4As Management 2006

Browner sets out GM plan

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General Motors Corp. marketing chief Michael Browner is upbeat about Starcom MediaVest Worldwide's role as his company's media planning partner. In a conversation with Advertis-ing Age Reporter Richard Linnett, the executive dismisses talk of GM cutting ad budgets and sings the praises of the agency's unique research capabilities.

Mr. Browner has more than 30 years' experience to draw upon in evaluating media buying capabilities. In 1986 Philip Guarascio, general manager of marketing and advertising for GM's North American Operations, decided to create a new position, the executive director of media. To fill it, GM reached out to a marketing executive at the Texize division of Dow Consumer Products named Michael Browner.

Starting on the agency side in New York at Lennen & Newell and N.W. Ayer, Mr. Browner joined Lever Bros. in 1970 and became manager of its media department. He later worked at American Can Co. and Texize (now DowBrands). Following last year's departure of Mr. Guarascio, Mr. Browner was promoted to executive director-media and marketing operations. GM Planworks, GM Eventworks and GM's new regional and promotion/sponsorship agency, GM R*Works, report to him. At Lever and Texize, Mr. Browner had worked with the agencies of Starcom MediaVest, including Leo Burnett Co. and Benton & Bowles.

AA: What sold you on Starcom MediaVest?

Mr. Browner: They are very internally motivated to do excellent work. They do not require the client to motivate them. That was my experience with them at Benton & Bowles, at DMB&B after that, with Leo Burnett. They really have earned my trust.

AA: What is Starcom MediaVest's competitive edge?

Mr. Browner: The agency has got every significant tool available to them that a planning agency needs to do a great job. Every media planner there has got the same tools available [as] the media director. That's different from some other agencies that I've worked with over the years. ... It's a powerful thing ... a tremendous asset to the client because you know that everyone there has access to the best of the best. The agency philosophy is about a minimum amount of data crunching by people and a maximum amount of crunching by computer, so that people have time to ponder what it all means.

AA: How far along is GM Planworks?

Mr. Browner: Starcom MediaVest has populated GM Planworks with the strongest team I've ever worked with. I don't believe there are any weak spots. They have hired the best of the best from our old system, and they have recruited outstanding talent from outside of the system and outside of Detroit. We have a tremendous research capability headed by Jana O'Brien and Jane Spittler, two of the strongest research people I know. They have a substantial staff both on the ground in Detroit and in Chicago. They are intimately and integrally involved with the planners, so that as new learning is generated, it is disseminated among the planners so that it is used quickly.

AA: What was the highlight of the transition so far?

Mr. Browner: There probably is a mini-story here about how quickly GM made the decision to [consolidate planning], and how quickly we executed the decision and the choice, and how quickly the folks at Starcom MediaVest staffed and got up and running. It took just months. That is incredible for something of this size.

AA: Did you also make this choice because you saw the potential for good chemistry between Starcom MediaVest and your media buying agencies at Interpublic Group of Cos.?

Mr. Browner: You bet that was a major factor. Remember, [Interpublic's GM] Mediaworks and Local Communications Inc. existed under our old planning organization, too. That absolutely was a factor [in the decision to hire Starcom MediaVest]. All of our planning agencies before this reorganization really did a good job of working cooperatively and collaboratively with the buying units that were not part of their family. [Publicis Groupe's] Hal Riney did a great job working with the Mediaworks and LCI folks. They were fond of each other as well as respected each other, and the proof of that was they used to go to lunch together periodically without anyone forcing it.

AA: Do you ever plan to merge Planworks and Mediaworks at Starcom MediaVest?

Mr. Browner: We are absolutely not considering that [merging those two agencies]. And, in fact, it has been said to all of our agencies. We have no intention of listening to pitches to put it all together. Frankly, this gives us access, from different angles admittedly, but this gives us access to the global resources of two of the most powerful agency families in the history of the business.

AA: Has GM cut its ad spending budgets significantly?

Mr. Browner: General Motors has been a major player in many of the major and the secondary media forms for a long time. The stories that have been circulating around about this enormous budget cut we took in television, they are simply not right. We've shifted resources around, which is not an unusual thing to do. And yes, we exercised some cancellation options, but let's remember, that's a cancellation of what we bought in the upfront, which sometimes turns out to be a little more than you wanted. It sometimes also turns out to be a little less than you wanted, so you go and buy more. But all we really did was reallocate our assets to various buckets in the advertising area. There really isn't a story there. It's too bad that the press jumped on something that had been done erroneously by a financial analyst and wrote the stories about gigantic cuts in spending.

AA: How is Starcom MediaVest going to help GM achieve its goals over the next few years?

Mr. Browner: The story for us that I would write is really a lot of very high-quality proprietary research [by the agency] ... which will then be disseminated and utilized across our business units and used in their behalf in writing what we really believe will be excellent, better than ever media planning ... We are bringing many millions of dollars to the table to fund proprietary research, because we are convinced that the next great paradigm in terms of improvement is going to come from more learning applied across all of our businesses.