Mediavest's Laura Desmond: Digital Reality is Now

Q&A With Ad Age's Jonah Bloom

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- This year it seems Laura Desmond has spent half her time on stage receiving awards and acclaim -- just last month she was inducted into the AAF Hall of Achievement and feted as an Advertising Age Media Maven.
Laura Desmond

It's easy to see why. Mediavest has snagged a lot of new business since she took the helm in 2002 -- including major assignments for Coca-Cola Co. and Procter & Gamble Co. -- and made headlines with innovative work in the consumer-insight, planning and research areas. Desmond is sharp, thoughtful, refreshingly frank and seems to be liked, as well as respected, by staff and clients alike.

MediaWorks caught up with MediaVest USA's CEO at Michael's for frittatas and seasonal berries last week and asked her about P&G, the death of the 30-second spot, search engines and the strengths -- or weaknesses -- of ad agencies.

MediaWorks: Congratulations on landing the Gillette business.

Desmond: Thanks, we're very happy. You know we love working for P&G. If there's one company we learn from it's them.

MediaWorks: Why do you think they gave it to you?

Desmond: I hope it's because they have a lot of confidence in our ability to transform the way Gillette does business. They have a very GRP-based approach right now and I think they trust us to make them broader and more holistic in their thinking, hopefully without too much disruption.

MediaWorks: Let's talk digital. Why don't you have a branded digital practice?

Desmond: We have more than 20 digital experts in the agency now, and our goal is to make the entire agency digital from the inside-out. I know other agencies have separately branded, separately run digital practices, but that's missing the point. Digital is no longer an emerging practice, and one day all communications will be digital. We want to build digital expertise across all of our teams from within. We're looking at a world where, in a few short years, upper income A-B consumers may not watch TV commercials because they have the technology to opt out across the board. I keep saying we have to be prepared that the :30 goes away, at least for some consumer groups. We've got to be digital first.

MediaWorks: I've heard a couple of people lately say that the move towards digital media is turning the media agencies into creators. Do you agree?

Desmond: We are definitely moving towards a time when we're innovating platforms and not just placing creative. We're art directing media buys. It's like, hey, Ed Erhardt, we want to be part of the ESPN roadshow, but we want to be involved in this way and we want the show to look like this. Where digital is concerned that's particularly true. If we go to Yahoo, we're not just going to buy a banner, but we're going to say we want a streaming feed and it's going to take people to this microsite that we've created.

MediaWorks: So does that mean you have to bring creatives in?

Desmond: It's not so much a question of where does the best creative come from. The real focus is on content, and there are many people in the industry creating content. The creative agencies certainly do it, so does the production community, the content owners, and us. The point is, wherever they live, we need "creatives" who develop content in whatever form the consumer wants it, when they want it. In the context of today's programming environment, we need to create inventory and "art direct" the buys. These skills are as critical to us as buying and planning.

MediaWorks: Do the ad agencies get that? Do they partner with you?

Desmond: Sometimes. Of course we go to the virtual network of agencies within Publicis and sometimes other agencies too. But we've also run up against agencies who don't get it. We need a quick set of digital vignettes and they are saying this will take 10 weeks and cost $3 million, when what we actually need is something in a couple of days that costs $200,000.

MediaWorks: So where do you go?

Desmond: Well, lots of places. But let's not forget the production companies here. They do some pretty amazing work.

MediaWorks: So what happens to the ad agencies if the world shifts away from the :30 and they're not yet adjusted to the new digital imperatives?

Desmond: Well, some are adjusting, but certainly it's going to weed out some places that don't get it, because digital isn't just a channel, it requires a whole new mindset. And it's not just the ad agencies. We all have to understand search and how to manipulate search, because in a digital world everything is searchable. ITunes is just a search engine if you think about it, and in the future there'll be an iTunes for everything. Consumers are going to initiate their contact with content via search, so if you don't know how to make that work for your content it's a big problem.

MediaWorks: What about compensation in the digital realm? Surely media agencies are going to need to be paid differently if you're buying less TV and becoming digital creators?

Desmond: Absolutely. And some clients are further ahead in understanding this than others, they expect it should be cheaper but it's more expensive, because you are customizing, looking after ad serving and measuring in real time. The targetability and measurability require more time and people and that makes them more expensive, especially as salaries for people with digital expertise are rising so rapidly. Some of those people can almost write their own checks again. It's back to '99, although this time with more reason.

Want to eat (or drink) with Jonah? E-mail him at jbloom@crain.com

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