Babar: Hello and welcome to another edition of Ephlux Insights. My name is Babar Khan and I’m the entrepreneur in residence for this program. We’re joined today with Stephen Maher, of Maher Birds Associates also known as MBA. He’s also the chairman of the Marketing Society, UK. As you remember we spoke to Hugh Berkitt last week and this week we speak to Stephen, but today’s topic will be all things brand, all things agency and his work at MBA, so thanks for being with us.
Stephen: Yea, good to see you.
Babar: So Stephen, could you tell us about your background, where you studied and your experiences thus far?
Stephen: Sure, you know I started out school, I studies university. I studied modern history at Oxford. You’re going to think it’s a bit weird that you study modern history and you go into the communications business. That’s best about British education – you study what you love doing and I love doing history and I got to my last year and I thought what I want to do with my life, and I thought media and communications, and marketing. I applied to BBC and a whole lot of places and I got inspired by any side of marketing and communications and journalism, of course it was pre-digital. One of the first agency I worked for Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, which is one of the largest agency in the UK. I went to some great places and I had good training, but I had always been an entrepreneur at heart and I always wanted to do my own thing. Eventually I was working at quite a creative agency called the Salmon’s Palmer, and I did a joint venture with them, we set up Maher Bird Associates which is MBA and I took it from there.
The business has developed very well over the last two years. Been through a couple of iterations , we‘ve spent a period of time where we worked part-time with Omnicom because the business got bought by Omnicom, and we had about 47%- 49%, but Omnicom owned the rest. Then I decided to buy ourselves out and work independently, and that’s what we did. AS you know in our business, ownership is very important and I wanted to have my second tier management team and so we’ve gone independent and I’m really proud to say that for the past two years we’ve been chosen by the Campaign Magazine as one of the world’s leading agency. My background is working in many agencies all my life, all international business but essentially located in London. The most exciting thing that has happened in the last 10 years is that it has exploded digital and it has opened dynamics for the industry.
Babar: Definitely. It really has changed the game, especially the measurement side. I’ve never worked in ATL’s so could you tell me how the measurement and the justification on spend can be done on the ATL side on the brand front.
Stephen: IT’s quite interesting because in many ways ,there’s a legacy especially in the UK by the IPA, a sort of agency body organization, and it gives out awards, which are like the Oscars. They’ve got phenomenal data around the effectiveness of advertisement in the classical sense, of television and press and put digital less so interestedly, so I would say the justification is pretty solid there. There’s some really good case studies there , on effectiveness in spending, several million dollars on TV and posters looking at the metrics, looking at all the variables and data that proves the fact that advertising and communications was the determinant of success of a brand. But there’s an area that is very important. MBA is involved with IPA Social Works where they work in coordination – we’ve got Twitter and various client organizations involved with the rigger, the advertising is done above the line to choose social in terms of measurement and metrics. We’re working at the moment, with best practice and proving effectiveness of social.
Babar: You’ve won awards with the Campaign Magazine, how would you say that another agency would get at least nominated – what would you say was the basis on which you have won?
Stephen: I mean, what they do every year is that they look at the world’s leading agencies and they develop a supplement in Campaign Magazine with network, which is the largest, foremost network agency around the world, and they select the biggest agencies and then they come around 13- 14 agencies. The criteria would be maybe what agencies are hot at the moment, what agencies are developing typically unusual thinking, who’s doing exciting work – that sort of judgment. It’s also about being progressive, clearly our business is about , as is with all agencies, it’s all about digital and social. For us, it’s really building on the tech side of things and really coming on the forefront of digital.
Babar: If anyone would go through your website that was one of the things that struck me the most. If you look into the website of any organization, in terms of their advertising themselves, it’s very rare that you would see so much focus on tech. If there’s 10 catch phases on the page, Digital and Tech come up more than anything else. I hardly saw media planning and media buying and other jargon that comes up like content marketing. Even the most featured case study that we see in the work that we do is the technology work and this one campaign that raised awareness, but its very rare to see an agency coming from an old school mindset from how you’ve adopted. Sometimes you grow beyond what the agency norm was. You’re focusing on building technologies and building capabilities for your client and have case studies to prove their value. That is one of the main reasons why we selected you for our interview, because we are speaking to people who are tech-driven and utilizing that for measurable returns, as opposed to everybody’s doing it so let’s do it.
Stephen: that’s absolutely right. Just a comment on that Babar, its been talked about a lot, influence is there on creativity and technology, that is where its all happening, that is where all the excitement is. You know if you come from an agency, like you call it, old school, and I’m around the age of 40, so if you’re around that age group, all the skills around creativity and beahviour and understanding psychology of the customers, at the end of the day, its all about the ideas of the content. Now, we have technology that can drive all the things, and talk about speed up and do mass scale. So, actually putting these two things together is actually what It’s all about at the moment, and that’s something we talk about quite a lot. The key is that because it’s so embedded in everyone’s coaching now, so the experience of consumers now is digitally fantastic. IT’s all about bringing together creativity, thinking and strategy with technology. So, the customer experience and the digital experience are one thing now. It absolutely has to work, we know it from Apple , we know It from Amazon. Lovefilm by Amazon is one of our clients, we know how Amazon are at their recommendations, how they a wonderfully easy experience for customers. That’s the key and what we’re finding is that we made an acquisition in the UK, and we bought a very progressive tech-shop in Brighton, in South Coast of England where we see developments in a lot of areas – app development, ecommerce –we want to have even more capability in that area because we know what it’s all about. We’re seeing fantastic developments there, when we’re working for our clients like Embrear, Avios, O2 – and we’re really finding the excitement is around this area – finding ways of bringing to life the customer experience and digital.
Babar: You’ve really hit the nail on the head. I’m hearing this from pretty much everyone who’s a leader in this space, or who is aspiring to be a leader in this space. Even our last interview with Jeff Schumacher, CEO of Boston Consultancy, he said the exact same thing. I asked him what sort of digital campaigns you want to work on? He said before I even start thinking on the client said, what I need to develop capabilities in-house and I need to have technologies to fish to them further. And our parent company does more or less the same thing, but they work more on the West coast side than on the East Coast. Boston Consulting does work on the East side, they have an application that tracks location, and that can be used for the multitude of things from attendance to a scavenger hunt, amazing race games , obviously there’s a lot of things you could do with it. Everything from a fun perspective to making oyur employees hate you because you’re tracking their attendance.
Stephen: That’s right. One of the things that we talk about is the phrase “brand action” – our way of saying and bringing together the art and the science, the creativity and technology to the ultimate action in the marketplace. Very often what happens in this area, you come from the technology standpoint and that’s great but you’ve got to grasp the relevance, the benefits to the consumer, how I can sell it and how I can make it for the client. Vice versa, we might understand the consumer behavior, but not necessarly the technology that’s going to affect it, drive it or improve ROI on it. Unless you put it together and you make that, there’s a tension between highly creative strategic people and fantastic leading technology people, but the brilliance is putting the two together. This is what this agency, all future agencies, will be all about – those who find a fit between the two, where the crazy people and technology people make it work harmoniously.
Babar: Interestingly, my next question was what sets MBA apart from other agencies, and I guess we just covered that. The fact that you’re thinking that far ahead. Apart from Ephlux Insights, I have a lot of speaking and mentoring engagements, and for the past year, I’ve been meeting a small- or medium seized growing business, and they say they need to outsource a digital media strategy. My advice to them, is pretty much shooting myself in the foot, I’ll refer an agency to you and develop it in-house, at least develop the understanding in-house. One of the clients I worked with, it was a fruit business, basically advised them to make their head of call centre their head of social media engagements or give him a fancy title to boost his ego, and make Head of IT the Head of Digital Capabilities. Even if they’re not doing the Digital media buying, they should have the understanding of what’s going on behind it. Down the road, that will be an actual department in your company. If we look at P&G, n HongKong, they’re actually doing this. They’re going to have a head of Digital Marketing within P&G, as opposed to outsourcing the entire division and the entire capability through an agency that could or could not do the job well.
Stephen: I agree. People say what’s your direct strategy, what’s your communication, your marketing strategy. I mean it’s fundamentally the same. The phrase we often use is ‘where digital and direct often connect’. What you need today is an understanding of what the web can do and what technology can do. When you look at it from data perspectivre and you understand customer behavior, and you apply all the rigors, apply to direct marketing and you put the two together , you can look at accountability, you can look at ROI. There hasn’t been a better time to do that because you can do all those things. Inter-connected is a better ay to describe it. As a consumer we don’t look at it that way – is it a social video, is it a piece of direct marketing, is it advertising, is it content, is it digital – we think of it as a whole experience.
Babar: Yea, I hardly meet people who speak like this. You clearly stated .. I’ve spoken to some CMO’s as well, and I would ask them at the end of the interview what would you advise agencies to do and they say you know build up the capabilities, but you’re already there.I’ve seen your work, people are encouraged to see your work, it’s on mba.co.uk. I would like you to touch upon a case study of the best work you’ve done in this space.
Stephen: Sure, we’ve got a variety. I’ll give you a couple of examples. We’ve got a client who’s got a private jet business in Brighton, and they’re based in Brazil and they’re an international company, selling all around the world, I’m not surprised that China is a big market for them with the aero-space and everything. Jackie chan is the embassador in China highly revered in Asia. What we decided to do was to develop a social video, found it probably the best way of promoting this, we got him involved and did it like kind of a trailer for a Hollywood film, 5 minute film on youtube, he tweets it, puts it on his blog, we blog about it, we put it on the site and that’s a great example. It’s not traditional advertising, it’s not traditional marketing, not traditional website. It’s about creating a fantastic live experience that will get to people. We know what’s happening in a lot of marketplaces, people will search everything before they buy now. Basically, there’s a treasure of information there, and I find out about brand, I find out about what I’m going to do before I go out and buy. So, we know that developing video content, or blogs, or whatever it might be is the key to it.
Another example I could give you is – there’s a famous chef in the UK – Heston Blumenthal , and he’s got some notoriety around the world now. He’s up there; he’s one of the best Michelin star chefs there. He’s developed a range of products called Sage by Heston Blumenthal, basically kitchen appliances like Juicer, tea makers, coffee makers, up market really cool stuff but the key to it is because he’s an obsessive kind of food scientist, he makes sure the products are fantastic as well – they deliver the products so that the food and science and technology are all there. Our whole strategy is a social digital strategy. So, if you go into a shop and you buy a juicer, we know your decision ofgetting a juicer will be taken before you go into the shop. So, we developed a whole lot of content films, Heston Blumenthal using his products to make great recipes. Again, we got a whole lot of blogs going around there, and running campaigns to let people understand the products. You know the z-moment, the zero moment you take your decision before you go and buy. The shopping funnel is no longer that, it’s an ecosystem. It’s about providing people all information before they buy. That’s how we approach our business – it’s content driven, technology-driven and ultimately it’s about using data in a way. That finds our way getting to the people, because clearly we’ve got to post these blogs and content in places we know people will read. That’s the great thing about digital; it allows you to come to the interested people.
Babar: That’s again interesting enough because my last interview was with Robin Bonn, he’s the Business Development Manager for an agency in UK by the name Seven. And they are experts in content marketing and the discussion was around the customer purchase journey from awareness down to call to action. How the content differs with each aspect of the customer’s journey. So its not just about awareness building, you need to be present when there’s an alternate search, you have to there during the purchase process, or even the after sales process. At the same time, he brought up this aspect where you don’t really need a million users to like you or be on your page, sometimes you need just a 1000 but those that are relevant. For example, Warc Market Leader gets about a 100,000+ readers on the print edition, who have an immense say in their businesses with respect to the decision making powers. Again, a brilliant point that you brought up.
Stephen: Another area that all agencies crackle with, for example the explicit and implicit behavior that you get from data. We can actually track what people really do, but we can also look at those kind of people – what they can typically do. We pull the two together, pull the social data together , we ‘ve got this fantastic way of reaching the right people, with the right content – you’re absolutely right .. that’s the key – mapping the way of the journey we know people are going to respond to.
Babar: Another point that i’m hearing, you’re the 3rd one now, is the Brand awareness oriented marketing and then there’s content marketing. Content marketing, like Robin says it’s beyond the video – what does the video allow the customer to do. It’s no longer like here’s a phone that will allow you to make calls. A phone must be doing something more – add some value. Content marketing is about how the brand benefits you , not why it benefits you. The why is communicated in the ad, the how is content. The examples that you give affects the brand affinity side, from Heston, I believe I’ve seen him on Masterchef and I’ve seen him do crazy stuff with Liquid Nitrogen, I can see the ROI over there , but what about the Jackie Chan example, how did you improve the ROI there?
Stephen: You’re talking about Private Jets that range anywhere from $ 20 million to $ 50 million,so u know one or two sales could get a fantastic ROI. What we’re really doing is we’re creating the right environment, putting up a potential salesman, direct contact, we know the kind of people we’re looking at, who are reading the content , people phone up on the back of it, it’s in all our communications, we kind of passionate about how the dollar spent will return $2- $3. We’re not going to do anything that will not prove that and I think that’s again a good change that’s taken place in our industry. Accountability is absolutely critical, especially because of the recession that took place in the Europe and America, but also for the right reasons. Every board is asking that question in every company, rightly so. You know every dollar spent is got to be returned.
Babar: Really. That was going to be my next question. The next era where CMO’s will be all about measurability and accountability, they track back the lead. Trying to figure out why a thousand people came to your site, maybe the site doesn’t require any sign up, maybe just to build awareness on a certain product and then it wants the visitor to take part in some sort of a prize. The general concept is that if there’s a prize or a contest, people will sign up, and then there are people who don’t. You’ll have a million people coming to your site and 80% is your bounce rate. People need to figure that out why! With the advent of technology like Adobe Marketing Cloud, and the Adobe Experience Manager, how do you this particular measurability aspect being affected as it gives you really deep insights. How do you see the ability of measuring the effects of a marketing campaign being effected? How do you augment your pitch for the client, keeping these things in mind?
Stephen: First of all, the essence of our business at MBA is we’re always talking about a strong direct background here. For us, its all about absolutely measuring the effects, whatever that might be, however we do that – regeneration sales or KPI . We’ll always do that. The brilliance with that kind of measurement tool – looking at all the big data – we can create fantastic patchwork of data to understand as we say. What our customers are doing, why they’re doing and why they’re hitting that particular site. Gone are the days when you respond to something and I track the number of leads, I look at the conversion and then I look at the sales. Because as I said earlier, people are researching information. If people look at a site, its content, you’re warming them up and obviously we know who they are potentially , we track that lead, we find out what they’re going to do and they might come back a couple of weeks later. I think the answer is that every agency should have a very holistic approach to metrics and data and to see the action to data and the behavior that applies, put it all together. We can also personalize using emails, the content – the video, the blogs whatever. There are a lot of examples for us now to see to use technology in real –time now and put it all together in a way to construct a campaign that we know is going to deliver results.
It’s a fact that we’re going to constantly evolve a campaign, based on what behavior is exhibited by our customer. In the past, you try something, you put it out, you see the results at the end. But now we evolve, and that’s the brilliance of the digital world we live in.
Babar: Digital penetration has become part of our life seamlessly and we cannot live without it. It’s ridiculous to ask someone to live without it as it’s like oxygen now. Agencies in the past would build their reputations, and have portfolios that would speak for their work. Given the advent of digital and social, how does an agency market itself and how do you reach out to potential partners or clients in the brand space to add on the capabilities or areas that you are unaware of?
Stephen: The marketing side of it, its relatively a small community. Even in London, with agencies running campaigns all around the world. There are a certain number of companies, agencies, intermediaries, organizations that put clients and agencies together, there is the trade press of course, for marketing you need to be present in all of those, meet all those different people. Then there’s a website with a complete business side, we have email campaigns, then we have a generous name with all that we do in our works. Effectively , that has changed the whole debate around content. Like we’re doing as an agency, we ‘re getting out content out to make sure that people respond and we can look into who’s responding , so we’re doing that in the same way. In terms of technology, there are organizations like one fantastic one Tech London Advocates, the Bakery, basically for us and also our relationship with the South Coast of England has developed, as we made our acquisition there. I think what we need to do as an agency is that we need to constantly look at, from startup, we look at the fore fronts of really cool companies. We keep a lookout for really really smart progressive technology businesses. There will be areas that companies will be developing at, so with relationships with like The Bakery, with other incubators, that’s how we keep on top of it. And we make sure these relationships are alive and vital for any agency to do that.
Babar: You have done Augmented Reality. I’m a big fan of how that can be applied to on-ground experience. As opposed to you’re at your home, and you have your device and you’re having a one-to-one experience, but instead a group experience. How you type it in with sales is the big question, is there any call to action right after the person takes part in the event.
Stephen; I agree but if I was sent to you , trying to sell you something and I could show you how this thing is going to be part of your life and how it will make your home better, I could show you via demonstrations that Augmented Reality, and there’s a greater chance that you’re going to buy from me . Anything that improves a potential customer experience of buying a particular product is going to ultimately generate a greater sale, goes back to metrics; we need to show that, eventually making sales more likely to happen.
Babar: Absolutely last question, an advice for the CMOs keeping in mind the capabilities that we build, not just CMOs on the brand side but also the agency side, looking at the marketing, or lead generation or corporate brand building? Keeping in mind , both the B2B and B2C perspective.
Stephen: okay, from an agency point of view, I would say that what is important is how technology is affecting people’s lives today. Having relationships with businesses that are particularly strong in emerging technologies, it’s important to have that. Any agency that does that, has got an edge. There would then be potential for growth of the client as well.
There hasn’t been a better time for the CMOs where they market customer experience. The CMO can really mobilize the organization, champion the customer experience and help champion the relationship and I think it’s a great time for the CMO to look into the world with the eyes of the consumer in the digital space. It’s a fantastic time to inspire marketers.
Babar: A study by Trango that said in 2013 people were all over social and digital, from the perspective of follow everyone. Everyone thought only engaging people by getting them on the page was important, but then there was no result. There was no concept of conversion. The new era of 2014, we have the same CMOs talking about the accountability. I really wish you the best of luck for your projects.
Stephen: I don’t mean to make a plug here, but I would like you to check for the IPA Social Works , and that will show you the rigor that will interest you in other forms of advertising, in terms of proving the ROI and the social. We want to make sure the metrics are in place, and that is why we have the group so that anyone who has fantastic case studies can share their ideas . We want to build up the data bank.
Babar: Quite a bit of the capabilities that you’re working towards and a lot of people I’m connected to are coming to my mind. So I’m going to refer you to them right after this call. I even meet people who say I dream of this and they don’t believe its possible and I tell them there’s a way about it. Speaking to you will change the game considerably. Thanks Stephen and we’ll speak in a month’s time down the line with a fresh topic and new works and learning.