At a speech to the Newspaper Association of America's annual conference last year, and at a series of meetings, Starcom executives urged publishers to start behaving like they had competition for local ad budgets. Monopoly tendencies, Starcom argued, had made audience data too hard to find and ads too hard to buy.
"Please make it easier," Starcom USA Chief Client Officer Andrew Swinand implored the publishers in a brief respite from excoriating them. "It's just too hard."
The message got through, and the result is likely to benefit newspapers as well as the marketers and agencies that place ads in them. "Starcom was responsible for the 'Aha!' moment," says Todd Haskell, VP-business development at The New York Times. "They shared how important papers are to their clients but how hard they are to do business with. They made it clear they had big clients who would invest more heavily if we addressed some of the realities, and that got our attention."
Universal data format
Just the kind of results you'd expect from Advertising Age's Media Agency of the Year. Publishers of seven of the largest metro newspapers huddled with Starcom and other agencies and developed a universal template for stating all market, rate, demographic, online and other data in a common format. While the NAA was involved, Starcom was a leader in getting the changes in motion, and the publishers drafted the changes.
It wasn't that Starcom was just pouncing on a venerable ad medium under relentless pressure to modernize. The agency in 2006 also produced innovations that could revolutionize the way ads are bought on TV and the internet. Starcom, while adding a slew of new clients and defending two big accounts, completed an ambitious internal restructuring that brought it closer to the media-agnostic pose prized by most shops.
"We have a very long history of innovation," USA CEO John Muszynski says. "And we do it so our clients can benefit from that."
New business wins
Starcom reaped the benefits of that positioning with a series of new-business wins, landing a number of new assignments.
Despite an enviable record, the Media Agency of the Year distinction is less about Starcom's new business than its leadership in revamping both its internal structure and how it works with the media industry. While advertising and media agencies blustered about being "media-neutral," Starcom reshuffled its top executives in a manner that brought the agency closer to achieving this than any of its peers.
Under Starcom's new structure, unveiled last August, none of the four agency presidents reporting to Mr. Muszynski represents a single medium or discipline. A chief consumer officer (Steven Fueling) is charged with discovering insights into consumer behavior, passing those findings on to a chief activation officer (Chris Boothe), who uses those insights to make spending choices. Then, the chief client officer (Mr. Swinand) uses a variety of traditional and nontraditional metrics to determine whether those choices were effective.
The result, Starcom executives and clients say, is a structure that emphasizes marketer needs over agency fiefdoms.
Changing with the marketplace
"A lot of agencies haven't changed with the marketplace," Mr. Boothe says. "We needed to create a model that was a little more nimble and flexible."
Restructuring is all well and good, but the real test comes in getting calcified media such as newspapers and broadcast TV to meet advertisers' fast-evolving needs. And Starcom last year either offered innovations or successfully pushed for reforms that are likely to change the way advertising is purchased or evaluated on TV, in newspapers and on the internet.
In November, Starcom signed the first media-agency deal with TNS Media Research to offer second-by-second measurement of TV audiences. The data are limited to 300,000 homes served by Charter Communications in the Los Angeles market and don't account for time-delayed viewing on DVRs. But the deal should provide more granular insight into viewing habits than was previously available.
365-day-a-year upfront market
"With the landscape changing, we knew we'd have to find more access to better and more actionable data," says Mr. Muszynski, who made news last April by declaring the death of the TV upfront. New-media opportunities and multiple-platform deals, he said at the time, are creating a "365-day-a-year upfront market ... that engages people in new environments throughout the year."
He said the way the upfront played out last year vindicated his prediction, as it was a wholly changed entity. "Almost every programmer came to us with ideas for video, podcasts, HD, mobile ... and we built these extensions into every single one of our advertisers' plans."
In January, after months of development, the agency announced another new measurement breakthrough, a tool called "multiple-attribution protocol" intended to measure the effectiveness of internet ads that don't lead to a click or purchase. Some ads, such as home-page takeovers, don't lead to clicks but create significant brand impressions. Using the multiple-attribution protocol, which it developed in tandem with web firm Blackfoot and Theorem Analytics, Starcom may ultimately be better able to determine the right mix of display and text advertising for marketers using online media.
Starcom was similarly innovative in helping its clients reach consumers in creative ways. A Playtex-branded tape-measure inserted in O, the Oprah Magazine urged consumers to visit the Playtex website to see if they were wearing the correct bra size. (Playtex research found that 95% of women don't.) It staged street fashion shows for client Luxottica's Vogue Eyewear line. And it placed viral video of a "beer cannon" developed for Miller Brewing Co.'s Milwaukee's Best brand on YouTube, where millions of viewers watched.
Starcom's clients say such novel approaches to promoting their brands work, in part, because the agency has become so adept at measuring their effectiveness.
"They're creating the future in the industry and bringing us along with them," says Jackie Woodward, Miller Brewing Co.'s VP-programming, media and marketing. "They're creating the future in the industry and bringing us along with them."