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Perspectives: Buyers look back to look forward

Media execs share their biggest regrets and surprises of the last year, while making predictions and resolutions for 2022.

By Jennifer Horn
Nov 1, 2021

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Pictured, clockwise from top left: Kevin Kivi, Ishma Alexander-Huet, Richard Fofana, Cathy Collier, Lindsey Talbot, Sarah Thompson, Scott Stewart and Devon MacDonald

With the leaves turning and the days shorter, now is the time leaders will start to reflect on the year that was. So before the holiday season kicks into high-gear and time slips through fingers, CARD caught up with eight media execs to share their 2021 regrets and surprises and, of course, 2022 predictions and resolutions.



If you, or the industry, could go back and re-do one thing in 2021, what would it be?

Sarah Thompson, CSO, Theo: We underestimated the talent shifts. We knew it would happen. We knew it would be significant. And I think even then we underestimated how much talent movement would truly happen. Today, recruiting a person that brings a variety of skills, perspectives, and a reverence for the marketing profession is crucial. We need to communicate their career path at the outset. We need to make our environments places where we thrive not just survive.

Cathy Collier, CEO, OMD: If I could go back and re-do one thing, I would have recognized earlier the toll working from home is taking on our people. Despite being in a client service business, we need to protect our people from the assumption that we are always available.

We are now focused on understanding the imbalance of work and life and how we can correct it. In our industry, we typically put this imbalance back on the employee to manage (take more breaks, exercise). However, this isn't the way to impact real change as the work is still there waiting. We spoke to an expert and they advised we need to make organizationally led mandatory rules to create a culture that promotes work-life-balance, to protect our people. Thanks to some very vested people, we have developed a Work Life Balance Plan and we are in the process of approving and implementing the recommended organizational and team behaviours.

Scott Stewart, GM, Glassroom: We did a lot of giving back as a company, but the more you do, the more you realize that there is still a lot more you can do. I am proud of what we gave back as a company to our staff, clients and industry, but if I had a redo it would have been to find more ways to be generous.

Lindsey Talbot, CIO, GroupM: Create one app to aggregate and manage COVID vaccine bookings across all pharmacies and provincial sites!

Ishma Alexander-Huet,VP, client advice and management, head of learning and culture, Initiative: I'd have found more creative ways to help new team members get to know the agency and their team mates. 2021 has been a year of transition as we emerged from the freezes and shock of 2020, with agencies and clients alike feeling the impact of massive talent movement. I think we've done a great job at creatively finding ways for people to connect through a variety of Initiative Culture Club activities (hikes, virtual craft session, collaborative cookbook development), but it's very difficult to give juniors a true understanding of industry culture from home. I don't have the answer yet but it will continue to be a focus of mine into 2022 as we move to hybrid working models.

Richard Fofana, EVP, Strategy, UM: If we had a crystal ball and knew how quickly client business would grow, we would have hired more people earlier on!

Devon MacDonald, president, Cairns Oneil: I genuinely do not believe in regrets. This year has been tough, but we've made it to this point and presumably happy to be here. Every moment is a chance to learn as a leader and industry. The key is to reflect on actions and behaviours and understand how you want things to move forward.


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What did you observe as being one of the more surprising events, trends, shifts or demands over the last year?

Sarah Thompson: Privacy, cookies, data, and consumer trends in this space were never going to be a surprise. This is where we are headed. What was surprising is how the industry reacted. These are all good things for media and how we are stewards of our client's investment. The ethics of how we collect and use people's data should be top of mind for any CMO. Also, Quibi came and went like a flash, like HQ before it, and then Clubhouse. I am always weary of shiny objects of media, but it is amazing how fast these cycles now happen from massive conversation to crashing end.

Cathy Collier: The biggest surprise was the government's move to legalize online gambling, more specifically around single game sports betting. We know that billions of dollars have been flowing out of Canada to off-shore sports books. This legislation will create a new industry in Canada, driving new ad spending from Canadian and international players.

Scott Stewart: Constant change, across the board. How consumers behaved, purchased, searched, used media – it all translated into some major disruption to best practices and corporate play books. As a result, I saw clients and agency teams working more closely than ever before to solve business problems, performing strategic triage and initiating some pretty fast and fresh thinking. I really loved that feeling of "being on the cusp" of something great again.

Lindsey Talbot: Brands taking a less-is-more approach with how they posted social content. Not as surprising as much as it was refreshing – social spend is not waning but we are seeing brands invest in more meaningful engagements with consumers.

Ishma Alexander-Huet: I shouldn't have been surprised using my own household as an example, but due to the growth of Disney+, Netflix and of course YouTube, TV audiences among children have faced massive declines over the past year, far surpassing that of adults. It wasn't the trend that surprised me but the speed. The knee-jerk reaction is to shift budget into digital, but a deeper dive into the trends by age group and genre led to insights that can unlock new approaches to children's marketing across digital and TV, while maintaining the high ethical standards of being COPPA compliant. It also gives us deeper insight into the audiences of the next decade, and how they are consuming media.

Kevin Kivi: The speed of which things are coming and going. In the blink of an eye, we were talking about the Facebook "whistle blower" and within 24 hours we moved on. That, and the "talent wars." The industry's need for brainpower hasn't abated. The challenge now is to find a new approach that recognizes the unsustainable pace of today's working life cannot continue, and this is the time for leaders to plan for "life after COVID," which includes hybrid schedules, wage growth, increased demand for training and other critical priorities like diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Richard Fofana: The sustained pressure on investment levels and, in some cases, even greater push to launch innovative communications during a time of great uncertainty. It's a testament to "steady handed" confidence of Canadian marketers to continue to invest in their brands and champion fresh ways to drive growth. We've seen a host of great, award-winning campaigns push the industry envelope, like Amex's "Shop Small" campaign, which drove nimble, local collaboration; Destination Canada's use of tech and data to celebrate the passion for travel during lockdown; and Levi's leading the ecommerce/retail evolution through shoppable social media.

Devon MacDonald: The resilience of people continues to amaze me. The demands on our teams and industry has never been higher, yet results and creativity continue to deliver for clients.



If you could bet on the next big media opportunity for advertisers in 2022 – what would it be?

Sarah Thompson: Back to local. We need to get back to understanding what is happening town by town, county by county and neighbourhood by neighbourhood. The CMDC is leading the way, but we need brands to start engaging in this conversation with their media agency.

Cathy Collier: The next big opportunity for advertisers in 2022 will be recognizing the importance of attention and evolving measurement methodologies to use attention-based metrics to inform media decisions. This year OMD completed global research in partnership with Amplified Intelligence, which made clear that for brands to drive mental availability, they need to focus on getting people's attention. Mental availability is a metric that's closely related to changes in market share and is a metric that is widely accepted by marketers as an indicator of brand strength.

Scott Stewart: Precision replaces scale due to acceleration in addressable media capabilities, and in response, advertisers really start to weaponize micro-market level targeting and push away from buying national ratings.

Lindsey Talbot: Advanced TV. Dynamic ad insertion, addressable VOD and audience targeting capabilities that allow advertisers to reach the right TV viewers on the big screen in broadcast quality content.

Ishma Alexander-Huet: Apart from preparing for a cookie-less world through ethical data collection and development of first party audience segments, reframing media practices to be inclusive by default is a huge opportunity. Simple adjustments to targeting strategies, expanding vehicle selection through strategic PMPs and offline vehicles, and examining audience assumptions can lead to brand growth as they allow for increased reach and relevancy amongst our diverse population.

Kevin Kivi: We have been waiting for over a decade for major broadcasters and media companies to collaborate on creating unification around data, automation and methods to trade with their immersive mediums. Is this a non-fungible solution? Or does the metaverse offer a fresh start…

Richard Fofana: Making testing and learning an active, foundational priority upfront in the planning process to accelerate business advantage. This move will futureproof advertisers by better arming them to quickly capitalize on market changes and shifts in consumer shopping patterns. At UM, we have invested in learning-based growth drivers like Futurecaster, which identifies emerging media by audience, and Demand Forecaster, a consumer behaviour prediction tool.

Devon MacDonald: The overall shift in culture and consumer demand is going to shift media to niche executions and opportunities. The importance of martech as the interface between a brand and consumer is going to demand more from marketers. That interface, and the data sources it supports and provides, is the practical translation of brand values in media.



What's one thing you hope the industry plans to start doing, one thing it needs to stop, and one thing you hope it changes in 2022?

Sarah Thompson: Start correlating the brand to demand. Brand truly benefits conversion and the data is there to start understanding how that works.

Stop focusing on the short term only. The feedback of data in digital media can be distracting, but truthfully, you need to know the your businesses' trajectory and how you are building for the future – because it gets here quickly, and with massive market dynamic shifts, like the supply chain issues of today, you need a long-term view to sustain that turmoil.

Change the way you look at the total media investment and challenge what is missing in your reports – what pressing questions do you need to ask about how you're allocating your spend? It's important to ask because how we consume media is evolving every minute.

Cathy Collier: Start bringing more diversity to our industry by recruiting at the high school level so more people know earlier about media as an interesting career. There are individual agencies who have started but this is something our industry should work together on.

Stop the race to the bottom by competing less on compensation and rates and more on our media expertise. We run businesses not charities.

Change the way we look at consumer connections. We have spent the past few years focused on data, ingesting it and the pipes it runs through. Our business has become very functional, and we would be well-served to inject consumer empathy into our media solutions. We have a rich history of developing innovative connections between people and brands, which has been lost in recent years.

Scott Stewart: Start prioritizing putting your people first. You owe it to both your staff and colleagues to help build a culture that is dedicated to getting better, and being better, so that your people can thrive. Invest in their progress and development as both a short-term and long-term strategy.

Marketers, stop letting procurement drive the RFP agenda. There are too many shell games going on right now in the dark corners of the industry as a result of this practice. You get what you pay for. Think: people and strategy first.

Change how we support Canadian-owned and -operated media companies. Like every other industry talking about sustainability, we need to behave accordingly. So stop paying lip service to that fact, and start prioritizing these relationships.

Lindsey Talbot: Start attracting new, diverse talent into our industry. Stop letting cost be the leading factor in pitches, focus on long-term business growth and the ideas your prospective agency partner proposes to get you there. Change your media plans to better support Canadian, factual, journalism and news sources.

Ishma Alexander-Huet: Start investing in inclusive media as opposed to selective multicultural campaigns. Stop asking for more with less. The investment in time and resources leads to happier people and better work. Change the dependency on lower funnel activity to drive short term goals at the expense of upper funnel, brand building activity.

Kevin Kivi: Much attention has been given in recent years to the lack of DEI in our industry; and while most agencies agree on the importance of diversity across organizations, business remains as usual, or the attitude is cursory: "just add DEI to the mix." Which begs the question: have we really done enough to combat DEI gaps in our industry? Or are agencies reactively being forced to act on this front? We fully recognize there's much work to be done, and the best we can do is take advantage of this opportunity to improve, and learn, but there's a long way to go.

Richard Fofana: On the people front, our industry needs to find effective ways to delineate between work and home. And make a genuine investment in formal approaches that facilitate downtime and disconnecting. A recent study cited 9 of 10 knowledge workers prioritize flexibility as a critical driver of employer choice. Stop simply trying to find ways to do things cheaper, at the expense of all else. Low quality, ineffective impressions may be cheaper by the pound, but they don't drive growth and they don't build brands. This race to the bottom dilutes the value of our industry, drives out top talent and commoditizes our profession.

Devon MacDonald: The tabled government legislation around after-hours work and amazing recent campaign from NABS about late hours is the strongest signal yet about the change needed in the industry. Employees must be permitted to set boundaries about their work. Agencies and brands must adhere to those boundaries and also be more flexible in their approach to remote and in office working. My wish for the industry and its leaders is the continued focus on marginalized groups, support for those in vulnerable situations and an overall increase in empathy for individuals. We're in this together.