz to sell luxury performance vehicles. We thought that was very important.

Wendy: What's the creative process that you use for your ideas? Do they wake you up in the middle of the night?

Mike: I sleep pretty soundly, but every once in a while I will get some of the "a-ha" ideas in the shower, or when I'm driving my car. Following the implementation of "The Hire" we took it to a higher level. For example we developed our own channel on DirecTV. We also partnered with Microsoft to distribute the films digitally to a network of 25 art houses in the US. The Cannes Media Festival created a special award for the films, Titanium.

Wendy: That's terrific. I'm glad you brought that up. You've won many awards. Is there a favorite campaign you have worked on?

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Mike: I love them all, but I have to say that when I presented the idea of the 2-branded episodes of "Queer Eye" to British Airways, it was the first time at this point that the client's reaction was to jump up and hug me.

Wendy: That certainly doesn't happen everyday. Why did they react that way?

Mike: Besides being a great way to communicate the brand's value to the right audience, the program required only a fraction of the budget that a big brand spends on product integration on properties like, Apprentice & Survivor. When it won Media Plan of the Year for TV, it was a great testimony to client bravery and industry intelligence. We were delighted.

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Wendy: You have a reputation for being a tough negotiator. One of your philosophies is that the science of negotiating becomes an art when done correctly. Care to elaborate?

Mike: Well, you need to know the audience numbers, or the "science" if you will. Once you have that, it should empower you then to perform the art. Agency and media partners who are obsessed with the lowest CPM may live to fight another day, but it's those programs which provide the game-changing solutions, at competitive numbers, that are way more valuable. Art comes from your experience on how to weigh the audience research science with the desire to create something that an accountant with access to MRI couldn't do.

Wendy: It's going to be a "hunker down and ride it out" year. Is this the time for marketers to stick to the "tried and true"? How in this environment can you convince a marketer to think out of the box in order to leave their competition in the dust? Aren't media programs which are considered innovative are also somewhat risky?

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Mike: It depends. Recently I challenged one of our media partner's client to step it up. I said, "You're out there every day saying you need to spend, but then you don't practice what you preach." When we created a great circulation and marketing buzz-worthy campaign that they loved, they "found" the money to move ahead with.

Wendy: Okay, we all know that digital is taking dollars from traditional media like magazines are sustaining major advertising losses. In your opinion, when the dust settles and budgets become more robust will the dollars return to traditional media or will marketer's budgets permanently migrate to digital media?

Mike: I have always been a firm believer and supporter of the relationships that magazines create with their readers and the positive rub that a marketer gets from being in their pages. I think digital offerings are interesting but a marketer's willingness to support them and the subsequent ROI in the long run is still yet to be seen. Too often blogs resemble a guy or a girl shouting their opinions on a soapbox in the middle of the digital town square. I'm not sure of the value that an advertiser receives in these types of situations. If you become the sponsor of this "independent" speech, there's an undeniable rub on the marketer which may not reflect positively on what the marketer was hoping to achieve.

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Wendy: As a media strategist you have to evaluate all media channels to determine what makes sense for your clients. There are so many choices in the digital media marketplace. If marketers want to play in these spaces, what are the best bets? Let me get your opinion on some of the options available today.

Wendy: Online Video?

Mike: I love it... needs to be short, sweet and different.

Wendy: Social networks?

Mike: Well, I'm not sure if a car having 38,000 friends sells more of them.

Wendy: How about mobile?

Mike: I love the portability, but the screen size is so small. In a world of large computer and TV screens which we can use for marketers, I think there's a place where the "really" small screen becomes too small.

Wendy: Digital out-of-home?

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Mike: Love it; I think on-screen cinema advertising started this "larger than life" medium and I look forward to its growth.

Wendy: You've created the "Behind the Velvet Ropes" seminar for people in our business. What do you mean by that? What is the goal of these seminars?

Mike: Most media sales personnel and management have never held a media agency position. The BTVR seminar is my answer to all the people who are on the sales side of the desk. I've been told I should write a book about the best and worst sales calls I have sat through in the last 20 years.

Wendy: Have they been successful?

Mike: We have done over 100 at this point to print, TV, on-line, out-of home, radio; they have been a lot of fun and we have great feedback. They also work as great new biz tools. After the seminar we always see a room full of people who are charged up about themselves and Cleverworks. It normally follows that in the next client meeting where they complain about their media agency, we usually get a call from the client shortly after.

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Wendy: Okay, last question, what advice would you give a recent college grad today about choosing their career in advertising? Is it still a good choice?

Mike: Since I left college I've worked hard to go back and speak to students and to start intern programs wherever I could. I still love what I do 22 years later. The current economy has tarnished a lot of what once were the high-flying, big salary industries. I hope that some of the country's best and brightest grads decide that the craft of advertising is more fun. The need for 2+ vacation homes is over-rated!

Wendy: Or even affordable these days. Mike, Thank you. It was great chatting with you.

Mike: It was my pleasure, Wendy.

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