My Industry Chat with Terry McGrath – Using Media to Solve Business Problems

Thank you very much for joining me Terry. Please tell us about your background in media planning and buying, and how you came to found T1 Media in 2001.

I started out at Y&R in New York, which at that time was the largest agency in the world. But the most important part is that they had a really good strategic media planning training platform that we all did, which was highly unusual back in the day. I then moved from Y&R to Hill Holiday in Boston. They were growing rapidly and trying to compete on a national stage. They brought up a lot of New Yorkers who had strategy planning to add to their team. After that, I started an independent media buying firm with a partner. We ran the firm together for about 10 years, and during that time many of the big holding companies were forming buying and merging leading independent firms such as, Ogilvy and Y&R, and BBDO.

I noticed there was a hole in the marketplace for really strong strategic media planning and buying firm. In 2001, I launched T1 Media almost 20 years ago. We have clients such as Standard & Poor’s, Legg Mason, and MIT. We’ve had most of our clients since the day we opened our doors. I always say that anybody can buy media, but it’s understanding how to buy media correctly to solve the business problem is the secret sauce that doesn’t exist in every media shop.

How do you explain media buying to the layperson?

In the simplest of terms, what we say for small companies is that when you’re looking for one-off sales, you probably don’t need a media person. But when you’re looking to duplicate sales year over year across a large geographic footprint, and you need consistent volume, then you really need someone who understands how to locate those buyers and really scale advertising using a duplicative process that can repeatedly drive in sales volume. We help clients understand and build the profile of who their ideal buyers are, where they are located geographically, and in what industries. Then we look at how do you use media to reach that audience? Do you use television, radio, and/or newspapers? And if so, how often, and what should the message be? How much money do you spend relative to your revenue to bring those buyers in? So that’s the process that we do to bring this large audience base into your universe, because your sales force can’t possibly cover them all.

So, it is more about the strategy behind the product that’s being presented and who it is being presented to, as opposed to what you’re buying and how you’re going to market it?

Yes. We say having access to media partners who have a broad perspective on business challenges, and how to solve them using media to reach your customer base, is the ultimate competitive weapon. If you think about somebody like Standard & Poor’s and Dow Jones Indices, everybody will say, “Oh, I know their name” and they might have considered their products, so management may say “Why do I need to advertise?”. Here is why. They launched their Index product decades ago, their perception as a brand was at a certain level amongst the FA audience, and they really needed to change those perceptions. Working with T1 Media allowed S&P DJI to identify unique and creative ways of reaching this audience to make the FA audience say, “Oh, wow, I didn’t even think about them that way.”

How do you think big data is changing your industry?

Well, I have an opinion there. Frankly, a lot of data is dirty. Everybody thinks data is the solution and the nirvana and therefore they can drop basic best practices of really doing advertising correctly. It’s really stimulated short-term-itis for many companies. Data is an important variable not the only variable.

Do you mind providing an example of where you would see somebody fumble with this?

Here is an example. A client wanted to compete on a national stage, spending 25 cents on the dollar, and their competitors were blowing the doors off of them with much larger advertising budgets. And everybody knows you need to start somewhere. We said, “Give us your data. We need to understand where your sales are coming from before we recommend a national plan. We understand that’s what your sales force wants…everybody wants a big national campaign.” They gave us their sales data, and we analyzed it by zip code. When we broke it down, we saw that 50% of their sales were coming from the New York marketplace within a 20-block radius. We went back to the CEO and said “you’re being outspent 25 to one. Your sales are concentrated here. Tell me why you think a national campaign is going to work for you, because we’re telling you it won’t.”

Data for the sake of data collection is irrelevant. Once we demonstrated where their current customer base is, and that we could use concentric circles that surround that 20-block radius to really surround their customer 360 degrees to change perception and actually get noticed, then they said, “Oh, okay, we get it. Essentially, we could act like the big competitors, but only in New York, and make a difference.” If we had taken those same dollars and diluted them nationally, we wouldn’t have moved the needle for anybody, because not enough influential prospects would have seen the advertising to be effective.

I know you often work with clients in the financial services space. Can you give me some impressions of the current media landscape for life insurance and annuities?

The media landscape seems like it changes every 24 hours. Again, here you have to put blinders on, because everybody’s looking for the shiny object. The one stop solution. And it’s really not about that because of fragmentation. You really have to go through the analysis and the data to understand where to put your money from a media perspective. What we know for sure is happening is that brands need to be very careful about cheap digital programmatic media solutions, because not all media impressions are of equal value. The example I would give is we do not put any of our clients into a cheap digital programmatic platform, even though it’s sold for pennies on the dollar, because we don’t want our clients showing up on low quality sites. Brands are judged by the company that they keep, and in insurance or even in the FA space, trust is a big, big issue after the whole meltdown that happened in 2008.

A lot of these upstarts, their advertising is completely misleading. For example, when Robinhood came out and offered the 3% checking & savings, the promise of FDIC insured was completely misleading, and SIPC stepped in and alerted the SEC. Robinhood had to re-launch their advertising campaign and change their messaging. You have up-starts within FinTech that sometimes work outside of FINRA’s rules and regulations, which erodes the industry trust problem. When trust is an issue, media environment is paramount, because we’re going be judged by the company that we keep.

How do you weave a company’s social media platform into your media buying? I’ll use myself as an example. The company that I run, Brokers International, does some advertising in the FA space. Meanwhile, I am also doing outreach on Twitter and LinkedIn. I’m curious as to how T1 would recommend using social media within a company’s media plan.

Within social media, what we know to be true is that it does not scale. There’s a role for it. It’s very good for thought leadership, but it cannot build a brand or a business long-term, because you can’t duplicate it.

We have it as a component, not in replacement of, general advertising. When social media is organic, we tell our clients that it has to be handled in-house. It cannot be farmed out to anybody else, because it has to be in a true authentic voice. And it has to serve a purpose that’s educational and delivers on a business need versus promoting a product. We have found with our clients that do a lot of organic posting it does well, but that paid social is where performance happens at scale. Because inherently these are publicly traded social media companies, they are going to push down your organic reach because they want you to buy advertising space. The advertising space that is best utilized within social media is thought leadership, white papers, webinars, things like that. Not general advertising. We do not do any general advertising on LinkedIn or any other social platform because you can buy that audience a lot cheaper in other media.

The other current media darling has been account-based marketing. Account-based marketing is focused on talking to our current customers, and customers that look like them. The theory being we don’t really need to talk to all these ‘other people’. When you think about that logically, it’s a false promise, in business how many times can you cross-sell to your current existing partners? A few times, but not enough to build a large customer base year after year.

The percentage reach becomes very small, because they’re already your customers. We call this preaching to the choir. You’re spending your money against the converted. And that’s not a good way to grow a business because you’re already going to get that customer by default if you handle them correctly. The other problem with account-based marketing is there’s really no single source of account truth. For example, the sales force will say, “Oh, I want to go after X, Y, Z.” And then the CEO will say, “No they’re not relevant, we want go after these firms.” So, they keep moving the metric. Therefore, you can never demonstrate success because you’re constantly changing the platform as it exists, and by default you wind up narrowing your sales funnel because you keep talking to the same people over and over again.

We had a telecommunications client and they got all over account-based marketing. After six months, they said, “No one’s showing up at our website anymore.” And I said, “Yes because you cut off your oxygen, you keep talking to the same people over and over. They’re already your customers, so why would they come to your website?”

You need a combination of broad reach because your decision makers are always changing over. You also need social media to elevate the voice of the brand, and finally you can use account-based marketing in addition to, not in replacement of those tactics.

What would you tell someone starting their own business today in media? Is there anything you would do differently today either because the landscape has changed or just because your experience and knowing your business a little better than you did?

You know what? I think we did a lot of things right, because here’s how we structured it. Executive level talent only was part of our mantra. I did not want any employees; everybody is a partner and has an equity stake. I did it that way to answer the turnover problem, and to build historical knowledge. I think what I would tell everybody if they’re getting into the business is that you’ve got to be patient and stay true to what your core mission is. You have to realize what your strengths are and what your weaknesses are. At T1 Media we know we’re strategic and we’re small, we can never scale to handle multiple high-volume clients. You need to understand what your goals are and stay with it. And that it takes a while before you see the real money!

Specific to financial services, because a lot of our customers are either independent agents or financial advisors… What would be one or two nuggets you would provide the individual sole practitioner wanting to use media to expand his practice in a small geographic area?

I would say that you need to understand who your customers are, who they are not, and talk to all of your prospects, which kind of runs counter to big data. They need to really invest in the story of their messaging because it’s the story that makes the connection. It balances the head and the heart, and increases the efficiency of the media. I can buy the media, but the conduit that makes the connection is the story that pulls people in. A lot of them think they can do it in-house. Some can but it’s very rare. We always say if you’ve got $1 to spend, go out and get the best creative talent that you can. Then make sure that you maximize the minimum. What we mean by that is, if you’re going to get in the game, you have to have enough money to stay in the game for at least a minimum of three years. Then the last point is really making sure that you balance long and short-term goals. What we mean by that is that 60% of your dollar should be spent building your brand, and 40% should be in transactions. So, that’s webinars, events, and face-to-face meetings. And then keep it simple.

OK Terry, my final question. It’s Saturday morning. You have no responsibilities. Please describe for me your perfect ordinary Saturday morning.

Oh, I would be in Montauk on the beach, drinking rosé after a run. I would also be with my three dogs. We have two Australian Labradoodles, and one Shih Tzu!

Thank you very much for contributing to this interview series Terry. I really appreciate your expertise.

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