Q&A: Doug Ray's New Advisory Hits on Marketers' Need for On-Demand Expertise

The ex-Carat CEO founded an eponymous advisory amid the rise of the so-called fractional CMO

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In the year since stepping down from his leadership role at Dentsu Media, Doug Ray founded an eponymous media advisory firm. Ray Media Advisory works across the advertising ecosystem—with agencies, brands, publishers and ad-tech firms interested in the ex-agency executive’s advice.

In 2013, Dentsu Media agency Carat named Ray its U.S. CEO and global president. By 2017, he became Dentsu Media’s first U.S. president of product and innovation. His time in Dentsu leadership coincided with its 2016 Merkle acquisition, and Dentsu’s work to productize its audience management platform M1 (now Merkury).

Now, as agencies of all sizes invest in product development, experiment with AI and create competitive audience management platforms, some have approached Ray to talk about how they can stack up to holding company competition.

Ray works with brands too. Many are opting to run their own agency reviews, burdened by the sometimes high cost of traditional search consultants. That coincides with the pitch process undergoing a significant shift. In a blog post last summer encouraging marketers to forego the traditional pitch process, Forrester principal analyst Jay Pattisall wrote, “Despite the best of intentions, the conventional consultant-led selection process is lengthy, laborious and overengineered.”

[A few brands] had worked with a couple of the very large media consulting companies that are out there. They were very expensive, and [the client] thought, ‘Well, we just can’t sustain that, but we can work with experts and bring them in to advise us.’

Doug Ray, founder, Ray Media Advisory

Some brand leaders who would typically hire an agency search consultant are hiring Ray instead—not to run pitches, but to sit in on reviews and help CMOs choose their agency partners.

Ray’s advisory represents a growing appetite for accessible, on-demand expertise.

“Big picture, the agency world is going through fundamental transformation [and] restructuring significantly. There is a big drain of senior experienced talent in agencies,” Ray told ADWEEK. “There’s never been more of a time than now for seasoned experienced executives who spent years in the agency business to [take step into advisory roles].

“Whether we call this [job] fractional CMO or fractional chief product officer, I call it an on-demand expert,” he said.

Ray spoke with ADWEEK about Ray Media Advisory, what he’s offering the ad industry and the questions his clients ask him.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

There are many different directions you could take your business in. I’m curious about the long-term vision.

There’s a new generation of advisers and consultants that are coming up. I clearly don’t have the scale of [management consulting firm] MediaLink. But if you look at what MediaLink has their hands in—so many different areas, from talent recruitment to agency consulting to new business development to working with ad-tech companies and startup companies—my breadth of knowledge allows me to do something like that.

I’ve had a couple clients reach out to me—not to run their searches, [but] to be an expert adviser as part of their internal search team. They want to control the pitch. They want to control the narrative. They know their team better than anyone else. They had worked with a couple of the very large media consulting companies that are out there. They were very expensive, and [the client] thought, ‘Well, we just can’t sustain that, but we can work with experts and bring them in to advise us.’

This is as fewer clients are investing in using pitch consultants. For a large brand without knowledge of the agency space and partnership dynamics, there are numerous risks associated with foregoing advisory. 

To me, it’s about not building a team of all sorts of consultants or advisers. It’s finding other people like me that could come in as partners. That then allows you to say, ‘We’re here as on-demand experts to help you with certain things.’ I made the conscious decision not to be a consultant or consultancy, but to be an adviser and advisory. Consultants tend to be brought in for a short period of time, go off, do the work, come back and present.

That can really be longer term, too. I have three clients right now that I’ve had since I launched this business. They just want me on a monthly retainer, where the CEOs can bounce things off of me [or] help them prepare for board meetings that they might be having.

What are some of the most interesting questions you’ve gotten from clients recently? 

At the beginning, 50% (and now about a third) of my clients are diverse-owned companies. [One of these clients] really wanted to accelerate the growth of their business. They knew that digital was the way to do that, but they hadn’t really moved into the streaming space. I came on board to help them with their strategic vision and their business plan, and ultimately helped broker a relationship with a supply company that allowed them to uniquely create this new ad offering.

I’ve been working with Black-owned media companies, I’ve been working with Hispanic-owned media companies, and I’ve been in conversations with the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) about some of the work they’re doing as well.

Another challenge that I’m working with is with an agency [that’s] looking to refresh their brand positioning and how they go to market in a very competitive marketplace. They’re so insular in thinking this through. They’ve got really smart people on their team, and they’ve got great assets.

In the several weeks I’ve been working with them, it’s [been about] bringing that fresh perspective. I either push back on something they’re leaning into, or I’m asking questions that they haven’t asked themselves, or I’m offering [information about] how they might organize, or even language they might use that they hadn’t thought about.

There’s this new industry term—I’m sure you’ve seen it—the fractional CMO. Do you see parallels between what you’re doing and the role of the fractional CMO?

Call me a fractional CEO, fractional CPO, fractional CMO. … That’s the thing. I may narrow [my focus] as I go forward. I didn’t want to narrow too much, because I do have the ability to help a number of companies. I would say, [I’m] absolutely acting as a fractional CMO—or at least an adviser to CEOs and CMOs. 

I’m working very closely with chief product officers and technology officers … either building a new product, or helping them think about how to market the products that they have in a more simple and easy to digest way.

I know that there have been a lot of conversations about the audience management platforms and those data assets for the past five to seven years. So many of these agencies are trying to productize those offerings or create their own platforms. 

There was definitely the first horizon, if you will, of this with the Merkle acquisition, the Acxiom acquisition and the Epsilon acquisition. Now what you’re seeing is the next level of [that strategy] in terms of agency size. … They’re not acquiring, they’re renting.

Have any small or mid-sized agencies asked questions about how to set these things up?

The answer is yes. And the questions range from, ‘What are the requirements that are table stakes for us to compete?’ And then, ‘What are the things that we can uniquely bring to the table?’

And then moving forward into more of the operational and executional, ‘Can you help us draft an RFP? And who are the appropriate partners?’

If you look at the audience management platforms, there’s going to be a point where, regardless of who you are, you’re going to achieve parity. There’s a concern, even amongst those that are either perceived to be ahead or actually are ahead, that [the audience management platforms] will become parity. 

The next thing is agencies investing more in AI. AI is going to take these agency platforms from let’s say, version 1.0 to version 2.0 and beyond.

The early 2000s really were about the digitization of media and marketing and the rise of social media. Then you get into the mid 2010s and you start to see the rise of data and the rise of personalization. That led to data platforms. What we’re now seeing, only five or six years later, is a new transformation with AI. 

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