Media Buyer Of the Year: Chris Geraci

When Chris Geraci began working at BBDO 26 years ago, “The Cosby Show” ruled the ratings, and a young character on TV named Vinnie Terranova, played by wise guy Ken Wahl, was the talk of the town.

Remarkably, Geraci is still with the same company with which he started. What was the media department at BBDO 26 years ago is now part of the media agency OMD.

In the interceding two and a half decades, Geraci has had a unique seat watching all the changes in the TV landscape.

Today he's president of national broadcast at OMD. These days OMD buys about $4 billion worth of ads annually just on TV alone. And if you talk to buyers and sellers alike, one of the major reasons OMD handles the media for some of the biggest brands in the world is spelled G-E-R-A-C-I.

And oh yeah, some of those clients include Apple, CBS, Frito Lay, Levi's, McDonald's, Nissan, Pepsico and the CW.

As one respected seller who sits on the other side of the table from Geraci told us, "Chris is uniquely thoughtful. He rarely gets rattled. He's a tireless advocate for his clients, but he's not unreasonable. He's strategic. You couldn't have made a better choice."

The choice the seller is talking about is that we've named Geraci our 2013 TVWeek Media Buyer of the Year. I'm TVWeek's Chuck Ross, and what follows in an edited transcript of our recent interview with Chris. 

 geraci2012.jpg Chris Geraci

CHRIS GERACI: I’ve been with OMD since we founded it. In the late 1990s I was working at BBDO and Omnicom decided we were going to get into the media agency business. We started it really as just a buying consortium between BBDO, DDB Needham and TBWA. So for the first couple of years we were in the marketplace as OMD, but at the end of the day we went back to our creative, full-service agencies and worked on those businesses.

Daryl Simm came from the Omnicom level and he was in charge of OMD. Page Thompson was there. Then Joe Uva came in. I had run the BBDO part of it.

It wasn’t the easiest thing to get us out of the mentality of being from the various Omnicom agencies. But as OMD grew up around us, we certainly saw the benefits -- and our clients began to realize the benefits -- of the larger, full-service media agency.

In 1987, as I recall, I started working for BBDO. My first job was as assistant buyer on the national side. It was a great place to start my career, primarily because of the way Arnie Semsky and Mike Drake ran BBDO's media department back then. Arnie was truly a great leader.

So right from the beginning I’ve been on the national buying side. At the time it was pretty easy to get hooked at an agency like BBDO because of the great commercials we were putting on the air.

TVWEEK: BBDO practically owned the Super Bowl at that time, which was such a wonderful venue to show off really great creative work.

GERACI: And that tradition really filtered down to the most junior levels. So you really felt you were doing something important in a big way. Those were the days of 20 ratings and the big Thursday nights. It was a great atmosphere and a great time to be at BBDO. Arnie was able to run the department in a way that endeared us to the rest of the agency, and I don’t think that happened at most media departments.

To borrow a sports analogy, it’s like Geraci went to college and was coached by John Wooden during UCLA’s extraordinary run of NCAA basketball championships, and now, years later, he himself is having a run like Phil Jackson had with the Lakers.

Geraci then spoke about the benefits of a full-service media agency:

As media has gotten more complex, and the audience continues to fragment, to have a full-service team under one media agency is the best way to serve the client. A lot of times around here you’ll see these meetings and you can’t tell who the buyer is, who the planner is, who the digital person is. They are just one team, focused, for example, on the Pepsico business. It’s crucial.

TVWEEK: When you’re going after new business, is there something that you’d call the OMD difference?

GERACI: From where I sit, what I think really wins new business for us is a deep-seated concern with what it is the client is trying to accomplish, and how we can differentiate that from their competitors, and really innovate on their behalf.

A lot of times in new business it’s being able to make that impression that you are going to take the most creative approach to whatever their issues and concerns are. Then putting that into everything you present to them is essential.

I like to say that our clout and our leverage in the marketplace speaks for itself. We don’t need to go into the room and hit a prospective client over the head with how we buy and who’s afraid of us. But I think when they see the team approach from OMD that they are going to see an awful lot of innovation and creativity, backed up by a highly professional, long-standing, very experienced and very well-connected buying group.

TVWEEK: It sounds like one of the things you are saying is that relationships are important.

GERACI: I think relationships are extremely important in what we do, especially in the television business, in terms of who our clients are. In so many ways, our clients are the category leaders, the most visible brands in their particular arena.

So, with their expectations, if we don’t have the right relationships, especially with the TV-based media owners, we are not going to be able to live up to the challenges some of our clients present.

It’s not always about paying the lowest price. Sometimes it’s about paying the lowest price and getting the best placement, for lack of a better term. First looks. Special opportunities. The fact that so many networks will come to us mainly because of who we represent, and also because of who we are and how we approach things.

So yes, I think relationships are crucial.

TVWEEK: In the last several years we’ve had experimentation with various advanced ways to deliver messages to viewers. How enthusiastic is OMD about these experiments?

GERACI: We are enthusiastic to take the meeting. We are enthusiastic to listen to what people say. But we are not going to do things just to say we’ve done them. Because very often these things do not amount to efforts that should be rewarded with our clients’ spending, and will not make an appreciable difference in their businesses. We always have to look at that first.

I like to say that just because something is technologically possible does not make it a good idea. And that’s how you have to look at a lot of these opportunities.

I always want to do the most innovative thing. And I want to be able to interact with addressable advertising in my own realm. But often these things are not presented in a way that benefits a national advertiser. So we struggle with that. Every day you are reminded here that we’re representing national advertisers and we need to get their message across the country. And if we as the buyers have to piece these ideas together to make them feel national, at the end of the day they are not very good ideas or the benefits of these ideas sort of lose their steam. 

In some ways that’s a shame. For instance, there was the promise of Canoe, to get interactivity to be national. But that never happened.

TVWEEK: Is addressability the holy grail of advertising?

GERACI: Certainly what Canoe hoped to achieve was the beginning of the holy grail. Absolutely. Simply putting a version of a commercial that means more to certain consumers because of whom they are or where they live versus one that doesn’t or one that is generic in nature, yeah, that could make things so much more effective. So yes, that’s certainly the road to the holy grail.

TVWEEK: So let’s talk about video you might look at on your computer. Given how one can be tracked, is that a more efficient medium? For example, a user who just clicked on a video about buying the latest Chevy then gets served that ad about that car.

GERACI: There is certainly a growing appetite for online video, no doubt about it. Is it television yet? Perhaps not. You’ve got to look at what you’re able to buy online at this point. There are certainly metrics and ways that we go about digital --analytics and what not -- that can drive a much more immediate connection to a need than you can on television.

But the opportunities to put your product in a high-quality environment, with sight, sound and motion, are not as prevalent online. I don’t know that just taking a television program and reruning my commercials in it online is really making the most out of the Internet.

Certainly it’s a great way to get that same audience in a place, perhaps, where that audience is just more comfortable watching that particular episode. I encourage all of our advertisers to take full advantage of those convergent, fluid deals now. It makes all the sense in the world because it’s an environment consumers feel comfortable with, regardless of the screen it’s on. So why not meet the consumer wherever they are?

But a wholesale shift from televison to the Internet, just because of that tracking ability that we see on the Internet -- I don’t see that as being something that will happen. 

TVWEEK: Which leads me to ask you how comfortable you feel about measurement today, especially from Nielsen. Are you getting what you need?

GERACI: What we know about the overall trends, we feel good about. But I feel that there is still a lack of reliability in the online measurement of video. That it’s problematic. We are very interested in helping to solve this if we can. We’ll certainly be supportive of any solution. The way I look at this, good ratings are good for everyone. The more supply the better.

I think the networks would rather grow their revenue than just charge me more in a CPM. But they need to be able to measure who’s seeing it. And when I hear stories about their own numbers online -- in terms of the videos they’ve served -- being twice what the third party is counting, there is something missing.

We know there is more and more viewing on different platforms. But we are not yet able to take full advantage of all this viewership because the metrics are not fully in place.

TVWEEK: Focusing just on TV measurement for a moment, are you getting all the data you need there? Or do you need more set-top box data from the MSOs themselves, or from Rentrak, to lay over what you get from Nielsen?

GERACI: Set-top box data certainly gives us a bigger sample. The issue is simply how that matches the U.S. population. For all its faults, Nielsen puts a lot of science into making that sample they measure every day truly representative of the United States. But it’s too small. I wholeheartedly agree with anyone who says it is too small.

The set-top box data is dramatically larger, but until we can make it representative of the U.S., it’s problematic. It’s too much about the consumers of the device, or what the particular services are.

I’d love to see something where you’d be taking the scale of the set-top box data and doing something to it to make it feel more like a representative sample of the population. That would immediately help the measurement of some of the smaller -- the longer tail of cable, for example. Some of the lower-rated programming that we know is just not being measured properly by Nielsen. Even on the broadcast networks we see that sometimes. The CW, for instance, has suffered unfairly in some ways because of the Nielsen sample. Some of the numbers they have reported seem almost not possible that they would be that low. In full disclosure, by the way, the CW is a client of ours. 

TVWEEK: With the ratings in broadcast generally being down this past season, what do you think is going on?

GERACI: I think the DVR has reached a truly critical mass now -- not only penetration of the device, but the comfort around the device. People have gotten very used to scheduling their own lives to a certain extent around what they are going to watch and what they are not going to watch. If I can pick up my iPad and watch a show when I want, then I need to be making better use of my DVR.

TVWEEK: We did a story that was illustrative of this not too long ago. In late-night, according to Nielsen, what people are watching most is not Leno, nor Letterman, nor Kimmel, nor 'Nightline.' What they are watching most at that time is what they have recorded on their VCRs.

GERACI: Makes sense.

TVWEEK: This leads to talking about C3. As you know, the broadcasters want to make C7 the standard. [C3 refers to live ratings plus three days. C7 refers to live ratings plus seven days.]

GERACI: I think a discussion about a longer period of time during which the commercial viewership counts, if you will, is interesting. It’s not something that would be appropriate for all advertisers. I think three days is the limit in terms of certain retail messages -- time-sensitive messages. I think seven days certainly is something that there could be some agreement around as still an effective way to communicate a message about a product that will be on the shelves for a while.

But that’s a discussion that’s going to have to involve price. And that would involve the resetting of some of the base prices.

TVWEEK: Could we see any of these new deals during this upfront?

GERACI: You could. But I don’t know that anyone on the network side of the table is comfortable with a bifurcated measurement system.

TVWEEK: So you’re saying those on the network side probably wouldn’t want to move to C7 unless most of the advertisers agree to that measurement. That the networks really don’t want to move to a hybrid of C3 and C7.

GERACI: Yes. And there will be a deeper line in the sand demanded by some advertisers than we ever saw over C3. And consider this scenario: An advertiser who would be quite comfortable with C7 for the first two weeks of their flight, but then demand C3 in the last week. And I don’t think anyone has an argument against that, because they know there is a end date to a campaign. In this case, maybe it’s three days after a two-week sale of the advertiser’s product is over. No one with a straight face could disagree with that. But then how does the network manage that deal? Do they switch it up halfway through the flight? It gets complicated.

TVWEEK: OK, it may be complicated, but isn’t that what computers are for? If the networks really believe they deserve more than C3 for a lot of the advertising, and those on your side of the table -- and the advertisers you represent -- are willing to do some sort of bifurcated system, why wouldn’t the networks agree to that? It’ll get them more money than they are getting now.

GERACI: But I haven’t heard that approach. None of the networks have come to us and said let’s try and do this in a way that makes sense to both us and your clients.

Listen, I don’t think anything is impossible. It’s just more data. Let me give you another example. I’ve been in meetings about commercial-specific ratings. Where I can actually find out the ratings of my spots.

TVWEEK: Is that something you’d like to see?

GERACI: I’m not 100% there. Because while I think it would be of extreme value, I think you would create a secondary marketplace where you would have commercial positions being sold by pricing by position. That would likely prevent some advertisers from ever receiving the equitable rotation they achieve now. You’d have some advertisers willing to pay for the positions and other who won’t. Now you can get a fair and equitable rotation. If each spot is worth a little more than the next one, that goes away. It’s a referendum on creative as well. So it just complicates things.

TVWEEK: Speaking of complicating things, let me ask you how difficult it is for you to manage expectations with your clients when we have a press -- ourselves included -- that just loves to write about what’s new and different. For example, Twitter. When something like Twitter hits, it tends to dominate media coverage in a way where you’d think that all everyone is doing with their time is sending tweets. So then, I would imagine, you’re besieged with questions from your clients about why you don’t have them more involved with Twitter. Or whatever the media or technology de jour might be.

GERACI: I think that no one is better equipped to keep what’s new in front of our clients than we are. That’s really one of our jobs. No fault of the press to draw attention to things that are new. That’s human nature. What you don’t want to happen is for your clients to only hear about this stuff in the trade press and then the mainstream press. You have to be ahead of the curve, and I think we really do a good job of that.

I also think we really do a good job of showing how some of this stuff works so well together, almost seamlessly. Four or five years ago, the advent of social media seemed to be another death knell for television. With everyone seemingly spending all of their time interacting with their friends on Facebook they’d have no time for television. But in some ways it has helped television ratings. It has drawn more attention to certain programming. It’s made people feel that they are part of something bigger when they are watching an event on TV now.

So that’s how you have to look at a lot of new things. It’s not an either/or. In some cases it’s a matter of doing things together, using one to support the other.

TVWEEK: You have certainly been bullish about television in this conversation, and I take it that’s because most people are still bullish on television.

GERACI: Absolutely. Television still produces most of the big stars. It’s an engine of content creation that can then be taken to any other platform. To be associated with the programming in its original form, I think, is very important to the large advertisers who we represent.

TVWEEK: Are you concerned that the rise of services such as Netflix and Amazon and the like is becoming a threat to ad-supported television?

GERACI: I think we’ve seen that there is only going to be so much of a willingness to pay for everything out of one’s own pocket. Most people get the idea and the benefit, very readily, that advertising is paying for this and that you don’t have to pay for all of this yourself. How much original content can a service like Netflix do? And how much attention will it get in a place that doesn’t lend itself to natural promotion and a connection with the audience like you have with most of the broadcast and cable networks you have in traditional television? It’s very hard to build a hit.

TVWEEK: Well, I don’t know that ‘House of Cards’ on Netflix has received any less press than any show on traditional TV.

GERACI: Yes, I think an awful lot of people watched ‘House of Cards’ because they read a story in the press about it. But I don’t think the next series Netflix does is necessarily going to be in a position to have a story written about it. And it’s immensely difficult to build a high-quality program that’s going to attract a very large audience. The success rate of television shows is incredibly low. This isn’t a television programmer that’s going to present a 20-hour schedule. This is an online distributor that’s trying its hand at programming. Let’s see how good the next one is.

TVWEEK: Chris, we’ve talked about a lot of subjects this morning. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

GERACI: I’ve been doing this a long time. I’ve been doing this a lot longer than I thought I would. And I’m not bored yet. It’s been great to work in a business that has changed so much as I’ve been part of it. And it never feels the same.

There are certain parts of the year where there is still a grind and you’re kinda doing the same thing year after year, but it’s always fascinating and it’s such a pleasure -- and honor, really -- to work on behalf of the clients that I’ve worked with. That, to me, is simply the most important part of all of this.

TVWEEK: We want to end with this question: If there is one thing that keeps you up at night about your job, what is it?

GERACI: It’s these consultants that come in and talk to our clients and try and tell them that there’s a better, cheaper way to do things. They don’t really know our clients' business, they don’t know us, and they threaten our relationships. That’s really an unfortunate part of what we are doing right now.

To have to defend your business with your client simply because of the activity in that space right now has become very intense. The fact that what we do can be misrepresented in such a way diminishes the value and the creativity that we bring, and is troubling.

TVWEEK: Chris, thank you again for your time this morning. And congratulations once again on being named our TVWeek Media Buyer of the Year.