The Media Agency of the Future Will Be Able to Buy Google

But Starcom MediaVest's Nancy Mullahy Explains Why It Won't

By Published on .

NEW YORK ( -- The agency of the future, said Nancy Mullahy, exec VP-managing director, Starcom MediaVest, "will have the capability of buying Google."
Nancy Mullahy, speaking about change at today's AWNY breakfast, said, 'Within disorder options appear that were never considered before.'
Nancy Mullahy, speaking about change at today's AWNY breakfast, said, 'Within disorder options appear that were never considered before.' Credit: David M. Russell

The future
But it won't. "Instead of engaging in a fiercely competitive bidding war [for Google], they will choose to work with a start-up, one that transmits digital imaging directly on to any surface in any home. They'll be the first agency to sell the fourth dimension in visual and surround sound for the images projected into the home. The agency of the future will be happy to place the imaging within monitors, home appliances, on the side of a measuring cup, in traditional books, on the side of glass."

Everything Ms. Mullahy needed for dreaming up this powerful yet adaptable media agency she learned in her 19 years at MediaVest. As the latest speaker in the Ad Women of New York's Boardroom Breakfast series, she recently shared her insights into the core values that will help agencies survive the ever-changing media environment and eventually lead the industry.

Ms. Mullahy, who spent time in countries during times of strife and change, discussed five points she culled from those experiences she feels will be hallmarks of the agency of the future.

"Focus on the flyers" was Ms. Mullahy's first lesson. As an exchange student in Panama during the early '80s when Manuel Noriega came to power, she watched as TV stations were censored and newspapers shut down.

Order from disorder
"Within disorder," she told AWNY members, "options appear that were never considered before." For the Panamanians, that came in the form of flyers printed out of offices and word of mouth that eventually made the international press take notice. For media agencies today, the importance is not to focus so much on what is lost -- the 30-second spot, say -- but rather what the new product will be that will get the message out.

Lesson two was derived from Ms. Mullahy's 1994 sojourn in Russia when the marketplace was freshly cracked open and advertising "was a means to attaining distribution." Product presence on TV or radio was a sign of permanence and the rush to get a product's name out into the public often meant there was not much time to consider creative. Meanwhile, visiting Western marketers would ask for benchmarks and updates on the competition. As Ms. Mullahy put it: "When you are creating history, when there aren't any models that exist and people are trying to create paths to look for benchmarks, to look for case studies, to look for what your competition is doing means you are already late."

While she recognizes that some clients would be reluctant to consider an "act and then validate" approach, Ms. Mullahy maintains that metrics will follow the great innovations and great innovations will well serve an agency long before the metrics will be put in place to quantify them.

Agility and imagination
In 2000, Ms. Mullahy was in Mexico as the head of Starcom Mexico, then the second-largest media agency in the country. Over the course of the next three years the company nearly tripled in size. The key to its growth? Agility and imagination.

"We had to go out and be agile and flexible in terms of what we able to do. We had to move on answers for every single client and what we didn't offer, we had to imagine and create," she said. She feels these two qualities are imperatives for agency longevity.

The fourth lesson came from Chile in the late '90s when cellphone companies flooded the country and Chileans were quick to snap wireless gadgets up. When the government, concerned for traffic safety, started to enforce a law disallowing driving while chit-chatting on mobile phones, it discovered that many of the phones Chileans held up to the ears didn't even work. The adoption of the technology was way ahead of the capability to use it. What Ms. Mullahy wants media agencies to embrace is the idea that "consumers are seduced by technology, even if they can't use it." They will respond and adapt to advances in technology, just as technology that lasts will respond and adapt to the consumers.

Ms. Mullahy returned to the U.S. for the setting of her final lesson. In a recent visit to her sister, Ms. Mullahy watched as her 2-year-old niece surfed the Teletubbies website and reflected on the learning process of trial and error.

Capacity to learn
Today, the prevailing approach is to "just pick things up and mash. How else do you get to level 15 in a game?" she said. The take-away for agencies is the idea that "it's not what you know today, it's your capacity to learn tomorrow." Continual investment in education will keep any agency on top.

"It's hard to imagine," she said, "and it's hard to learn and it's hard to act and then validate, but I think the agency of the future will have all these attributes and they will be successful."
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