Special Report: Radio

Lauren Russo knows how to make her mark in the advertising business.

In just 10 years, more than eight of them with Horizon Media in New York, she’s quickly risen through the ranks to head up local radio for the shop.

As vp, radio managing director, she manages a staff of 20 and a six-member promotions group that places more than $250 million worth of radio time on behalf of some of the biggest spenders in the medium, including Geico (the sixth largest spot-radio spender), Boar’s Head, Harrah’s, The History Channel, Foxwoods and Panasonic.

More than just a young, aggressive radio buyer, Russo represents the next generation of the medium’s champions. Unencumbered by radio’s long history, she brings a fresh perspective and an undeniable passion to an industry that recently has found itself challenged to maintain its profile among marketers with an increasing number of options.

“It’s refreshing to see the commitment that Lauren and her agency demonstrate in a time when radio is questioned as a primary medium,” says Paul Blake, vp, sales at Greater Media in Philadelphia.

“She’s a tough but fair negotiator,” Blake adds. “She’s never jeopardized the integrity of a client’s marketing objective as the result of price.”

Russo may live and breathe radio nowadays, but early in her career the medium was nowhere on her radar. In fact, she started out as a print journalist at The Ocean County Observer in New Jersey.

After joining TBS Management, she bought radio and TV time, moving to Horizon in 1998 so she could be, as she says, “a true medium specialist.” Along the way, she also met her husband, a local sales manager at Greater Media.

At Horizon, Russo cut her teeth on radio during the height of consolidation, when stations were changing owners and formats practically daily. She struggled to find inventory and opportunities for her clients during the dot-com frenzy, when inventory was tight and rates were sky-high.

In today’s soft radio environment, Russo works with stations to carve out new ways to get clients noticed, going beyond traditional radio ad models. “The conditions have allowed us to get into the market and do some great deals for our clients,” she says.

“It was evident from the outset, as she approached her buying-level job, that she was bringing something to the table that others didn’t innately have,” says Aaron Cohen, Horizon’s media czar and chief negotiations officer. “She takes a request for schedules and doesn’t look at them in a linear way, but in a broader way to see what advantages can be brought to the client by negotiating more tactically to enhance the buys and improve pricing.”

To bring new accountability and respect to the medium, Russo developed a performance-metrics methodology for the local radio unit evaluating the buy and taking into account all facets of a radio campaign, including radio schedule maintenance, re-rates, added value, credit and rotation reports, and unit-rate and cost-per-point comparisons. Not only does the new evaluation tool place increased emphasis on station accountability, but it also serves as a negotiation and performance-review tool, resulting in greater results for clients.

“There are so many other things you can do with radio,” Russo says. “It is no longer about traditional spots and dots, but rather, about customizing an integrated marketing program that will build brands and help clients’ messages stand out in a unique and uncluttered space. We need to find new and different ways to use the medium, to make it more competitive. We need to take risks.”

Russo’s clients tend to bring her into the planning process early. One of radio’s most devoted advertisers, Geico aired more spots on radio in January than any other marketer.

“She has some good insights into our business and what we’re looking to accomplish,” says Bill Brower, director of advertising at Geico. “We’ve gotten lots of added value. A lot of her thinking is out of the box.”

Geico’s campaign with Clear Channel, currently airing on more than 180 stations in 62 markets, is typical of how Russo leverages the medium for her clients.

Taking the biggest share of Geico’s budget: two Geico-sponsored commercial-free hours currently airing once a month on Clear Channel stations. In addition, the insurer airs spots of varied lengths, some voiced by the familiar Geico gecko. It all will add up to 23,000 on-air mentions between April and this year’s end.

“I like negotiation a lot. I like to see what you can come up with versus what you start out with. I like the social aspect of it,” Russo says. “With the market being wide open and very soft, we’ve been able to take advantage of that and do some great deals for our clients.”

For Boar’s Head, Russo negotiated additional exposure at no charge through a partnership with Katz Radio Group. Along with a schedule of spots on more than 200 stations in 63 markets, Katz created a lunch-hour campaign promoting Boar’s Head lunch meats and cheeses.

“I don’t think there is anyone more organized than she is,” Tucker Flood, president of Eastman Radio, a division of Katz Radio Group, says of the radio All-Star. “She understands where the business is going. She was the first on the portable people meter.”

And, as Flood points out, Russo is always one step ahead. “She’s six months ahead of everybody else,” he says. “In April, we began talking about 2008.”

Looking to radio’s future, Russo sees advertisers warming up to the medium as it transitions to electronic measurement.

“In the past, radio hasn’t been proactive, but now it’s making great strides,” she explains. “With the portable people meter, there is more accountability. I could see advertisers being wary based on diary measurement. But with the PPM, I will encourage advertisers to buy more radio.”

So radio’s future, it would seem, is in excellent hands.