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Aston Is MPG’s Not-So-Secret Agent

Mar 11, 2009  •  Post A Comment

It’s one thing to understand your client’s business. It’s another to know everything about the business and strategy of your client’s competitors.
And that’s where Gregory Aston comes in at media agency MPG.
As senior VP and director of competitive analysis, Mr. Aston is like the CIA, but without the espionage.
MPG’s competitive intelligence unit relies on financial documents, public statements, syndicated data on spending and sales and the occasional discussion with former employees and vendors to help its clients make better-informed decisions.
“Most broadly defined, it is understanding your competitor’s strategic positions from a business and/or marketing standpoint to strengthen your own strategic positions,” Mr. Aston says.
The approach is unique within a media agency because it goes beyond media strategy, he adds.
“We’re taking into consideration not only media strategy, but … the broader perspective, which is understanding our competitors’ business dynamics, the marketplace in which they operate, and trying to glean marketing implications from that business dynamic and then drilling it down to the marketing dynamic,” Mr. Aston explains. “What it essentially translates to is insights and implications that will help guide our own planning, buying, research from a strategic and tactical standpoint.”
Mr. Aston says MPG is considering branding its competitive analysis team as Competitive Strategy and Insights, which would be CSI for short.
“I would argue that there’s a forensic aspect to interpreting the facts,” he says, adding that he used to work for a unit that used the initials CIA.
“People misunderstood it as being some sort of espionage component” of the agency, but he says his group doesn’t break into office or steal files.
MPG uses a number of proprietary tools and systems for analyzing all the data it generates, with names including A2S, POD, Mediascape and Mapmaker, as well as services that offer clients warnings of competitors’ campaigns breaking and seasonal forecasts of ad inventory and ratings estimates.
At a certain point, the tools and the data are only as good as the people analyzing it.
“They’re a lot about reading the tea leaves,” Mr. Aston says. “You have a vast number of years of experience within the agency, within your own field, and you read between the lines. Sometimes it comes down to none of this is making sense from an operation standpoint and you have to craft those hypotheses that best explain what’s going on.”
With the economy in uncharted and stormy waters, it’s a particularly interesting time to try to do forecasting and analysis.
Mr. Aston says he has done an analysis of fourth-quarter trends and got “sticker shock” at how much spending is down in some categories and the way advertisers are pulling upfront dollars out of the market.
“I personally wasn’t expecting advertising dollars to decline as dramatically,” he said.
A drop in online spending, which has been a growth engine for the advertising business, is particularly troubling.
“So far the numbers that we’ve seen for fourth leading into first quarter do not bode well for a very strong 2009,” he says.
Mr. Aston grew up in Queens, N.Y., and lives there now. He wanted to be a writer, and studied literature and philosophy at nearby St. John’s University.
He got his first taste of marketing during college as an intern working at ad agency Backer Spielvogel Bates on the Miller Brewing account.
That led to a job as an assistant media planner at Foote Cone & Belding, just before it won the huge AT&T account.
Mr. Aston was asked if he would participate in competitive intelligence, and he agreed. The rest is history.
He says competitive analysis is fun because you work on more than one account in more than one category. Each has “its own dynamic and its own story to tell,” he says.
He moved on to Mediaedge:cia for seven years, then joined MPG in 2007, following Steve Lanzano, now chief operating officer at MPG, and Joe Abruzzo, executive VP and director of research.
“Steve Lanzano hired me at Foote Cone & Belding. Joe Abruzzo and Steve hired me at Mediaedge:cia and Joe and Steve hired me at MPG,” Mr. Aston said. “In fact, every time I’ve worked with them, the agency has experienced exponential growth. So it’s worked the last two times and they’re a great team.”
Back in Queens, Mr. Aston has three children. He’s working with his eldest daughter on getting into college, which he says is a job in and of itself. He also has 7-year-old twins, a boy and a girl, who are “a handful.”
In his spare time, he plays guitar and writes music. He thinks his songs have an alternative sound and he’s thinking about gathering them up and recording them.
He plays with his brother, but getting a group together is a chore. Nevertheless, he’s hoping to put a performance together over the summer, when things tend to slow down at the office.
He’s also working on an opera, called “The Fourth Magi.”
“I’ve got to get the libretto put together on that one before I start with the score,” he says.
He plans to work with his brother, who has the formal training he lacks.
“I seem to have a good ear, so I can write and I can play,” he says. “It’s just I need somebody to go through my work to check for parallel fifths and leading-tone resolution to make sure it’s not too cacophonous.”
Who knew? Mr. Aston says his father claims to be related to Emilia Bassano, reputed to be Shakespeare’s mistress and the “dark lady” of some of the Bard’s sonnets. Under skeptical questioning, his English-born father’s story has remained remarkably constant, a sign the tale might be true, says Mr. Anson, one of whose middle names is Bassano.

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