The Art of Being Courageous. An Interview with Otto Bell

Otto Bell began his media career in the WPP fellowship program which spanned three years in three different jobs in three different countries, giving him a borderless view of the media landscape. 

Now as VP and Group Creative Director, Courageous, his responsibility is to create and manage a brand building studio that is the pipeline for native content for all of Turner’s properties across all possible platforms. This enormous effort, with currently forty projects completed since its official launch in June 2015, is, according to Bell, “growing at a fierce pace.” 

Located in Union Square in lower Manhattan, the Courageous enterprise currently boasts twenty full time employees from all media sectors and disciplines in a 12,000 square foot studio “We have 4k cameras, drones and cranes to create beautiful branded content,” explains Bell, “and employees with editorial backgrounds, Emmy and Morrow winning journalists from companies like Mashable, VICE and CNN, video producers, documentarians, storytellers, web designers and developers, etc, all in-house. We are fully self-sufficient and never outsource.” Courageous has hit an inflection point, Bell reports, to air fourteen programs currently in production from around the world. “And,” he adds, “We are currently shooting aerial VR in Pennsylvania.” Their productions are designed to be format agnostic with the ability to reside comfortably across any platform and media type. The question becomes, Bell says, “what is the right channel for the content we create? We find the unexplored angle for an advertiser’s traditional media buy.”

As part of its branded content effort, Courageous is producing a one day event called Human By Design, on August 3, 2016 at the Paley Center for Media in conjunction with client Square Enix to support the release of their video game Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. “This video game is set thirty years into the future but these are present tense problems,” notes Bell. “There is human augmentation and mankind becomes divided between those who are augmented and improved with technology and others who are in an unadulterated state. Conflict ensues” and, he adds, “These issues are bubbling up today.” 

This event brings together leading minds to explore the current state of human augmentation, trying to answer the questions of how to police this brave new world, how technology is shaping the human condition and what does it mean to be human. The event is divided into three panels. Panel one is a discussion of whether augmentation is a human right. Panel two reviews selective versus therapeutic augmentation – that which corrects a disease like the insertion of a microchip for Parkinson’s disease or condition like being able to walk while paralyzed as compared to a technological augmentation for cosmetic purposes only. Panel three, titled, The Future of the Far Far Next, will delve into the future of human augmentation and how we will get there. One of the results of this conference will be to “publish a code of ethics, independent of the game and of CNN from this brain trust of luminaries” according to Bell.

For Jon Grant, Senior Manager, Product marketing for Square Enix, “Creating Human by Design in conjunction with CNN’s Courageous studio felt like the perfect fit for Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. Video games stretch the imagination, and lead people to think outside the box – a quality shared with those leading the bionics industry. This conference is a big step for everyone involved as we broaden the overall awareness of bionics for the science, sci-fi, and Deus Ex fans alike.”

As opposed to the uncertain, somewhat pessimistic future of humans vs technically augmented bots, the future for Courageous looks bright. “We approach branded content with a compass and not a map,” explains Bell, who adds, “and we will succeed as long as the work we do meets our clients’ objectives with surprising, additive ways with their audiences. We want to do more to add to the public conversation as well as the marketing objectives of the client. Branded content can be great content.”

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The Revolution Will Be Televised … With Set Top Box Data

Set Top Boxes and their ability to passively collect tuning data has been an exciting development for the world of TV measurement for the past decade. The IAB defines a set top box simply as an electronic device that connects to a TV providing connectivity to the Internet, game systems, or cable systems. But its capability to not only feed out content but also receive back usage data expands its value to the media industry as a measurement device.

CIMM (The Coalition for Innovative Media Measurement) released a STB Data whitepaper listing the following uses of Set Top Box data:

Read more on the Videa Blog.

Becoming a Creative Technologist. Interview with Trevor O’Brien

Trevor O’Brien, Partner and Chief Technology Officer at Deutsch has found a career that perfectly balances his right and left brain talents. He studied computer science at university in London and, upon graduation, veered away from the prescribed IT career path, accepting instead a job in media. “I got into a creative environment right out of school,” he explained, “and I realized that I liked the freedom to work in creative forms.” 

His creative/computer science background was well timed in the age of media data and analytics. It led him to a career in advertising helping agency clients leverage technology to best reach their target consumers. Today, his work in Deutsch’s NY office involves the use of A.I. (artificial intelligence) to build intuitive sites and mechanisms as part of a greater agency team that includes talent from across the agency landscape.

Charlene Weisler: You studied IT and yet found yourself in a completely different type of IT-based career. Does that surprise you?

Trevor O’Brien: Yes. I didn’t know about this world of creative interest in technology when I was a student and even today, when I talk at schools, they don’t know that a career on Madison Avenue is an option. The students only know the big tech players. I knew nothing about the creative space and the use of technologies to do creative things.

Charlene: How has the advertising industry evolved since you first started?

Trevor: When I first started my agency career, they were trying to figure out what to do with people like me - for example, which meetings to attend. And the project process was linear – once the creative was done it was then passed on to the technologists to place on platforms etc. But now we are collected into a project team, which is much more intuitive. Technologists, like creatives, are problem solvers and it all works well. At Deutsch, all participants working on a project that will take a month or two to complete meet in a room called a War Room in order to organize and prioritize. The team works on the project through its duration including design and software within and through the creative phase. The space has matured enough so there is value in having a creative technologist alongside a director, for example.

Charlene: Can you give me an example of a War Room project?

Trevor: Yes. We are excited about our client ACUVUE which is the premier contact lens company owned by J&J. In February we started a global website that was specifically developed for that brand. It allowed us to use the War Room model – with a producer, designer etc – to envision the user experience from all angles with all of us sitting together in the new development process. Every two weeks we would deliver a new piece of the project for review by the group to assess and attach storytelling to the general brand advertising and media mix. This was a business changer for the client. We will be launching in multiple markets this year. A.I. will impact how the content will connect to consumers.

Charlene: How important is TV in the media mix at this time and as it moves into connected TV?

Trevor: My expertise is primarily in digital but I work closely with our Chief Creative Officer, Dan Kelleher. We try to look at ideas with both a TV and digital execution. I was involved in personalizing TV ads for some time, based on browser data, so the consumer can see different versions of the creative at the same time. I see the future of TV as more addressable, more cloud based technology where the video is rendered dynamically creating the potential for thousands of personalized versions that can be targeted to your TV set top box. I believe that online will move to TV and other screens. TV today is an awareness driver and measurement is still tough – it is still not a perfect science. With the move to smart TVs, then TV will move from awareness to a more personalized messaging to you to better connect you with a brand.

Charlene: What advice would you give to the next generation of IT students?
Trevor: For me, the days of tech people being confined to dark backrooms are gone. The nerd is the new cool. There are new ways to take your talent in new creative ways. Take your technical knowledge and discover new ways to use it to do new things. There is so much data and there will be so much more. We need amazing data scientists who are also creative and have the ability to tell stories using data. The data scientist who can bring a narrative to the numbers will be golden.

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Rubicon Project Reveals the Secret of Programmatic Buying and Selling Success in Contexxt

Rubicon Project, a programmatic buying and selling firm, recently completed a study with data firm Contexxt that demonstrated the effectiveness of programmatic advertising. The study concluded that buying ads programmatically can increase return on investment by 20 percent, and raise bottom line sales by 5 percent.
The study, to be released this week, carefully noted that these results will not be realized unless there is a strategy at the onset of a campaign. Mari Kim Novak, Global CMO Rubicon Project, explained, “You also need smart a thoughtful strategy with smart allocation across desktop, mobile, and video. Brands that are thoughtful about their channel-specific investment are the ones that will maximize returns from their overall programmatic strategy.”

The study set out to understand the impact of programmatic across all channels, how properly executed programmatic campaigns could impact sales and the impact of marketing return on investment via programmatic. “Programmatic will continue to grow in revenue and importance to advertisers as we continue to increase the level of consumer response level data,” noted Shelly Zallis, CEO Contexxt.
The methodology included a focus on $20.0 Billion in spend analyzed across Fortune 500 companies in ten vertical categories. Multivariate data sets were created to determine the channel allocation, creative unit and sales impact. Included was competitive action and cost data in order to determine measurable business results. Additionally, comprehensive tactics included time decay, reach, frequency and flighting.

Here are the conclusions:
           The average brand should double their programmatic allocation
Doubling the percentage of programmatic media spend from 4 percent, which is the average for Fortune 500 brands, to 8 percent will yield the optimal return on investment and sales outcomes. Investing less, according to the study, means that brands are leaving sales and ROI on the table.
           Use private marketplaces to leverage first party data
Applying a brand’s own customer data and intelligence to campaigns is one of the most impactful ways a brand can leverage programmatic. More advanced tactics using customer data can present even more incremental efficiencies.
    Allocating for the future
      There are differences in media behavior between younger and older audiences. Younger audiences are more fragmented and their media consumption habits are more on-demand than appointment based. The younger your target, the greater the media budget allocation should be towards programmatic. Twelve percent is the optimal level for this audience, according to the study results.
          Mobile and video
Mobile and Video are two areas where programmatic buying can help brands reach consumers where they are and make the right decisions about what to show them and when. The study concludes that mobile should represent 33 percent of a brand’s programmatic investment, and video should represent 35 percent, keeping in mind that video and mobile can overlap.

“We at Rubicon Project believe that the average brand should double their programmatic allocation, advertisers should use private marketplaces to leverage first party data and brands should be allocating for the future, especially in Mobile and Video,” concluded Novak.

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Making Agencies Better Than Ever. Interview with Ben Kirshner

The agency business has been undergoing change, not least of which is through the ability to leverage new technology to deliver the best messaging to the right consumer at the right time. 

Fourteen years ago, Ben Kirshner, CEO of Elite, started Coffee for Less, which was an online store for all things coffee. “When I hired an agency for search marketing, I realized quickly that the people who cared most about my business were the salespeople, because they got commissions. The account managers were the most important people, but the agency kept switching them on me. I was re-educating account managers four times a year, and none of them had any passion for my business.” So Ben decided to create Elite, an agency which gives all employees a share in overall agency profits. With such a provocative agency offering, I asked Ben about his business, how it impacts the industry and how it might impact the future of agencies in general.

Charlene Weisler: Tell me about your current job. What exactly does your agency do?

Ben Kirshner: We don’t do the creative; we plan and buy the media so that more people click on clients’ ads and buy their products. We started in paid search marketing, and now we also do organic search, display advertising, social media advertising, and shopping ads with the data feeds supporting them. We’re also growing fast in the area of conversion rate optimization, which means getting people who come to your website to buy more. 

Charlene: Who is in your competitive set?

Ben: We typically get contacted when a brand is looking for a digital specialist to partner with their full-service or creative agency. That said, we mostly run up against 3Q Digital, Rimm Kaufman group, iCrossing and iProspect. They’ve been around a long time, so they were leaders out of the gate. We’re of similar sizes and client bases, in the middle ground between the five-person startups and the 1,000-person giants. The five-person startups lack thought leadership, while the 1,000-person giants fall into anarchy.

Charlene: What is your definition of performance marketing?

Ben: Anything where the medium and the goal are measurable. We are held accountable for achieving clients’ advertising goals. There’s no subjectivity in what we do. Our clients count money, not impressions. We have to deliver enough customers, paying enough money, to meet cost-per-sale goals on weekly and monthly bases. When we set realistic goals, we meet them. If we didn’t, we’d get fired immediately.

Performance means digital now because the media is more measurable. Eventually, all media will be, from a TV ad to a billboard.

Charlene: What is your agency doing to help marketers deal with a more demanding digital environment?

Ben: We’re bringing clients broader counsel and deeper execution across digital media. Over the past year, we’ve created specialties in four key disciplines – shopping and feed (data), CRO (conversion rate optimization), performance display, and paid social. These operate as pieces of a whole, thanks to the way we share information and successful practices. You can’t be good across the frontiers without specializing, because each of the emerging areas is complex and deep, and the real value comes from knowing things that a generalist would miss. You have to know how the engine works at the level of each bolt. It takes master mechanics working together. Every week, our teams come together and share what’s working, and what’s not, so we can bring all of our client work up a notch.

Charlene: What data, if any, do you collect and how is it used to forward your business?

Ben: Data is our everything. Our account teams are analyzing data and making adjustments day in and day out. We’re constantly looking at website analytics – store information, revenues, traffic, purchases – to determine how much it’s costing to get each visitor and buyer. For example, if we see our campaign’s leading 40% more people to our client’s site, but they’re not buying the unique products with higher gross margins, we can immediately focus marketing on those items. Also, we’re always exploring new terms and new ways to segment campaigns for optimization.

From a business standpoint, we look at client NPS, or net promoter score, twice a year. We also ask our clients quarterly, using the Client Heartbeat tool, what we can improve upon. We want to identify issues and solve them in real time.

Charlene: Looking ahead the next 3-5 years, give me some predictions about how the agency and media landscape in general will look.

Ben: Google will be the place all media flows through to be placed, traced, tracked, optimized and reported on. If you want to buy TV commercial programmatically you’ll do it through Google. The same with radio ads. As a result, all of the media planning and buying teams will use the same toolkit. We will have solved the attribution problem because we have one persistent tracking mechanism. And mobile will be the ideal place to buy. Your phone will be more than a wallet; it will be your computer to buy, browse, and compare. People will still need to work on big screen, but mobile will be gatekeeper for everything we buy. It will be considered normal to walk through Macy’s, scan an item and click to have it shipped to your home from the nearest distribution center.

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