Laura Desmond, Global CEO of the Starcom Mediavest Group tells Srabana Lahiri that breaking down geographical barriers across markets, integrating big data strengths and talent pools have made for new synergies binding the local and global.
As we move towards a flat world, one business leader who fully endorses the concept of a level playing field and convergence of strengths across markets is Laura Desmond, Global CEO of the Starcom Mediavest Group.
The four years that Desmond has spent helming SMG have defined the ‘glocal’ world in a volatile, uncertain, changing and chaotic backdrop. With the Euro down and the global economy shaky, there is a new world order, a new way of going to business today and it is very different from the previous ways, feels Desmond. Her endeavour has been to break geographical barriers and integrate the company’s resources and strengths. She believes a regional structure cuts markets off from one another and stands in the way of a genuine ability to learn and have a conversation at a global level. Therefore, all of SMG’s emerging markets report directly to global headquarters, and efficiently share best practices and knowledge, making it more fast and flat.
Desmond also talks of opening up new growth avenues for talent, offering people in the company the chance to work in multiple markets or different markets other than their home market. “More than 10% of our employee base lives and works in a market other than their home market. We are literally moving across our company 850 people on an annual basis. We hope to make that around 15% of the total number of employees by 2013,” she says. “We are faster, more connected, more global and emerging markets like India are able to learn from big market experiences like the US, UK, etc., faster.”
Another front that Desmond has led is data integration, finding the most relevant data surrounding consumers and media, and putting it on one platform to get correlations and hotspots of information to help people make better decisions. She calls it Data 2.0. “It’s not just about one silver bullet... but the strategy we are driving in our data analytics approach globally. We are developing technologies and tools to allow us to do that across our planning and buying operations,” Desmond explains.
Using SMG’s ‘human experience’ argument, and unique modelling tools, Desmond successfully lured Microsoft’s $1 billion media buying account away from Universal McCann last year. According to her, applying the ‘human experience’ philosophy allows the company to really think about brands simply, their marketing challenges simply and how humans and people connect with them and connect with the media to create a relevant difference. “It keeps us upstream, forces us to focus on human understanding, human knowledge, brand usage, brand interaction; experience in a fundamentally different way,” Desmond says, counting on this to boost business in a big way. In India, she expects substantial billings from the practices set up around Insights & Analytics, Digital and Content - the ‘three big pillars’ of the company’s ‘human experience’ positioning .
‘I never really thought that I would spend 25 years with one company’
Laura Desmond was one of the youngest CEOs when she was appointed to lead Starcom Mediavest Group globally in 2008. She has proved to be a game-changer and innovator, bringing to SMG her strong belief in a flat world. In this conversation with IMPACT, she talks to Srabana Lahiri about globalization, a data-led approach to business, the importance of a work-life balance and celebrating her 25th anniversary at SMG.
Q] Mr John Sheehy, president, Global Operations, Starcom MediaVest Group had set a strong digital target for India, expecting the digital business to grow substantially. What is your view of SMG’s India market when it comes to Digital?
In some ways India’s slower progress on digital has been shocking. When you compare it to other markets like Russia, Poland, the Middle East, Brazil, even China, some of the growth has been far lower than you would expect. On the other hand, given some of the infrastructure issues around 3G and 4G, you understand why because the human experience around digital changes fundamentally when you have a 3G or 4G device. Only about 10% of the total population has access to Internet. So you see why some of the slow growth and lagging has happened. That said, in the last couple of years, India’s growth in the digital space has really increased. Its embracing of social is ahead of the curve of other markets. I like the fact that we are pacing market growth by two and half times in the digital space. I want us to lead in Digital. It is just a matter of time before analogue screens have an IP address and magazine content and publications are more focused on the tablet than on the physical book. I’m very proud of our traditional media capability and our analogue capability. That allows us to stay strong.
Q] You have rallied against the ‘market mix model’ to measure business performance in the digital age. Do you think a shift in the industry standard for gauging performances will happen anytime soon?
I’m actually for market mix modelling. It gives you information about your brand, its consumers’ return on investments (ROI). What I believe is that real time behaviour and real time consumer information that you can gain in the digital age is better than market mix modelling. It gives you real time and actual behaviour, decisions at a segmented audience level. It’s the difference between a blurry photograph and a crystal clear picture. We are evolving; 15-20 years ago, most clients and most agencies did not even work on the market mix model. Today they do, but we are going to a better thing which is real time human understanding and behaviour. So I want to push our clients and our agencies to get that kind of real time sense and response information versus being solely reliant on models and backward-looking views of the marketplace.
Q] This is the age of personalization, with brands engaging more and more with consumers at the personal level. What are some of the best ways for a media agency to keep track of consumer attitudes and behaviours and ensure that connect?
It’s really about integrating data strengths. So market mix modelling is absolutely valid. Consumer behaviour and purchase information is valid. Consumer understanding which we believe we have with ‘Youth & Moms’ and our human experience portals that are global, absolutely another critical data strength. Media behaviour and time spent with media, huge data strength. In an era of big data, we embrace having as many data streams as we possibly can and integrating them and aggregating them on some of our data platforms. So TARDIIS for example, which is an optimizer and multi-media tool that we have globally and we have here in India– that’s a great example of a technology platform that allows us to integrate multiple data streams and use that information to make better decisions with our media scheduling, purchasing and planning.
Q] Last year, you used the “human experience” argument, and your own modelling tools, to lure Microsoft’s $1 billion media buying account away from Universal McCann. So tell us more about applying the human experience factor to win business?
For us, any client challenge starts with the marketing challenge and the consumer challenge. CMOs and CEOs who are our clients want to talk about strategic issues regarding communications in marketing, not just CPMs. So our focus on human experience is really the focus that they want. They want to know that we are scaling, buying better, doing all that we can to keep their pricing low and their ROIs high. They know that and that’s part of why we were hired. But they want to have a different, bigger and broader conversation too. Some people really believe that media communications is becoming the new approach to marketing... that a marketer’s job is not to push brands to consumers and hope that they use them. A marketer’s job is to facilitate experiences between consumer and brand. If that’s the case, then the harder that has to go through media and that’s what we position ourselves for, with human experience.
Q] Do you think media agencies should be held accountable in terms of measurable results, as some clients demand? Should agencies guarantee results?
I am a big believer in skin of the game with our clients. I believe that we should grow when our clients grow. I believe that we should be linked and invested in our clients’ growth and welfare, and I believe the best clients want to invest and build capability in their media agencies too. So I like that partnership. It is perfectly good to have accountable performance metrics in any relationship, as long as they are objective, verifiable and measurable and as long as the client budgets for them. At times it is easy to budget for the downside, but you also need to budget for a fair and compelling upside. I like the performance programmes that we have with a vast majority of our clients.
Q] Do you think celebrities should be held responsible for the quality of products they endorse?
It is up to each celebrity to fully investigate and research the products they sponsor and partner with. It is up to them. It is an individual decision for a sponsor and a celebrity to partner together. It is the celebrity’s responsibility to determine what is most important and make the best decision
Q] What are the challenges you see going ahead, with another slowdown year almost upon us?
Obviously, the global economy is a bit rocky. You’ve got Euros on your shoes, you’ve got potentially a slowdown in China. India has had some slowness that people believe is more of a mid-term issue than a short-term issue. The US in general would be stronger, if it would for the fact that the Euro zone is creating a lot of uncertainty. Advertising is a lagging indicator. It doesn’t necessarily indicate that global economies are having difficulty, but because there is such a correlation between advertising and corporate profits, when the economy slows down, the gross slows down and the profits slow down, then there is overall less growth in the advertising sector. We are still confident and comfortable that there will be global growth somewhere in the 3.5-4.5% range. The US elections, the Olympics, the Euro Cup will drive some short term spends in the market. There will be growth, but there will be lots of constraints on clients to get to that growth.
Q] You have been on the Forbes’ Most Powerful Women list. But on the Starcom China blog, you have also acknowledged that there is a glass ceiling, “though it’s a lot higher than it used it be.” What is it like to be a woman at the top? What do you think of the role of women in SMG operations in different countries?
My mission is to be the best role model that I can be for all of our employees and not just women employees. One of the things that I absolutely celebrated our company and we stand for is diversity. Diversity of gender, race, background, geography and thinking. A diverse organization is a strong organization. And I think that women and talent thrive in diverse organizations. The blog that you are referring to actually came from a seminar I did with Maurice Lévy. The Publicis Group has founded a women’s group called Viva-La-Difference and Maurice created that group because he very much wanted to show inside the company that women are valued and women help the company become stronger. But the glass ceiling is a reality for women. In an organization that celebrates difference you can remove that ceiling. That is what we want to try and do.
Q] What are you looking forward to in the company and personally?
I am a big believer in having a balanced life. It is very important to have connections with your family, friends, have hobbies, do things outside of work. It is easy to let work consume you, easy to let Blackberry consume you. But having a balanced life makes you a better leader, better boss, a better person during a day at work. I am planning a trip to Jackson Hole Wyoming this summer in August, so I am really looking forward to it. I want to learn how to fly fish. As for the company, it is going to be a good year for us. We are achieving our goals and we are on track for where we want to be in 2012. It’s hard, it’s challenging but when I get my global team together, they are also very gratified and happy to be challenged and we are having fun in this pursuit.
Q] Can you recount any anecdote around your association with SMG... it could be a defining moment, a funny incident, a wake-up call, a triumph... or anything else that you recall.
I never really thought that I would spend 25 years with one company. But the reason I stayed with SMG is that it just kept giving me new experiences and new challenges every two to three years. I can probably recollect a hundred anecdotes or I can probably say one thing. But last Friday, I celebrated my 25th anniversary at SMG, and Jack Klues of VivaKi gave me a Harley Davidson (HD) jacket – HD is actually a client - to celebrate 25 years of being a road warrior, so that was nice!