Special Report: Research

Talk about longevity. Sam Armando has spent his entire, 17-year media-agency career at Publicis Groupe’s Starcom (and its predecessor operation, the media department at Leo Burnett)—20 years if you include internships he served there while earning his marketing degree at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

But it is the headline-worthy work Armando, senior vp, director of video research at Starcom, has carried out over the last two years for which he is being recognized as Media All-Star in the research category.

Armando’s efforts include developing so-called “engagement” ratings as well as research looking beyond the new industry trading currency of average commercial minute ratings. That research has helped Starcom complete a batch of ad buys this year based on more precise minute-by-minute and second-by-second commercial ratings.

It was Armando who took the lead last year in defining research parameters for what would become the industry’s first transaction wherein the media seller (in this case, Court TV) provided a guarantee for engaged viewers, or the number of viewers actually paying attention to commercials.

At the same time, Armando has overseen exhaustive research examining the viewership of thousands of individual commercial minutes, segmented by network type, program genre, daypart, length of spot and pod position, among other metrics, to determine when and how clients benefit by buying ads based on that measurement. This year, Starcom has made deals with 16 cable networks using the minute-by-minute yardstick as currency.

During his years at Starcom, Armando has served in a number of different capacities, including buyer, strategist and account leader. From 2001 to 2006, he was lead investment director for client Allstate Insurance.

But for most of his tenure at the agency, even while juggling other roles, Armando has been the go-to guy for innovative TV research.

Armando began his full-time career at Starcom as an assistant analyst and rose through the ranks to become head of national TV research. In January of last year, Armando was promoted to his current post.

“What’s great about Sam is that he has helped us be pioneers” in the television-research field, says Chris Boothe, Starcom’s president, chief activation officer. “We were future forward in terms of purchasing the minute-by-minute data, which we’ve been doing for about 18 months now. Sam aggressively collaborates with everyone in all the right disciplines at Starcom and with clients to take all the data and sort of overlay it into a vision of where we need to go and what we need to do.”

Armando also works collaboratively with media sellers, says Charlie Collier, former head of advertising sales at Court TV and now executive vp, general manager AMC cable network. Collier worked closely with Armando on the precedent-setting Court TV-Starcom deal to base an ad buy on an engagement rating.

“We both knew going into it that we didn’t have the final answer,” says Collier. “But once we got the deal done, we felt like we were on the same side of the table trying to solve a common problem. In a buyer-seller relationship, that’s rewarding because it didn’t just start and stop with the sale; it was actually built around this shared challenge.”

Armando says most of his groundbreaking work has been inspired by one simple question he’s heard clients ask repeatedly over the years: “How many people are really watching my commercial?” Simple to ask, less simple to answer, Armando points out.

But with that question in mind, Armando developed some new approaches to marketing via television that teamed client Allstate with the WB network in 2003.

A series of ads incorporated what the insurance carrier defined as “life-stage” scenes from the now-canceled CW drama Gilmore Girls—the birth of a child, or a wedding, or even a new car purchase.

Lisa Cochrane, vp, marketing at Allstate, describes Armando as an “excellent media practitioner who seeks to embrace and understand his client’s business. He thinks about the client’s business first and the media second, and that’s why he’s so good at media.”

The Gilmore Girls spots were always placed in the first position leading out of the program so the show’s characters and content melded with the commercial pod. The spots ended with the tagline, “When you’re faced with one of your life’s greatest moments, are you in good hands?”

“It was the research [on ad skipping] we were doing then that really led to the approach we took,” says Armando. “Seeing characters in the spot would cause people to pause and ask, ‘What are they doing and what’s going on?’ with the likelihood that people would be less likely to skip over it. The research helped us be proactive and in some ways those efforts serve as a kind of bridge to what we’re trying to do today,” in terms of engagement, he says.

Three years later, that bridge led to the Court TV buy, which included a guarantee on viewer engagement. In simple terms, the engagement-rating guarantee was derived through a combination of MRI data and custom research defining what percentage of the Court TV audience actually stuck around for commercials, and paid attention to them. Starcom and Court TV agreed pre-buy based on that percentage, with Court TV guaranteeing that level of engagement. The deal triggered much debate about just how useful the technique was.

Armando, acknowledging that the technique wasn’t perfect, welcomed the debate.

“You need to use the best research you have at any given time,” he says. “Use it, learn from and grow with it. Don’t reject it right away because you find a hole here or there. Try to the fill the holes.”