Is Experience in Media and Advertising Overrated?

When We Presented No Credentials or Case Studies at a New-Business Pitch, the Client Loved it

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Anthony Young
Antony Young

Last week I spoke to a bunch of seniors at Syracuse's Newhouse communications school. I discussed how one of the leading challenges we face is trying to keep up with and remain relevant in this fast-changing media market. I realized that the students couldn't really grasp a world where everyone actually read a physical newspaper or even remember a time when network prime-time dominated. They think "Friends" and "Seinfeld" are just shows that run in syndication, they get their political news on "The Daily Show" -- which they watch online -- and nearly all of them are active tweeters. To them, the media world hasn't changed. It's just they way it is.

The students then peppered me with questions on social media. What new ways is your agency employing it for brands? How do you measure its effectiveness? How are you selling it to clients? It didn't occur to them that as a media agency, we wouldn't be deploying social media on all clients' campaigns.

It made me wonder whether our industry puts too much stock in "experience." We value it, seek it out, even sell it in our agency credentials. But is experience overrated in media when the ground is shifting so quickly?

WPP's Martin Sorrell a few years back said brands weren't moving quickly enough to digital because the people running agencies "tend to be of an older vintage," which he felt were more inclined "to be resistant to change." Clients are so often looking for new ideas and fresh thinking, yet as agencies we continue to offer up account directors, creatives and planners with category experience. (What did Einstein say about the definition of insanity?) In fact, when a new CMO arrives at a client, it's the agency's habit of sticking to what worked in the past that so often gets it into trouble.

In new business, agencies frequently like to speak to their experience, but do clients place the same importance on it? In a recent new-business meeting we had with a prospect, I insisted that we not present any credentials or client case-studies. The pitch team was unsure but agreed to go with it. The clients' feedback: Of all the agencies they met, we impressed them the most.

Agencies at the top of the tree do seem to be figuring out that direct experience isn't as essential as it once seemed. Consider the number of non-American execs that appear to be doing very well heading U.S. media agencies. The roll call includes Nick Brien (McCann Worldgroup), Richard Beaven (Initiative), Nigel Morris (Aegis), Martin Cass ( Carat), Phil Cowdell ( Mindshare) and Tim Jones (ZenithOptimedia). I could even add myself to that list. This would seem to suggest that deep experience in U.S. media isn't a prerequisite for being successful.

In fact, it would appear that in many cases, having little direct experience in a sector might be an advantage. Joe Uva completed a very successful stint as head of Univision. The Italian-American former CEO of OMD and TV exec didn't even speak Spanish. Kevin Roberts spent his career as a client at P&G, Pepsi and Lion Nathan before being appointed to run Saatchi & Saatchi. And I recently had the pleasure of meeting Greg Osberg, a former magazine and internet executive who is now CEO and president of Philadelphia Media Network and appears to be doing an imposing job shaking up the newspaper company.

Of course, many will point to numerous examples of a complete outsider coming into a role only to fail miserably. But for every one of those, I'd count many more examples of insiders with the right experience on paper who have been misses.

I'm not discounting grey hair. Many will know I've got plenty of my own on offer. However, my advice is not to discard a resume too quickly because of a lack of relevant experience or many years spent acquiring it. One thing that attracted me to this business is that someone once told me that the advertising business always puts talent ahead of seniority ... qualities over qualifications ... results over style. Somehow we lost sight of that. It's my view that the people in our business that seem to have the highest chance of success are those that have unbridled passion, electric enthusiasm and a constant appetite to figure out the next new thing before the other guy or gal. At least that's what I've found in my experience!

Antony Young is the CEO of Optimedia U.S., a Publicis Groupe media strategy and buying agency headquartered in New York. He recently published his second book, "Brand Media Strategy: Integrated Communications Planning in a Digital Era," a Palgrave-MacMillan and Advertising Age publication.
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