MediaCom’s Checkeris Gets Southern Exposure

NEW YORK When WPP’s MediaCom decided to make a change in the leadership of its U.S. agency this summer, it turned to Doug Checkeris, CEO of the shop’s Canadian operation. Checkeris is credited with turning the office, a relatively small also-ran, into a powerhouse that has been rated No. 1 in Canada for competitiveness for several years by Recma.

In an interview with media editor Steve McClellan, Checkeris, CEO of MediaCom USA, talks candidly about the issues he needs to address at the GroupM agency, which by most accounts has struggled to make a smooth transition after its acquisition by WPP in 2005. He also discusses who should or should not control the planning process, how the upfront will evolve and the differences between the U.S. and Canadian marketplaces.

Q: You’ve spent most of your career at Canada MediaCom and its predecessor companies. How familiar were you with the U.S. operation before taking over in August?
A: I would say moderately. We had worked together on shared clients and collaborated on some new business pitches. I had a knowledge of some of the people and some of the ways they worked, but not a particularly deep understanding of their operation.

Were you surprised when MediaCom offered you the top U.S. job?
I was. It wasn’t something I had planned on or saw coming, but it didn’t take a long time to decide it was a good idea. Having spent my career in Canada it was a great opportunity to go and look at something brand new. Having had some distance from it allows more freedom of thinking.

What have been your biggest surprises, both pleasant and unpleasant, since signing on in August?
I’ve found that the people at MediaCom are very passionate about the work. They’ve also been incredibly welcoming. I’m not sure what I expected. The most unpleasant surprise is, having grown up managing a small sort of media independent, very organized with very tight operating procedures, I think we have some work to do in that regard. [Meaning], fixing our operating system, putting metrics in place, just being a little better managed organization because it does get in the way of every other clever thing you want to do.

Who did you least like going up against in a pitch and why?
Everybody scared me. Every agency has different strengths and weaknesses. We had an incredible growth spurt. … Much to our surprise, as we had long been the small outsider, we became the one people didn’t want to pitch against. The hard part is to not take that for granted. When you grow fast you have the same issues that are facing MediaCom in the U.S.—it’s harder to change and reinvent yourself.

How would you describe MediaCom’s performance in the U.S. in the last couple of years?
I think we have great assets, fantastic clients. The MediaCom network is more successful outside the U.S. than in the U.S., and is growing into a real strong global player. It has tools and skills and people we can draw upon around the world, so that’s great.

Does GroupM help in that regard, too?
Yes, in that they give the opportunity to draw upon significant resources in essentially every channel you can think of [including] search, sponsorship and so on. The trick will be how do we most quickly get ourselves aligned with clients in driving those assets to their needs and driving their business.

Are you planning any structural changes?
Bringing the digital assets to the very center of the agency rather than talking about separate parts. Beyond Interactive is under my management, but I’m not just talking about Beyond and MediaCom working together. It’s about how do we insure that we bring digital thinking to the core of everything we do.

Overall, how much of a makeover will MediaCom get in your first year on the job?
There’s an old MediaCom and there will be a new one. But we have to be careful in [that we don’t want] a landing pad that’s a static one. I just don’t think it’s going to look like that. We say proudly in the marketplace that everything is changing, and then we make these static step changes. My aspiration is to get MediaCom to be much more agile and able to continuously reinvent [itself]. What’s relevant today won’t be relevant the next day. It’s going to be about what’s relevant for that client and their consumers at that moment, and can we bring a smart, elegant solution that drives results. That’s a big challenge.

Where do you need to get stronger?
I think we need to bolster our ability to follow the consumer and understand the consumer in the insight area. And drive some improvement in our ability to execute communications planning in a more consistent way. Also, reengineering some of our processes internally so that we have the time and productivity to execute those things quickly and move on.

In your view, what’s the difference between connection planning and communications planning?
I don’t think there is any. Everybody wants to put labels on things. The reality is, in a world where increasingly the consumer has control, we have to find a way not only to get the message to the consumer, but also to get it to them in a way where we can actually change their behavior to get results.

So clients are pressuring their media shops as much as anyone to get the consumer to act?
For a long time the advertising business got away with living on fairly simplistic performance indicators. We almost got away with awareness. Clearly, the digital world has driven the ability and the need our clients have for accountability. We have to be smarter about understanding the consumer and where to use media best and for what purpose.

Is your business in danger of being overwhelmed by data?
Well, the question really is how do you capture all the information in terms of traditional advertising measurement, consumer interaction, sales and put it in a single place so that you can collect more data? Every year there will be more data available to us and we have to get it all in one place so that we can use it in a practical way. It’s an area we will spend time on.

What are clients telling you they want?
That everybody in the advertising and communications business has to get better at their behavior in the sandbox and their collaboration. It’s loud and clear: Does it make sense for the creative agency to go and talk to the consumer, and then the media operation to? Why should they pay for both to do that? The solution is to get along and figure that stuff out. We have to get over the idea [of] who’s in charge. Does it matter where the big idea comes from? It’s got to come from the consumer, you’ve got to get it and then everybody’s got to make sure the idea goes like crazy.

Maybe we should conference in [Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide chairman and CEO] Shelly Lazurus and get her ideas on who should rule.
[Laughs] It will depend on clients and what their specific needs are and who they trust. And we as a media agency are gong to push ourselves to measure results, which is a very powerful position.

How would you describe Mediacom’s U.S. performance the last couple of years?
We’ve had some nice new business wins [including Eos, Pringles, Staples and Michelin this year, while losing K-Mart and Danone last year]. We haven’t got on with the organizational issues that we need to resolve, business process being one of them. So we’ll spend a good amount of time on that. It’s boring, but imperative.

What are you expecting in terms of performance from the U.S. team in 2008?
We want to build with the clients we have. I don’t think ’08 will be the year when we’re out chasing every new business opportunity. We will really focus on making sure we’re delivering what every one of our current clients need so that when we tell people in the future that’s what we’re going to go do, they’ll believe it.

Are we talking a new-business hiatus for ’08?
Hiatus? Never, but I think we’ll be very selective. I’m very conscious of not making promises I can’t keep. I want to be sure if we say it, we can do it. And we’ll be very aggressive at looking at our current relationships and how we can make them better.

But new business will be a focus at some point, correct?
Sure, it’s your life’s blood. We have a team that’s done some interesting work. The best part about new business is you teach yourself to tell your stories, and we haven’t exactly found the new voice of MediaCom yet. Then what you want to do is take those stories and the things you do and put them within that context of who we want to be. We have to do those things kind of concurrently right now.

What are consultants telling you about how they view MediaCom?
They just want us to be more interesting. That sounds a bit hollow, but I think I understand what they’re saying. Part of it is there’s a certain sameness about what everybody says about themselves—[they use words like] tools, big, cost savings and so on. Everybody says essentially the same thing. I guess what’s going to make it credible is in how you tell your story. And the biggest differentiator will be the people you bring into the room.

Talent, in other words.
Yes, and the evidence that you’re doing something about getting better [talent] and understanding how to motivate them. Actually, that’s the long, hard piece of this. To really be a brilliant people place takes a lot of work. I look to our U.K. organization, which has done an absolutely brilliant job of doing that.

How is your management team changing?
We have a brand new executive team. Barbara Cipolla, who came over from [sibling shop] Mediaedge:cia, is president. We have a new CFO in Mark Piazza. There are others to come.

Are you worried about a recession?
I worry about that and a lot of things, but I haven’t heard that from the clients yet. Generally you feel that, but it hasn’t shown up yet. The spending still seems pretty robust.

The Super Bowl is almost sold out, which is highly unusual this far out from the game. What do you make of it?
I’m not sure if that’s a reflection of a robust economy or a paucity of high-reach opportunities.

What’s your take on the new C3 ratings currency?
More and more data is available. Eventually there is going to be useable data from digital set-top boxes. So I think it’s more a case of reinvention. It’s not like [C3] is going to be here forever, like the last currency. The best part is, it’s the beginning of a continual evolution—more accountability and faster data in the broadcast arena.

What do you think of the U.S. upfront system, and will it change?
Well, it’s a system. Part of me wonders how long it will stay this way. As the data becomes faster and more robust it seems like the market should act in a faster cycling process. It seems like it will change over time to be more in sync with when clients want to go into the marketplace. Logically, it seems there will be some change in the structure of the market in terms of how often it gets bought, the faster you can get information, and more predictably. It will clearly evolve.

How worried are you about TiVo?
Is TiVo any more dangerous than Facebook? It’s not about TiVo, it’s about the consumer’s ability to control.

Are consumers, particularly younger ones, increasingly migrating to media forms more resistant to marketing messages?
It’s a big issue. And there are a bunch of new electronic tools that will allow you and I and everybody else to become anonymous online. So the consumer can now say to marketers, “You won’t be able to spy on me.” Think about how that will change the interactive business where success is based on the ability to track behavior.

The implication being?
I was at a conference recently where one of the participants suggested the biggest issue in the future will be trust, and I think that’s very sensible. Who will you let in? The hard part will be to start to think about the world as a content landscape. What are the metrics and how do you follow [them]? It will be challenging for everybody.

How much time did you spend in the U.S. prior to taking on the new job? Do you have any culture shock?
I don’t know if it’s culture shock so much as the fact that you form perceptions, and some of them are true and some of them are not. In Canada, the scale of the organizations is smaller and everybody does more than one thing. You think that may be more productive, but I’m not sure if it is or it isn’t. But people certainly have a broader scope in each of their individual jobs.

What’s the flip side?
The size and scope of the U.S. market is really quite amazing. The money that’s available to do things, the size of the transactions and the scope of the resources is fascinating.