Optimum sees its billings soar

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Optimum Media President Page Thompson is a student of media trivia. Example: In 1951 what was the rating of the first "I Love Lucy" TV show?

"It was 67," he says, but the answer is less important than the point behind it.

"You don't see [those kind of numbers] now," he says. "That's what water-cooler media was about, when you could talk about the TV shows you watched the night before with anyone you ran into at the water cooler and they knew what your were talking about.

"People don't watch television that way any more. They don't read magazines or listen to radio that way." In 1965, he says, the Burke 24-Hour Recall survey, which scored the rate at which viewers can recall commercials within programming contexts, indicated a correct identification rate of 18%. "We tracked them again in 1990," he says, "and the rate was 4%."


It's a good thing Mr. Thompson, now 49, got into advertising young. He's had a lot to adjust to since joining Needham, Harper & Steers when it was a $200 million agency in 1977 after brief spells at J. Walter Thompson and McCaffrey & McCall. Today he presides over two parallel DDB entities billing $3 billion: the traditional DDB media department and Optimum Media.

"Optimum is the media service division of DDB," he says, explaining the distinction. "It does all the buying and all the research, and it's a resource for all the offices in the planning group. It runs as a separate profit center and competes for media assignments outside DDB in the open market. The trend in the business is that while clients look to their regular agency for full service, they also want a presentation on alternate media capabilities, and that's what Optimum does."

Among Optimum's principal competitors are Y&R's Media Edge and Leo Burnett's Starcom. Media Edge was the first in the field, but DDB came along shortly afterward in mid-1996. As a profit center, it recognized media's need to manage itself and reinvest dollars in the tools and people to be competitive.

"That's what we've done," says Mr. Thompson, who's seen billings rise 150% in the last three years. "It works for all of our offices. We have regional buying operations in Los Angeles, Seattle, Chicago and New York that allow us to buy for all of our clients in those specific regions. So we give all the money to one person for those regions and we get more clout and better information."

But Optimum has not preempted the function of the traditional DDB media department, which is integrated into the agency, goes under the name of DDB Planning and serves DDB clients of record.

"That's fundamentally because we believe the integration of the media department is critical," he emphasizes, "not only in being part of the process but in leading the process and deciding where and when you reach the customers."


Mr. Thompson says he sees both growing aggressively under one critical mass and a philosophy guided by a DDB management that understands and believes in the importance of media. He also believes that DDB is perfectly positioned to undertake international assignments through Optimum Media Direction, which is the agency's global media network through Omnicom. Optimum is the DDB brand within OMD, which is, he says, the largest global media network with more than $12 billion in annual billings.

Within Omnicom, Optimum operates on its own, but can call on OMD resources for tools it wouldn't otherwise be able to afford, such as ecnonometrics modeling and optimizers, but without any sharing of strategic information or costs.

Mr. Thompson also points out that they can come together to combine clout and use that leverage to benefit clients.


DDB also competes with sister agency BBDO and its overseas brand name, Media Directions. "Let's say this," Mr. Thompson adds. "I'd rather lose to BBDO than to Media Edge."

Optimum rests on a philosophy that starts with this premise: consumers may be loyal to media vehicles, but not to what Mr. Thompson calls "media types."

"With so many choices, people are now very specific about what they watch," he says, "GRPs do not classify viewers as loyal or casual. We believe that the core audience of a show is the one we should focus on. People who make appointments to watch shows form their own personal media network.

"They are the ones more likely to see your advertising. We did a Nielsen minute-by-minute, and the increases [over casual viewers] were up to three times as high. And the recall on TVQ information was upwards of 30% higher for the loyal viewers.

"So what we now do is plot out shows based on loyalty or `core GRPs.' We look for greater interest, greater time spent, more involvement with advertising and more multiple exposures with a loyal audience. The same thing applies to magazines, by the way.

"So we've moved from buying just prime time to where we will customize day parts based on that core audience. We can increase the impact of our advertising."

In the 1950s, Mr. Thompson points out, David Ogilvy told advertisers it was what they said that was important. Then in the '60s Bill Bernbach told them that how they said it was just as critical.

"Then along came Keith Reinhard, who told them that in today's media landscape, where and when had become critical and needed to be moved forward in the process. So now we lead the strategy and creative thinking with media ideas by asking where and when these people are receptive to an ad. We call it the Aperture Concept, and it can map out people's media habits through our lifestyles study and tell us which medium they're using and why they are using it. We can intersect the personal media habits with the time and place of greatest receptivity."

With the approaching convergence of the computer, telephone and television, Mr. Thompson sometimes sounds like Colin Powell during the Gulf War describing missiles that could target a specific window in an office building.


"Digital television will transform everything," he insists, including perhaps our final buffer of privacy. "We will know which ads work and which don't. We'll be able to monitor transactions and relationships people have. We'll be able to target by town, by block, by home, and by set within the household.

"If you have multiple sets on, we will know that the 14-year-old is watching one set and can get one set of commercials, while the mother is watching another and can get a different set of commercials, and so on. They could all be watching the same show in different rooms, and each could get different commercial groups designed with a icon to get them to respond."

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