Desmond Hopes To Take Starcom Back To Basics

Three years ago, Laura Desmond took over Publicis Groupe’s MediaVest with a mandate to turn the struggling shop around. She went on to capture new clients like Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble and MasterFoods, adding about $3 billion in net new business to the agency, which now buys about $8 billion in ads annually. Earlier this month, Desmond was promoted to CEO of Starcom MediaVest Group/The Americas, with oversight of Starcom, MediaVest and GM Planworks. Recma estimates the group will have billings of about $18 billion in 2006, making it the top-ranked network by billings. Desmond, 41, discusses her plans for SMG and what agencies need to do in the future to better serve clients.

Adweek: On which areas in the network will you spend the most time?

Laura Desmond: I have three big strategic platforms that I hope to drive across the network. The first is digital embrace. This is something we started at MediaVest. It means embracing digital inside out, so that it is not a silo and instead is a channel just like all the traditional channels we’ve been working with for years.

Adweek: Why is that so key?

Desmond: Consumer attention is the scarcest resource we’re chasing. Consumers are in control and I believe that expertise in digital media is going to be an important weapon as we fight the new battles ahead.

Adweek: The other two top priorities?

Desmond: One is talent. We’re in the people assets business. In many ways what distinguishes us is our people and the ideas they create.

Adweek: Strategic imperative number three?

Desmond: Expand our one-to-one and direct-response capabilities. As we go into the future our ability to capture consumer data and strategically manage customer relationships on behalf of our clients will be more important. The Web provides the best place to capture consumer data, but with some of the advance TV and interactive testing we’ve been doing we want to start developing our one-to-one marketing capability along with the response capability that we have through Halogen already.

Adweek: So just how much of a techno geek do you have to be to thrive in the media world these days? Or at least at SMG?

Desmond: I don’t think you have to be a techno geek at all. You have to be a consumer geek. We want to be consumer centric. If that takes us to the digital channels, or advance TV or good old-fashioned radio or TV, so be it.

Adweek: Is there a way to gauge the longevity of sites like MySpace and Facebook?

I think social networking, consumer-passion groups and the long-tail effect are economic and social phenomena that we are going to be dealing with. I can’t tell you if MySpace is going to make it five years from now, but I believe that social networking is here to stay.

Adweek: How can marketers harness it?

Desmond: Just like they can harness the power of word of mouth and the power of advocacy. There’s a lot we don’t know and a lot that’s unproven, but I believe that buzz and hype and word of mouth are channels in their own right.

Adweek: What big client categories are you looking to fill at SMG?

Desmond: Electronics would be an area. There are various aspects of entertainment. Pharmaceutical where it does not compete with some existing clients. Sports.

Adweek: In your new job you have oversight of GM Planworks, which does planning and buying for the auto company. Can GM market its way out of trouble?

Desmond: I believe they are committed to innovation and invention. … In the digital space it’s leading the pack.

Adweek: Anheuser-Busch made headlines a few weeks back with a new online entertainment network it’s developing, Bud TV. Is that kind of branded entertainment initiative something other clients must consider?

Desmond: I think all clients have to consider how they are going to think about the consumer-generated world of content. And all clients have to think about creating content that’s going to engage consumers in a world where they opt in and opt out.

Adweek: How long before we see a steady stream of ad-supported video content on mobile phones and iPods?

Desmond: To me, mobile phones are much more about point in time. I don’t know if that’s ever going to be a place where ad-supported content is going to thrive. What will be interesting with mobile phones is watching GPS technology develop. … In terms of iPod, a lot of it is dependent on what type of content experience you want and how long you want to wait for a download.

Adweek: What new client service offerings do you feel are critical to develop?

Desmond: We believe it’s back to basics: understanding consumer insights, understanding context—how they’re paying attention to media forms and why. We think the future will be determined by companies that have a lot of consumer data and know how to mine and leverage it. I think a second key piece is further developing communications planning.

Adweek: Activation is a new buzzword. What is it?

Desmond: We think it’s a combination of strategy propelled by an orchestration of media activities.

Adweek: Hasn’t getting consumers to act in response to a marketing program always been a goal? Why this new emphasis on activation?

Desmond: I think the leaders in the marketplace are recognizing that execution or an old-fashioned implementation is the cost of entry now. So then the question is, how do you buy what’s not for sale? How do you create a program that links a media vendor’s assets on television, in syndication, broadband and other places for a total holistic experience that can feature a brand? Activation is the sum of the parts of the total program you create and the value and engagement that’s created for a consumer when they see something and want to do more with it.