Time Warner amplifies ad partners' message

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John Partilla arrived at Time Warner two years ago with serious cross-platform cred: During his 18-year tenure at Young & Rubicam, he had led the agency's Sony business and founded Y&R's BrandBuzz arm. The Time Warner senior VP and president of global marketing talked to correspondent Larry Dobrow about ROI, ROA and the worldwide challenges of balancing the creative with the scientific.

You'll be talking at the Global Marketer Summit 2006 in September about the dichotomy of trends in the ad world: on one hand, a move toward return on investment and quantitative research, and, on the other, a move toward customization and creativity. Tell us a little more about this.

In a lot of the conversations we're having, there's discussion and maybe a little anxiety about this duality-a tremendous focus on the science aspect of the business, but also on customized, handcrafted, creatively generated programs and ideas that help clients differentiate themselves.

When you talk about media, media-purchase habits and consumption, there's this insatiable quest and appetite by clients to obtain harder metrics, more ROI, more analytical ability to review the efficacy of media and creative programs. Clients and media agencies have a general feeling of confidence that they're laying down an effective footprint ... so there's a lot of reliance on software modeling. But they're also spending an equal amount of time on the creative and customized aspects of their programs. It requires everybody to focus on a range of different issues.

How has this changed the dialogue between marketers and Time Warner, especially at your global group?

Our group tends to focus on the [creative aspects]. As a large media company, the first thing you want to do is focus on the core strengths of your brands. At the same time, you have a lot of aggressive, smart selling going on within these brands individually.

We're sort of the horizontal slice of the equation. Clients come in and say, "We have a lot of our activity generated in direct fashion with other assets of Time Warner, but we also want that enterprise-wide perspective. Can you help us, if we really share what this challenge is, with a well-thought-out solution that has a powerful idea at its center and shows us which brands you'd use in support of this program and which brands you've left out and why?"

To that client, for that handful of challenges, what we hope to bring is greater objectivity across the house and a tremendous client focus. It's about balancing assets and ideas.

Can you cite how that works in a program or two?

There are two ways you can do this. The first, you come up with a powerful solution to amplify/extend an idea that's already there. The second, you create something to respond to a business challenge.

I think Johnson & Johnson is a good example of the first kind. They came in and said, "How do you help us leverage this corporate campaign we've got, 'Having a baby changes everything'? Which Time Warner assets can help us most effectively amplify this idea?" We came back with something that wasn't a stew-it wasn't one of those kitchen-sink solutions-but [instead] what we considered a selective program lineup, a tailored program against a specific problem.

What are the pressures your group is feeling?

What you're seeing is impatience with media outlets that are less quantifiable, which is making [marketers'] anxiety heightened. Clients and media agencies just have to show that measurable ROI, which is great for [video-on-demand] and digital but tougher for a few other media. They're getting less patient with other media outlets in terms of measurability. These pressures are further compounded by the thing that everybody's been talking about for years now-the fragmentation of media outlets.

Where's the plus side? We use engagement so much now, but we have to keep in mind that not every consumer wants to be deeply engaged. Sometimes a 30-second ad is just enough for someone to get a message. Sometimes you allow them to seek more information through the web or through a VOD mechanism. We have to enable consumers to engage to the extent they want on their terms.

So how do you respond to that?

Something we have to look at as an industry is that the scarcest resource is attention. Why aren't we talking about how consumers evaluate return on attention? I think you have to balance ROA-return on attention-with ROI. For a product, the questions maybe we should be asking: How much did it engage, frustrate or excite the audience? How are people evaluating the message? If brands start considering themselves less guardians and more hosts of conversations, ROA will come through. People will say, "My time was well-spent" or "I'm not finding this message credible." They'll react accordingly.

Are you sensing some of the same trends in markets abroad, particularly Eastern Europe?

With Eastern Europe, there are only two macro trends I can touch on. One, considerably more money is being spent in these markets as they mature in spending power, not just population. Second, from the client perspective, you're still seeing lots of fragmentation there, lots of little projects going on. There's increasing pressure in these markets to prioritize against a few key objectives-a more robust media plan and program vs. fewer initiatives.

Here and abroad, how are clients responding to your approach?

In the last two years, there's been an incredible advance in receptivity. This stuff's a little bit harder than it used to be, you know? There's more "How do I dive in and build differentiated programs for my brand needs?"
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