Hindsight Reflections on Six Decades in Media and Advertising: Part 1 – Steve Fajen

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Cover image for  article: Hindsight Reflections on Six Decades in Media and Advertising: Part 1 – Steve Fajen

Over the course of my career, which began in the 1960s, I have seen many changes in our business. One over-arching theme is that while many companies have become less personal in the way they nurture employees, they have become much more personal in the way they measure the public.

When I started in this business, there were roughly ten people per million dollars billing at agencies. We placed bets on television programs based on a 1200 home Nielsen sample and tracked factory shipments of products to trading areas. Today, each agency person handles approximately ten million dollars in billing and we know the viewing habits of millions of individual homes (due to cable systems) and track their product purchases with scanner data. These can be analyzed and strategized down to the level of more than 41,000 zip codes. Media and marketing research has moved into the neighborhood.

I started in this business at A. C. Nielsen in the 60s, which was a perfect place from which to view television and people’s changing viewing habits, as well as the industry’s changing research, planning and buying habits. Since then, my career has taken me to media directing at agencies, running or partnering at agencies and a twenty year consulting practice in all forms of media and how they are used by advertisers and agencies.

Looking at how media has been delivered, bought, sold and consumed through the lens of six decades has given me a unique perspective. Here is the first in a two-part series that will provide a snapshot of each decade and my take-away of some of the most important trends from those times.

The 60s: From Six Rural Shows to the Urbane 60 Minutes

Working much of the decade at Nielsen I had a pretty good view of how TV morphed from a predominantly sponsored medium in the 50s to one of scattered commercials in subsequent decades. It was truly the beginning of fragmentation. The top six shows in 1960 had a rural flavor: “Gunsmoke,” “Wagon Train,” “Have Gun, Will Travel,” “The Andy Griffith Show,” “The Real McCoys” and “Rawhide.” By the end of the decade CBS introduced “60 Minutes,” which of course is the sole survivor. It was the beginning of the end of innocence.

I remember going with the head of sales on a call to a midsized agency. Summing up his presentation to the head of media he asked, “So would you rather buy just one commercial a year on network TV or for the same money measure all your commercials in a year with Nielsen ratings?” The prospect replied, “I’ll take the spot.” They say in a court of law never ask a question unless you know the answer. You could say the same for sales calls.

We were just emerging from an intuitive “roll the dice” mentality, both creatively and in media. We were still decades away from an obsession with accountability.

The 70s: It Was All About People

If there ever was a perfect storm of social turmoil and its reflection in advertising, it was the 70s: bans on cigarette and liquor advertising on TV, black and women’s rights expressed in commercials and the Anti-war movement.

At McCaffrey & McCall, my first Media Directing job, Chairman David McCall did two provocative and innovative things prompted by both social and personal unrest. First, he opened the doors of the agency to those in the business who wanted to write anti-war advertising after-hours. Secondly, after being frustrated by his children’s inattention at school, but hearing them repeat every popular song on the radio word for word, he commissioned his co-Creative Directors George Newall and Tom Yohe to produce a series of educational three-minute cartoons called “Schoolhouse Rock.” He convinced two influential clients (ABC and General Foods) to deliver and sponsor the series and the result was something that not only tapped into the zeitgeist of the 70’s, but became a classic that has spanned almost 4 ½ decades. Who doesn’t know the lyrics to “I’m Just a Bill?”

David was a visionary who wasn’t afraid to let his personal opinions affect his agenda. His work was impassioned. Given current problems, we could use more courageous communicators like David McCall today.

The 80s: It Was All About Money

“Greed is good.” When Gordon Gekko made his now-legendary proclamation in the 1987 move “Wall Street” he was reflecting the times. The chairman of one agency reportedly received a check for $200,000,000 for the sale of his company. With inflation, today that would amount to his becoming a half-billionaire in one shot. The Saatchis began buying agencies after leveraging their London start-up from ten years earlier. They had a really smart CFO, who eventually started his own agency complex and was eventually knighted. Y&R, JWT and O&M merged to form WPP, under Sir Martin Sorrel. DDB, BBDO and TBWA fused to the Big Bang -- Omnicom.

The new holding companies were inspired by Marion Harper’s Interpublic from the 50s, which sought to handle competing brands within the same agency complex, but Harper nearly bankrupted Interpublic because he prized luxury and talent over frugality. By the 80s, the executive suite learned this lesson. One agency fired a quarter of its staff on a Friday and on the following Monday announced a 99% increase in profits on the back page of the New York Times.

In the process, agencies became leaner, arguably more productive and more profitable. However, clients sensing the profits being reaped at their expense began hiring compensation consultants to contain costs. This would eventually lead to companies assigning large numbers of procurement people to oversee marketing services two decades later. The battle over agency compensation was on.

Tomorrow: The 90s, the 2000s and the 2010s

Steve Fajen is co-founder and Managing Partner at Drexler/Fajen & Partners, a managementconsulting firm specializing in media solutions for clients, media agencies and media companies. He is also President of Steve Fajen Consulting, an affiliated consultancy specializing in agency staffing and compensation benchmarking, client/agency relations and media strategy development. He can be reached at steve@drexlerfajen.com.

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