Q&A: MediaLink’s New Managing Director on Why Ad Agencies Will Survive

Christopher Vollmer, previously with PwC, discusses the future of marketing

The new executive will report to founder and CEO Michael Kassan. Medialink
Headshot of Patrick Coffee

Today MediaLink, the advisory firm that has become a ubiquitous presence in the media and advertising industries, announced the hire of Christopher Vollmer as managing director. The newest member of the firm’s leadership team will work in its New York headquarters and report directly to CEO and chairman Michael Kassan.

Vollmer joins MediaLink from Strategy&, the consulting division of PricewaterhouseCoopers, where he was a partner and leader of the global entertainment and media advisory practice. He worked at Booz & Company from 1995 to 2014 before PwC acquired that group.

He’s also the author of 2008’s Always On: Advertising, Marketing, and Media in an Era of Consumer Control and a widely published thought leader who has been featured in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

“Chris has one of those rare, strategic minds that’s simultaneously focused on driving actionable change and impact,” said Kassan in a statement. “As a senior advisor in every sense of the word, Chris brings our clients incredibly valuable expertise at a time when their focus is squarely on strategic and operational transformation to accelerate growth and profitability. He has a distinguished track record in the industry sectors that matter the most to MediaLink.”

Adweek spoke to the executive about his new role and the positions that both MediaLink and its broad list of clients will play in the new media economy.

Adweek: What led you to move from a traditional consultancy to a firm like MediaLink?
Chris Vollmer: There’s an ongoing convergence and transformation of [media and marketing] businesses. They’re getting more interconnected and more complex, and I think, in that environment … they’re looking for advisors that not only have the insight and the foresight, but also the operational expertise and connectivity to make things happen. As I got to know Michael Kassan and the team here at MediaLink, I increasingly came to believe that marrying my expertise from the strategy consulting world with a set of practitioners and strategists that already live and breathe the changes happening in marketing and media every day would be an impressive combination that will help our clients win more often in the market.

"The concept of the holding company [is] aiming towards something that looks a lot more consultative than the traditional agency model did."
Chris Vollmer, managing director, MediaLink

How have you seen these industries changing in recent months?
The industry boundaries are pretty porous, and a lot of the traditional positions between publishers, platforms, agency holding companies and marketers are changing. The role of technology, data analytics and user experience, along with the desire for new revenue models and new routes to consumers, only continues to grow. MediaLink’s existing clients are asking for more advice and more of those kinds of services.

What sorts of advice are they asking for in particular?
My focus over the past year was looking at new revenue models for clients. A lot of the traditional places where they’ve been able to draw monetization have dried up, and they have to be able to do things differently. If you have a traditional ad-driven business, it now needs to be in the subscription world. They may also need to invest in things in-house, develop partnerships with other companies, rent those capabilities or acquire a company that adds those capabilities to their business. For example, Viacom CEO Bob Bakish is trying to develop monetization streams around not only channel licensing, which is the traditional business, but increasingly consumer products, events, advanced advertising, original productions and niche SVOD services, among others.

Many of the large CPG players in particular also face flat category growth prospects through their traditional channels. A lot of them are thinking about how they can develop new brands or develop new routes to market through digital direct-to-consumer to drive growth. A firm like MediaLink is positioned, ideally, to help them think through that.

What role do you see MediaLink playing in the media and marketing world moving forward, especially since it’s now part of Cannes Lions parent company Ascential?
We’re looking to expand our operations. We obviously work with a lot of clients today, but I think we can deepen the relationships we have with them … and become even more a part of the conversation with the C-suite. We’re going to be consultants and advisors, but also increasingly bring information assets and other kinds of connectivity. For example, Ascential owns events, and I think you’ll see more of that coming together, including this year where we have a collaboration with the Cannes Lions Festival. It also has ecommerce assets that offer visibility into the world of Amazon, which is hard to penetrate for brands in particular.

Do you agree with the narrative about consultancies taking business away from agencies?
What the management consulting firms have lacked is a real service offering and capability that can serve the CMO. I think they’re very much intent on figuring out how they can do that, much like they have with the CEO, CTO and CFO, because that’s the one C-suite executive that many of them are missing in a scaled way. But I don’t think they’re aiming for what I’d call the campaign business. They’re more about digital transformation, the direct-to-consumer world, the programmatic world … and they’re going to be in competition with whatever else is in that space.

I think that also creates a good space for us, because the end client, the CMO or brand manager, still needs somebody who can be objective and isn’t going to guide them towards other downstream services that are part of their firm. And we can be Switzerland in all that, playing the honest broker role and giving an objective view as to how the CMO should navigate all of it.

"I think that every brand and every media company has to be laser focused on user experience. It’s not necessarily the best content or the best distribution but the best UX that drives habitual usage, loyalty and fandom."

Do you see a future for ad agencies and holding companies as we know them today?
I think what happens with the agency world—and this is happening already—is an integration of businesses. I think that there are a lot of inefficiencies and room for scale improvements within agencies. They can still manage their client conflicts in other ways, much like how consulting firms do, and they don’t need multiple brands to work with many different clients in the same industry. The concept of what the holding company is and what the holding company delivers is also something that’s evolving, and it’s aiming towards something that looks a lot more consultative than the traditional agency model did. I don’t think that the agencies will disappear at all … but they will be constructed very differently than they are today.

If you could provide one piece of advice to marketers about succeeding in the new economy, what would it be?
I think that every brand and every media company has to be laser-focused on user experience. It’s not necessarily the best content or the best distribution but the best UX that drives habitual usage, loyalty and fandom. The businesses that are able to build that are the ones that are going to win.

@PatrickCoffee patrick.coffee@adweek.com Patrick Coffee is a senior editor for Adweek.