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Q&A: PHD's Seiler

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NEW YORK Matt Seiler, CEO and president of media agency PHD North America, talks to Mediaweek's Michael Burgi about why his shop is embracing neuroscience.

Q: Your company's job is to seek out the appropriate vehicles for your clients amid an explosion of media choices. How do you begin to stay on top of it?
A: If you're really good at knowing who you're talking to, then the almost infinite number of ways that you can talk to that person is much less daunting. Too frequently, clients and agencies think, "OK, there's this cool new way that we can talk to people, so let's rush out and just do that!" Why? How about, who are we talking to? What's going on in her life? Where is she most receptive to a message from us? What's stressing her out? Once you know that, it's not that hard to find the places where she's consuming media, and available to a message. It just has to start with who the person is. We unapologetically talk about taking on the reinvention of what marketing communications can be, not because we see our opportunity as being the best media agency. We don't really look at our competitive set as media agencies. That's not to be arrogant nor is it meant to be pejorative at all. That's just not really what we think we're here to do.

So what makes PHD different?
We actually have a new measurement tool, icontact, that we will be launching sometime in the very near future. It's a tracking study that measures how involved our target audience is in the telling of a brand's story. We do a pre- and post- on the telling of the brand's story. Then we measure what the feeling is once we begin telling the brand story and what result that solicits. It's an on- and offline tracking that we will do for all of our "engagements" to get a sense of whether we are doing what we said we're going to do. If we do a great job of deciding who we're talking to and we are clear on what the objective is, and then agree on what kind of emotion and/or action we want to have taken, we can see how it's working. Then we can dial it up or dial it down based on whether that person that we defined initially is actually doing what we wanted her/him to do. It allows you to do real-time adjustment through a process called ETNA.

What does that stand for?
Exploration, Thought Leader, Neuro Planning and Action Planning. Neuro Planning is collected by scanning brains of a statistically significant audience that was exposed to different forms of media to see where the blood flows. So, if you're exposed to a print ad, what part of your brain reacts? It doesn't measure the difference in brain function around a terrible ad versus a great ad. It will just say, "I'm stimulated because of the medium." We married up the portions of the brain that were stimulated with what the brain function of that portion is, and developed six kinds of media plans around it. Based on what part of the brain is stimulated by what media, you can determine which of these six kinds of plans is going to be most effective in accomplishing your goal. We're the only ones in the world that do it. Maybe the best thing about ETNA is it invites all of the constituents to the table—sales, distribution, R&D, marketing, advertising, direct, agencies, clients, whatever. We talk about accomplishing the business objective. And if the story is fully there, great, we don't have to do anymore. If there's a need to do more, we have our own account-planning group, which leads us to Thought Leader. Thought Leader is a single sheet of paper that has our objective and the target audience and what we are trying to do. It's more about what the communications will be and how we do the communications, but doesn't yet have specifically what we'll say.

How do you inspire the kind of action/reaction from your target audience that you all agreed on during the exploration phase?
That then gets fed into Neuro Planning. The genius of Neuro Planning is it's kind of Nickelodeon simple in its graphics—and it's a dashboard. On one side of the screen there are bars that have levers on them, saying things like "How interested in a message from you is the target?" The client will go, "They're completely interested!" And if you're an agency you go, "No, you're toilet paper, they don't really care." So, we work the lever. Then the next one is, "Is the need short term or long term? Is it new news? Is it an update to an existing product or a new product?" All of these things require you to move the lever. As you're moving these levers, these bars are going up and down on the other side. These are the six media planning types.

So, you're calibrating the ideal blend of plans?
Exactly. And we're doing it together. So all of us are seeing it happen in real time; we're talking it out, we're arguing. And we're figuring out: here's the part of the brain that has to be stimulated in order to do this, and here are the best media vehicles in order to be able to do it. Now we apply the filter of your actual cost per points and your production costs. Then we'll run through it again. With management in the room you can go through your media options. We can think about the marketing plan differently instead of, "Do we find a way to get more direct communication in there?" We have real science and Neuro Planning coupled with really user-friendly graphics that make you go, "Yeah, that makes sense." So, it's kind of a yin-yang thing.

Does the media get involved?
A lot of media are building in-house agencies. They're getting good at that because these agencies that exist within them are idea repositories. Now think about ETNA and imagine if there was a media owner involved in that. Let's say we're launching this new product next fall and it's going to be very appealing to younger female baby boomers who are menopausal. Then you can go to your media-company-owner partners and say, "So next fall, what properties do you have? What could you combine to come up with a plan that would be really great at reaching the menopausal baby-boom woman?" Then we can really walk through ETNA before it gets to, "I'm willing to spend X amount of money with you. What can you throw us?" So, we're doing that and I'm really excited. We're in discussions now with several media owners to experiment on how much better the ideas are for our clients if we get involved much earlier in the process.

To some, the word "brand" has lost meaning or value because it's used so widely. What do you think about the idea of branding having gone too far?
It's a really interesting point of view. I don't know that I share it, though. I think that brands have always tried hard to get your attention, and I'm sure there used to be fewer of them. But there have always been efforts to get you to pay attention at times when you didn't want to be paying attention to the brand messages. Some got through and some didn't, which always forced brand communications to be as good as it could possibly be. Consumer generated media means there's almost an unlimited number of brands because there's an almost unlimited number of people who are initiating communication (such as on MySpace), and it's all individuals as brands. But, that's just a replacement for what community was. It's not like places such as toilet seat covers and all that kind of stuff where you just think, "Oh my God, can I please just have a little bit of privacy without having somebody talking to me?"

That's more the vehicle...That's kind of a different thing.
Right. I have more of an issue with that. It may also be that our hard drives are getting so incredibly full. Haven't you noticed—and it may be an age thing but I refuse to accept that—that we're all forgetting stuff a lot more than we used to? You just can't possibly keep up with all sorts of information and data you are meant to process. The day is probably not that far off when some company is going to figure out how to beam advertising and branding into your dreams so that you can have some branded entertainment in your dreams. Again, that's different. That's not necessarily about the numbers of brands—that's more about invading of your everyday existence. So, I'll bet you that there are not significantly more brands. I think that there are significantly more places where brands are trying to communicate with you, and some of that is really offensive.

Is the typical media agency no longer structured adequately because of changing consumer habits and the proliferated world of media?
Yeah. It shouldn't be so easy for an employee of Agency A to wander over to Agency B to pick up where he left off. We ought to have really different structures because different structures lead to different outputs.

What about the competitive landscape?
We have competition from everywhere. Anybody who's good at getting our customers to pay attention is a competitor to us. Google is a competitor and marketing consultants are competitors, and so are the media owners themselves. To me, it's actually stimulating because, like the advertising agency holding companies, they have aggregated so many properties that are great [but] that they have not done such a good job of leveraging. Now they're getting good at that because these agencies that exist within them are idea repositories. You bring them an idea and say "What do you have, how does this work in there?" Then they can help bring your idea to life. Why not go to the people that actually invent and distribute the content for that stuff? I love that, but it means we have to be better partners for them, which means we've got to get better ideas. Throughout history, the ways in which media owners and media agencies have communicated is through salespeople and buyers. God bless them. They're both critically important to our organization. But that's not the only place that we ought to be connected. We need to be connecting on a much earlier plane on, "What are we trying to do?"