|Photo: John Boehm|
John Muszynski, Starcom's CEO, is way beyond the fray over commercial ratings. 'Gimme a break,' he says.
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The cereal brand was built on creative advertising starring its animated Tony the Tiger mascot, and for years the job of its media buyers and planners was simply to figure out where to run the ads they had little, if any, say in creating.
But as Kim Miller, VP-morning foods marketing at Kellogg Co., tells it, the effectiveness of that strategy had been diminishing for some time.
Commercials on networks such as Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network were no longer enough to connect with the 6- to 11-year-olds the brand targeted. Frosted Flakes needed a new approach.
Kids like kids
Kellogg's media agency, Starcom USA, delivered the key insight: Kids were inspired by, and aspired to be, other kids.
So Starcom supplemented Frosted Flakes' presence on kids' networks by bringing Kellogg's "Earn Your Stripes" campaign to ESPN. It put a kid reporter on TV (covering the Little League World Series, among other events) and created a kids-only hub on ESPN.com.
It wasn't an intuitive choice, necessarily, because the ESPN brand skews adult, and it's much more common to find ads for beer than for kiddie cereals there.
But the move stoked sales with the sports-crazed kids the brand depends on.
"In retrospect, ESPN was not necessarily a comfortable place for us, and it took a leap of faith for us to shift significant resources there," Ms. Miller says. "It's probably not something we would have done if we hadn't ... integrated Starcom into the front end of our process."
Because the Publicis Groupe-owned shop wielded similar insights -- products of industry-leading research -- for some of 2007's biggest tech and beer launches while piling up more new business, Starcom USA takes another lap as Ad Age's U.S. Media Agency of the Year.
The Chicago-based agency also snared the award last year, and this latest win marks the fifth time since 2001 it's been named top U.S. media shop (sharing the honor several times with sibling MediaVest).
That dominance, says Starcom USA CEO John Muszynski, is rooted in a culture deeply vested in researching and understanding consumer behavior -- and not being partial to any particular form of media when searching for client solutions.
It's a culture that tries to figure out which part of a commercial is most-watched, while others debate whether to measure the commercial at all.
"A few months ago, I sat on a panel and listened to some of my competitors arguing program ratings vs. commercial ratings," Mr. Muszynski says. "Gimme a break."
That attitude has manifested itself in almost annual windfalls of new business, and 2007 was no exception.
Starcom won a competitive pitch for Samsung's $600 million account, as well as U.S. Cellular ($150 million), United Airlines ($100 million), PetSmart ($60 million), and Del Monte Foods' StarKist and Milk-Bone accounts ($20 million total), among others. The agency did suffer two significant losses in Macy's and Washing-ton Mutual, totaling about $400 million in billings, though that's less than half of what it took in.
But Starcom's success last year was better measured by its ability to take high-profile launches to market with evident and immediate success.
Longtime client Nintendo launched its much-anticipated Wii system in late 2006, fueled by the Starcom-mined insight that parents, the ones who make the purchasing decisions, and casual gamers who didn't already have systems were the right target, a break from the conventional wisdom of selling to hard-core gamers. Starcom targeted adults: A spread in Family Circle promoted a family game night, and HGTV put the console in its gift guide. Wii sold more than 1.1 million consoles in its first 44 days on the market, better than 10% ahead of Nintendo's target, and has continued to outsell competitors since.
Starcom took a different tack with longtime client Miller Brewing Co.'s launch of Miller Chill, a lime-and-salt-flavored light beer that was conceived as a response to booming sales of craft, import and specialty beers. In a test in primarily South-west markets, Miller Chill saturated the airwaves with ads, an unusual step at that stage. Miller and Starcom followed that successful test by building national buzz for the brand's rapid summer rollout through aggressive sampling and some unorthodox media buys designed to generate discussion.
Cranking up the thermostat
A "live commercial" on NBC's "Late Night With Conan O'Brien" featured bandleader Max Weinberg starring in a Japanese anime ad in which he had Chill bottles for arms and giggling female Japanese onlookers cheered him on. A clever digital play on Weather.com showed ads only when the temperature rose above 80 degrees to emphasize the brand's refreshment. Starcom also used copious amounts of traditional media and out-of-home.
It worked. Chill's $40.8 million in supermarket sales was five times more than the next-largest start-up beer brand in 2007, according to Information Resources Inc.
"The media plan played a large role in Miller Chill's launch success," says Miller Chief Marketing Officer Randy Ransom. "There were several creative media applications that created buzz and helped define the brand."
Starcom's executives and clients say it's not a coincidence that the agency that keeps unearthing brand-boosting insights is also perhaps the most aggressive at forming new ventures that help it research changes in the way media are consumed.
Starcom was the first agency to partner with TNS Media Intelligence to get second-by-second ratings (for the Charter Communi-cations cable system in Los An-geles); the first to do a minute-by-minute ratings deal in the upfront market (with Discovery Channel); and the first media agency to enroll in TiVo's StopWatch service to study time-shifted viewing.
Mr. Muszynski says translating those deals into solutions for marketers, as well as winning back big financial services and retail clients, is a top priority for the year ahead.
|BIG WINS IN 2007|
The other major change ahead at Starcom is its shift into a miniature holding company within Publicis called the Insight Factory. It is, in effect, a rebundling of the media shop with creative sibling Leo Burnett, which spawned Starcom during the 1990s. (Digital sibling Digitas is also bundled into the group.)
Back then, Burnett's creatives dictated strategy on marketers such as Kellogg, and Starcom's planners were asked simply to put the already-made spots where they might fit.
That, Mr. Muszynski says, is not how it works anymore.
"We used to get called in very late in the process. After the strategy and creative were already set, we'd be asked to put together an exposure plan for it," he recalls. "Now we're equals, and the creatives produce the idea we formulate together."