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Mark DiMassimo on Ad Age’s AdLib Podcast

Last week, our Chief Mark DiMassimo went AdAge’s Ad Lib Podcast to talk with host Brian Braiker about building brands and businesses in a direct-to-consumer world, why traditional advertising is less important today, how behavior change marketing can be used to help fight the opioid epidemic, and much much more. Full transcript and podcast below!

Mark: What experience do you want them to have? Like when you think about this thing?

Brian: What experience do I want my listeners to have?

Mark: Yeah, why should they tune in?

Brian: I want them to be entertained and informed, inspired, possibly scared. I think they are already probably a little scared.

Mark: So they feel like they need to listen, might be dangerous not to listen.

Brian: If they miss a single episode of this podcast, they’re doomed.

Mark: Alright well, I wanted my brief, so I gotta be entertaining and interesting.

Brian: And who are you? You’re Mark DiMassimo, Chief of DiMassimo Goldstein. Welcome to Ad Lib podcast

Mark: Great to see you and be here. And we are literally seeing each other across this card table.

Brian: It’s a shoestring budget here and you can change that with sponsors. First, let’s start with the basics. DiMassimo Goldstein, what is that? You’re an independent agency that’s 22 years old.

Mark: You know a lot about this business and you know a lot about my business. We are an independent agency in New York that I founded in 1996, 22 years young. Even though we’ve been around for 22 years, we have not had the same year over again because we work with growth-stage turnaround state of businesses so our clients are constantly driving us to embrace change.

Brian: Well I don’t think you have a choice in the matter when it comes to embracing change. So who are these clients?

Mark: Let me give you a few because right now, this is not about being self-promotional…

Brian: Yes, because this is not the DiMassimo Goldstein hour.

Mark: We believe in a direct-to-consumer, choice-filled world, and that people are actually out there in the marketplace trying to get inspired to do great things, and the right things. We want them to do that so some of our top clients right now are Salesforce.org. So Salesforce is one of the big tech companies in the world. And Salesforce with Salesforce.org they really help drive the not-for-profit economy and really help a lot of people so we’re really proud we’re working with them. TradeStation is a fantastic company that went from small competitors to Charles Schwab, to now the fastest-growing programmatic trading, very excited about them. I should mention the Bronx Zoo and Wildlife Conservation Society.

Brian: What a cool client. So you said the words direct-to-consumer, you say those words a lot? I’ve heard those words a few times before we turned on the mics. What do you mean, really, what does that look like?

Mark: So when I founded the agency in 1996, I had this thought.

Brian: Were you a holding company refugee?

Mark: Right before I started DiMassimo Goldstein, I was Creative Director at Kirschenbaum, which was an amazing experience, and we were challenging the holding companies; but before that, I was at J Walter Thompson, YNR, started at BBDO and I went on to be this integrated guy who was working with the brand and advertising. But I had this early experience with direct-to-consumer and I saw technology making everything more and more direct-to-consumer all the time and I thought, man, when they turn to agencies, they always get the folks who don’t know brands, who don’t know how to build brands. I thought, wow, we could be the agency that builds brands for this direct-to-consumer world. For twenty years, I couldn’t really say that, because agency people always heard direct marketing, performance marketing, and it isn’t that. It’s building brands and businesses in a direct-to-consumer world. Dollar Shave Club, for example, all these platforms, Uber, Airbnb, I could go on and on.

Brian: So how does that work? Direct-to-consumer means knocking the agencies out of the way.

Mark: Look, absolutely. We are also agents in the middle and about 10 years ago, Google got together and talked about if it was time to get rid of the agencies and, thank god, they decided to work with us for now. But any middle professional can ] be pushed out of the way. We have to find how we add value.

Brian: How do you add value?

Mark: In a world where everybody has these expectations, I want instant, I want choice. In order to respond to that, you need your agency to understand those expectations. Those people are choosing an experience, but they’re also choosing what club to join. Thats why its also a subscription world, right, we’ve heard that with Amazon and Netflix. It’s people piecing together their own service world. So what inspires me? What clubs do I identify with that I want to make part of my life? You need agencies that can think those things through. Business and brand experience delivered through product service and then marketing, that’s the hierarchy today. So I think one thing that large agencies that grew up and built large factories for advertising, one thing they’re suffering with are these legacy agencies that were built for a world where the advertising drove the brand positioning. That’s not the case anymore.

Brian: The case today is agencies help build the brands themselves; is that where you’re going with this?

Mark: Exactly, I see it again and again, your CCO better be promoted to chief marketing officer and service content and brand or else someone else will. Then, your CMO will be reporting to a chief growth or product officer. Everybody has access to the opinions of others through consumer reviews and rating sites in every category. So product experience that you give and the story you tell around it through content, PR, social media, has to all hang together so advertising is a lot less important than it used to be.

Brian: So this need for brand building at holding company level has made room for consultant agencies to move in.

Mark: When I look at the independents that like us are thriving, they are brand consultant agencies at the core, but then activating through social or an integrated way like we are, or they’re innovation shops. That’s why innovation shops have grown up, because what are we gonna be has become a much more important question than what are we going to say about it.

Brian: So the traditional advertising agency as you see it, the writing’s on the wall?

Mark: Look, I think there are massive global companies that have all the problems of scale and they probably need ways of dealing with those scale problems. I don’t claim to be an expert on that, I believe those worlds are troubled both on the client side and the agency side. It’s really hurting now. I love that Martin Sorrell and I agree for the first time.

Brian: That holding companies are broken? Now that he’s on the other side?

Mark: Right! Now that I’m on the outside, I realize it. No, you were part of the problem, you profited from the problem, you understand the problem really well because you were on the inside and now you know how to compete.

Brian: That’s what George Soros did in a way, too.

Mark: Hell yeah.

Brian: What do you think is going to happen with WPP and the holding model? Pure speculation, obviously.

Mark: I think they compete as public companies, their stories aren’t great, compared to tech companies driven by pure tech stories. They’re holding a lot of what they used to consider cash cow assets, that are actually weighing them down now; they’ve also got a lot of new models. They’re buying independents, they’re trying to integrate them, make them matter for scale. I will not be surprised if we see some divestitures of mature assets. Meanwhile, I hear all the time from folks who would love to get people like me and agencies inside in order to get clients the experience they’ve been leaving for. What they keep telling me is that there are fewer and fewer things to buy.

Brian: Would you sell?

Mark: If the answer was yes, I would already be sold. Wherever I am, the next three years of my life are always too important to me. I’m not going to be the richest guy in the cemetery, but I’ve done well enough that if I love my job, I’ll be OK and that’s my priority to keep growing this place. I’ve given other people this experience in working in a focused, inspiring, less-problematic environment and I’ve seen what it means in their lives, too. We’re not for every client, but we play an important role in the lives of our clients as well.

Brian: Talk about then what you’ve learned at BBDO, JWT, that you saw there that you chose not to replicate. You said you did see a need for that kind of brand building skill set. What did you see that you didn’t want?

Mark: Great question. Without fail, the people at the top of the large agencies I work for, I’m forever grateful I got to work closely with these people. They were really smart, good and the same people that were running small independent agencies before. I won’t name any names but a lot of them at the top are the result of acquisitions, so at that level, there’s similar thinking. But I’ve seen people go into those situations and see problems they have to solve and the genius they go in with thinking about brands, orchestrating teams, really innovating through creative, they get worn down by the problems of how do I keep people out of this meeting. Everybody wants to sell their thing in the meeting. It becomes a how do I keep this all from going south then try to be a little bit better than other people who compete. The other thing I found, and my experience is a little old, but everybody tells me that the beautiful, pure brand planning that I worked with at Kirschenbaum was never really replicated very well at large agencies. As a creative director at J Walter Thompson, I was really a better planner than a creative director. That was true with just about every creative director there. We didn’t have planners. So we had to be right about the brand and therefore, the creative suffered. Whereas in independents, you have strategic thinkers working in lockstep with creatives and media people. But you don’t have to be your own strategists. You can connect your creative mind with somebody who’s really focused on that and it’s in a team where people who aren’t adding to the conversation are not in the conversation. That’s what I mean by the problems of scale. We have to find some way to engage all these people all over the world, even though that’s going to dilute the quality of this conversation. We don’t have that problem. We have it on the client side to some extent as our clients get bigger, but we help create these works that then help and inspire the rest of that team.

Brian: What are your clients’ pain points right now? What are they coming to you looking for help on?

Mark: I’ll say how they define the problem, then the changes that come from that. Without fail, the client needs to both build revenue and do it in a way that builds the brand at the same time. There are all kinds of pressures to sacrifice the long term of the brand for short-term sales. Different kinds of organizations have different pressures, so they own this problem. If they don’t solve this revenue problem in the short run, they’re out. They don’t get to build the brand. If revenue doesn’t actually build the value of the brand, it’s gonna stop working; then they’re gonna be out. With very few exceptions, when they turn to agencies, the agencies all wanna own one side of that problem or the other. So they need someone to step in and say, yes, I will own the integration. They got performance marketing agencies that are all about, let’s personalize, let’s automate. We don’t really care when customers get together if they speak the same language as us. We just need to maximize the amount of sales. Then we got brand people, who often don’t know how to create a brand platform that actually combines all of that stuff in an experience product promotion. The client has to be the orchestrator. When they come to us, they want somebody to sit with them at the table and be an expert in integrating those aspects.

Brian: Talk about your work in partnership with Drug Free Kids, which I think is interesting. Using advertising to fight the opioid epidemic. Why that cause?

Mark: Well, if I go back to the 90’s, when I first got involved with them, the woman who would become my wife and I got involved in the organization at the same time. She took a job there working with all the great agencies developing what has become the largest, single-subject public service campaign ever. She was on the inside working with agencies; I learned a lot how agencies present through that.

Brian: Can you give an example?

Mark: We don’t pitch. We’re one of the fastest-growing private companies in America in the last five years, and we do not do creative pitches. Back then, BBH entered this private market and I got to meet John Haggarty, they would say we don’t pitch. That was a mystery to me; what did that mean? Well at the partnership, I joined the creative review committee, which is now creative development board and I’m the chairman of it as of this year. I saw several times BBH present what they pitched and what I saw was, when you focus on ideas, not execution, you focus the client on the highest leverage you can bring, rather than all these distracting images and pictures. You’re allowing them to imagine whatever they’re going to imagine. You’re going to work with them for months to figure out how to execute. So they didn’t bring in nothing. They brought in strategic thinking and platforms. They said it wasn’t creative. So what I realized is, first off, clients are buying experience and a lot of agency experience is really awful. We’ll basically say you’re just buying one campaign, if this goes, well we’ll work on many things together. So let’s start with a project. We need to commit that much, so you need to commit that much. We’re never going to tie your hands and ask you for a two-year contract because we’ll earn our way; but let’s start with an initial project that assumes it is going to go on. Let’s talk about ideas and how it’ll be to go together, and we find that works. Meeting all these other agencies while working on anti-drug advertising gave me a window into the different cultures. I got to see folks from Crispen present when they were the hottest agency in the country and they set up their work less, they defended their work less, and they were so cool when they got direction. I would see these people come in and talk and talk and defend, and they were like, oh yeah, cool. Later they would decide if they would integrate. They gave you the feeling of confidence. Jill went on to become a client, one of the heads of marketing at Tommy Hilfiger, and I’d say, what do the agencies that work for you really give you? She’d say that as a client, you’re afraid. You can’t do it, you can’t force the agency to do it, and you don’t know how to make it work, even if you’re smart and good. A confident agency, confident enough to listen and support, is so reassuring. How would they be confident? And she’d say well there’s this one guy who will say this is our 7503 commercial, we’ll get this right.

Brian: That’s great that you have somebody on the inside feeding you pro tips.

Mark: Listen to the clients, I care about creative, I care about brand planning.

Brian: What about data?

Mark: We are very teched up and data-oriented because, in the direct-to-consumer world, our mix is 75% digital, including email. How do you integrate what you’re learning from your data with what you’re trying to build for your brand and experience? That’s the challenge your client lives with, and compromise is ultimate failure. Agencies that are either data-or brand-focused tend to sell what they do. They pull in their direction against the other guys and clients are stuck in the middle. It’s super uncomfortable and it makes them feel more responsible and less confident than they want to feel. We’re deeply into the data, and we have to translate it into insight and explain how it fits within what you’re trying to build as a brand. Not all data should immediately trigger a computer to pull a trigger, because that could undermine the brand. There are other ways to sell that will work better.

Brian: Back to fighting opioids.

Mark: Back to fighting opioids. Those guys back in the 80’s it wasn’t about opioids. But those guys who got together from Johnson & Johnson and media companies from the big ad agencies, they had this perfect storm of society is really worried about drugs, the government gets that they’re worried. Industry could really come together because the media landscape meant that advertising could really do something about it. They created the partnership and they did amazing things. They slayed crack, then ecstasy; they went out there and created effective campaigns.

Brian: How do you create an effective campaign to fight drugs? A human behavior that is never going to go away and kids are not receptive to advertising, less so now than ever before.

Mark: Yeah, exactly right. That’s what’s changed. That worked for the media environment of then, but that doesn’t work for today. Before it was media agencies and ad agencies, now its the core digital firms. The Googles, Facebooks, Twitters and the rest of media plus agencies and deep integrated digital agencies. It’s a deeper coalition in the world today. Now, what we’re focused on is the partnership for Drug Free Kids and what that means, is helping parents who are on the front line with their kids. We’re not up there advertising to kids saying stay away from drugs. What we are is providing services in a direct-to-parent way. Leveraging these partnerships with Google and Facebook. It’s working, and the government isn’t spending money on getting help for parents. They’re not spending money right now on prevention; maybe they will. But if you’re in a tech firm, media firm or agency, my message is this is our generation’s problem, and I know you’re working with guns, add that, too. This one of the biggest social behavior problems of our generation and step up, it’s a whole new thing now. If you’re interested, a lot of folks have had personal experiences, reach out to me, I’m not hard to find on social media. We need people to step up and be a part of this, and we have some great people on this creative review board now, amazing thinkers, a top innovation guy from Apple, great CCO’s from agencies. It’s a great thing. I don’t think it’s just me. We found through our research that folks are having trouble with technology addiction.

Brian: We saw that in Apple’s keynote.

Mark: Tim Cook is right again. How many of us are working on attracting people’s attention and distracting people from paying attention, engaging them for as long as possible. Getting them to click for as long as possible. We’re all out there mastering the art of diverting people’s attention and casting a spell over their behavior. There’s an enormous amount of choice and my belief is that values have to come above business. I think values will drive business success, but you have to align. I believe we can help people solve this choice problem. We can help people control themselves a bit more, so they can get more satisfaction out of life. If we do that, the brands that do that are ultimately going to do better. This is why we focus on inspiring action brands and help people form more empowering habits and make more inspiring decision. That’s what we do.

Brian: I’m sure that’s hard to monetize.

Mark: Because people are desperate in situations like this, now because of what’s happened, I really believe that is what’s driving us into a direct-to-consumer marketplace. I think the brands that give you a better experience feel better afterward. This is why Facebook and Apple are doing this. They realize that there’s a limit on just pure behavior if people feel miserable, if they don’t feel empowered, they’re going to go elsewhere and there will be competition. Talking about the benefits of scale, the benefits don’t extend to be able to make people miserable forever. Government will rise up, too. I’m a challenger, but I don’t want to challenge through government. I want to create alternatives that give people incredible experiences. And I also would love to help brands like Apple and Google do that as well. But I think we have to give people better experiences of themselves, feeling empowered.

Brian: That’s an empowering place to leave things. This was excellent. Sounds like you’re doing good work. Thanks, Mark, appreciate you being on the show today.

Mark: Thanks Brian.