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Building a buyer’s market Featured

6:23am EDT November 1, 2005
More than 50 years in the media business hasn’t dimmed Bill Price’s enthusiasm for his industry.

“This is one of the most exciting times ever in this business,” says Price, founder and chairman of Empower MediaMarketing. “It is so much fun and it’s hard to keep up because there’s somebody doing something different every day to reach consumers.”

A veteran of the Leo Burnett agency in Chicago, Price built a media-buying firm that avoided the questionable practices that other, similar concerns had engaged in up to that time. An open book approach, Price says, provided his fledgling company with the credibility it needed to acquire clients and bolster its reputation for integrity.

In the mid-1980s, Price’s wife, a media manager at Procter & Gamble, got an offer to work as a media buyer at LensCrafters, at the time a start-up headed by former Procter & Gamble executives. Instead of accepting, the Prices saw an opportunity to build a company that would help LensCrafters and other advertisers buy more effectively in a media landscape that was becoming increasingly complex and fragmented.

With that, they launched their agency with LensCrafters as its first client. While his wife left the business in 1997 to pursue other interests, Price has continued to lead the 130-employee company.

Price spoke with Smart Business about how a strong and sophisticated first client put his agency on the road to success and why making the right media buy is more important now than ever.

What has occurred in the marketplace to change the way clients view media buying?
I worked at Leo Burnett for 10 or 12 years. The emphasis was always on the creative side.

What we did as account people working with the creative folks, we’d fall on our swords to get the right copy strategy and make sure that we had what we called the inherent drama of the brand. So much emphasis was put on that, and I remember so many times ending up with the great creative and saying, ‘Oh my gosh, now we’ve got to get a media plan.’

It was just the way the emphasis worked in the full-service agency, that creative was king. And now, look at it; it’s almost flipped, or has flipped, where now clients come in and say, ‘I can’t afford to spend $500,000 on a 30-second spot. Help me figure that out.’

Smart advertisers are coming to companies like this and saying, ‘Let’s put together the best, most cost-effective way to reach those customers and then go figure out who can write the copy to cost-effectively fit that plan.’ Now, the plans don’t always start out with network television like they did at Leo Burnett.

We’re doing guerrilla marketing and we’re looking under the rocks harder and getting the media to run closer to where the buying decision is. There are hundreds of ways out there to reach customers.

How did those changes provide opportunities for a company like Empower MediaMarketing to emerge?
In 1985, when you think about what the media landscape looked like in terms of numbers of TV stations available to the average person in their home or the number of magazines available, that was really a time when fragmentation of media vehicles was just starting. Cable was brand new, and a lot of people were sitting back saying, ‘What is this cable thing, is it going to do anything?’

People were saying it was going to be the death of free television; other people were saying it’ll never catch on. And so you were going, from an advertising standpoint, from an environment where you could have, up to that point, put an ad on NBC, ABC and CBS and reach 99 percent of all households across the country, to a time when there was going to be significant choice in the household.

And there needed to be somebody, a company or an individual, who could step forward and say, ‘It just got a lot harder to target your advertising.’ So that was the role we wanted to play, to say, ‘OK, marketer or advertiser, you need to think a little harder about how to target your consumer, and we’re the type of company to do that because we have people under our roof who think about nothing but media 24/7.’

We were a new arrival and media was a new animal. Once that floodgate opened, really beginning with cable TV, it never stopped.

How did you conclude that you could offer something better?
In 1985, there were not a lot of independent media companies out there. There were a few, and some of them, frankly, were suspect in the way they did business.

We felt there was a niche in the marketplace for a high-caliber, high-quality company that had an open-book policy, and we were fortunate enough to have the support of a major client. Well, they weren’t major at the time; LensCrafters was in only four or five markets at the time, but they grew, we grew, and we got to a certain point where we woke up one morning and said, ‘It’s not good to have all our eggs in one basket.’

So we tried to diversify as quickly as we could. There was a point where the business was growing but we still had 65 percent of our business coming from LensCrafters. We’ve now diversified to where it’s 10 percent or 12 percent with any one client.

How was your model received by the agency community?
They didn’t like it. I suppose most mid-tier agencies might have 10 to 15 people in their media departments and they have limited resources. They don’t want to make the commitment to invest in a lot of the research and all that, and we always felt that was a major advantage for us because we spend hundreds of thousands of dollars a year on research.

We’ve got 120 people here. That’s probably larger than 99 percent of the media departments at most full-service agencies. The agencies, in many cases, are very protective of their own media departments, and there are a lot of media dollars there and they don’t want to give them up.

So agencies have never been a huge part of our business. I’d say historically, 95 percent of our revenue has come from direct relationships with clients.

Why were the practices of many media-buying companies suspect?
They did not reveal to the client — I’ll use this as an example: Spot by spot costs. They might send an invoice that had 200 or 300 spots listed on it, and down at the bottom in the right-hand corner, there might be a number, say $1 million.

There was no real audit process, and so some of these companies had the ability to charge commissions and then mark up what the station invoices were. Playing the spread was a common strategy of those companies, most of which I don’t think are in business anymore. In fact, I don’t think any of them are.

How were you able to overcome the negative image those companies created?
By having an open-book policy, inviting the client to come in at any time to examine our books, and we provided them with every invoice from the stations. They knew exactly how much money we were making. It was just totally, 100 percent honest.

I think we had great credibility in that we had LensCrafters as a major client and they were ex-P&G executives. ... Then it was just a lot of pounding the pavement and knocking on doors. Having the pat on the back from LensCrafters, that meant a lot, that opened a lot of doors.

The LensCrafters people were superb. It was extremely important. It got us in at Sara Lee. We had United Dairy Farmers come in fairly early. So it meant a great deal and it still does.

What was the impact of having LensCrafters as a first client?
One of the things that was a blessing about having LensCrafters as a first client was they were very, very sophisticated marketers, so we were required to be state-of-the-art. Early on, we made a commitment to them and to ourselves that this company would have the latest and greatest.

And that translates not only into research but into people, and that’s something that we’ve been so blessed with, that we put a premium on having the right people, I mean smart people, really smart.

To this day, we’re still doing that, and it’s just incredible what we’re able to achieve for our clients because of that.

How to reach: Empower MediaMarketing, www.empowermm.com