In early September 1989, TV Guide’s annual Fall Preview edition hit the newsstands. One of the touted shows was the upcoming fall debut of “Cops” on Fox, a new kind of cinema-verite TV. It would go on to become a landmark TV series that entered its 31st season earlier this year.
“Quantum Leap” would debut that fall, and Sam Donaldson and Diane Sawyer would co-host the new “Primetime Live.” And sixteen-year-old Neil Patrick Harris would play a 16-year-old physician on “Doogie Howser, M.D.”
Also mentioned in that fall preview issue was a new sitcom on CBS called “The People Next Door,” co-created by horror maestro Wes Craven. It lasted five weeks.
Sharon Cullen, like millions of us, bought that issue of TV Guide and got very excited to see the new fall lineups. We couldn’t wait to see the new shows as well as returning favorites such as “Dallas,” “Falcon Crest” “The Wonder Years” and “L.A. Law.”
Television was practically all linear back then, and cable hadn’t yet entered its Golden Age. It’s when Cullen first entered the business. Today, she’s Executive Director Integrated Investment for one of the hottest media agencies in the business, Omnicom’s Hearts & Science. She’s also our TVWeek Media Buyer of the Year.
Here’s her story. In the edited interview that follows with TVWeek’s Chuck Ross, Cullen tells all about the wild ride she’s been on over the past three decades, and what it’s like to be working for an agency that, in its three brief years of existence, has become THE pioneering media agency for the 21st century.
Sharon Cullen, Executive Director Integrated Investment, Hearts & Science
TVWeek’s 2018 Media Buyer of the Year
(photo collage by TVWeek)
TVWeek: How did you get into the business. It was at A&E, right?
Sharon Cullen: I was an accounting major at Boston College. When I got to my junior year, I couldn’t take it any longer. Accounting theory was really dull. And my father was an accountant and told me, “Sharon you don’t really want to do this. You’ll be an auditor and it’s a boring job. I think you’ll want something more social.” So he essentially guided me away from accounting.
I switched over to marketing. I took some advertising classes, but that wasn’t my focus. My focus was more business. So when I graduated I thought oh my god, my father spent all this money for me to go to college, I can’t just work at Hill Holliday at a job that pays $12,000 a year, or working for that amount at Arnold Media. So I went into import/export. It was well paying. I did that for two years. And while it paid well, I finally thought to myself, “What am I doing? This isn’t what I want to do with the rest of my life.”
I jumped ship and moved to New York City with my roommate from Boston College, and no job. One of the things that I loved was television. I would live for TV Guide’s annual fall preview issue. I couldn’t wait for the new shows. With the preview issue I would plot out my week of viewing, and fret over what to do when two shows that I wanted to see were on at the same time, but on different networks.
I went to a headhunter and told them about my interests in TV. That’s how I heard that A&E was looking for a sales assistant. I wasn’t exactly sure what a sales assistant did, but I went on the interview. And Arlene Manos and Terry O’Neill hired me.
I started as a sales assistant. It was in 1989. When I got there it was the old school boys — Larry Divney and Whitney Goit. It was a great time. Terry oversaw the outside sales offices. Arlene had several agencies. I liked both Terry and Arlene, but Arlene and I really bonded. She took a mentor role for me. She was the first really strong woman leader that I was exposed to. She sort of took me under her wing, and we worked closely. We were the ones closing the office at 8 at night. Back then, for the sales department, that was late.
I was there for about a year and then went into ad sales research, working for Ron Schneier. I helped with presentations and started going out on sales pitches. Did that for about a year and a half and, quite frankly, that was enough for me. It was a little too inside for me. I wanted to be closer to the marketplace. But it was great experience.
So I sat down with Arlene and she told me that my next step should be on the agency side. That was tough to hear because I loved A&E. She said she understood, but for the sake of my career I needed to take a pay cut and go on the agency side, to BBDO. “This is what’s going to get you to the next level,” she said. “You know A&E. You know A&E well. But there’s a whole world of media out there, and a good agency can give you the exposure you need to really advance yourself.” So I took her advice.
TVWeek: Is this when Arnie Semsky was in charge at BBDO?
Cullen: Yes. Arnie was still there then. Arlene insisted that BBDO was the only agency I should go to. So I went over there and got a job. And oh my god, I was a research supervisor. I didn’t know Donovan [Data Systems]. I met Chris Geraci [a former TVWeek Media Buyer of the Year] there. Omnicom is a great group and people stick around, so it’s kind of funny — I’m working with some of the same people again.
I was there two years. And then Dan Rank arrived from Chicago and began beefing up his group at DDB Needham [like BBDO, another Omnicom agency]. I was one of the people who raised my hand and said I’d go over there. And then, of course, it came full circle again when it became OMD. So, I was working with Chris again.
TVWeek: You’ve spent most of your career at OMD. Then came 2015, when Procter and Gamble, the nation’s largest advertiser, put its media business up for review.
Cullen: The pitch of the century. I was on the initial pitch team. It was very exciting.
TVWeek: Omnicom, not a major P&G player at the time, won the majority of the company’s media planning and buying. That’s when Omnicom formed Hearts & Science to handle the new business. Was it hard for you to move over there?
Cullen: You’ve got relationships, so it was tough to leave some of my clients behind, but this was a tremendous opportunity to help start a new agency and take on a mammoth client like P&G. Also, my role changed. I gained oversight of all channels of investment. So that was really exciting for me.
TVWeek: How different was it from the traditional OMD agency that you had come from?
Cullen: It starts at the top, with Scott Hagedorn. He came from the Annalect Group, so everything at Hearts is looked at through a lens of analytics and data. That perspective funnels down through everything here, even if it’s a linear channel, such as traditional television or print or radio.
Of course OMD and PhD [another Omnicom media agency] use data. Everyone uses data. Here at Hearts it’s step one. But data is just data. The key is knowing how to analyze it. Interpret it. That’s where the Heart meets the Science. You need people to determine what’s really useful and productive and relevant in making media decisions.
In some ways there is almost too much information out there. You need to know how to cull it down. That’s one of the things we do for our clients here — not only provide them with all the rationale and support and numeric validation, but then include our intellect and experience to bring that information to life. What do you really need to focus on and what do you not.
TVWeek: One of the areas of expertise that Hearts & Science has quickly come to be identified with is programmatic.
Cullen: We are huge proponents of programmatic here at Hearts. It allows us the flexibility to do a lot of different things. It’s fine that it allows us to do real-time bidding. But it also allows us to do smart decisioning by looking at audiences in different ways. For instance, if you want to look at on-target performance you can do custom audience creation and target that across a multitude of different URLs, different sites and even some television content.
We are constantly trying to evolve that product, so that we can not only look at the different audiences, but also look at how many times people have been served, so we can better manage frequency, better manage unique reach. So we can see what are the right sites, and which ones are actually performing for us. We can layer on ad sales data to really make it more of a DTC [direct-to-consumer] or a performance marketing play.
TVWeek: How much of TV is swinging toward programmatic? Everybody talks about programmatic these days.
Cullen: Yes, there is a big discussion of programmatic in the TV community. There is certainly content out there available programmatically. We’ve seen a huge upswing in OTT that’s now available programmatically. [OTT stands for over-the-top delivery of video through the Internet, and not through traditional cable or satellite delivery.] There are a couple of issues with programmatic and TV. For example, guarantees. And a lot of the long-format, super-premium television content is still not truly available programmatically. It’s coming. You can maybe buy a programmatic guarantee, but it’s not the true programmatic where you can do decisioning.
That’s a big discussion for us, because we want to make sure we are not over-serving the same user multiple times. We might have a frequency cap on a user — not on a site, but on a user — and we want to manage that ourselves. That’s vs. a programmatic guarantee where we are reliant on a supplier to do that. While we can optiomize against that, it’s not the way we like to do it.
We are seeing a lot of movement in the linear space over to programmatic, but we aren’t fully there. I think in the next two years we are going to see a huge revolution in how much is going to come to programmatic. But it will never be 100 percent, because there will be custom programs and there will always be those inventory pockets that won’t be available. We see it now. Pandora and a lot of those suppliers have moved a lot of inventory that we can activate programmatically, but there is still some they are holding out.
To continue our discussion about TV specifically, you can buy some through the Rokus and the like programmatically. The question is whether or not you are buying the same person too many times. Because you want to make sure you are managing your frequency from what you’ve already purchased through a traditional linear buy. A huge push for us here at Hearts is looking at frequency management and understanding what our true reach levels are.
In terms of OpenAP [used by Turner, Viacom, Fox and NBCU] and a lot of the advanced audience targeting, we have been doing behavioral targeting for several years. That’s not new. But the networks deserve a lot of credit for trying to make things easier in this space. Before this, most of the offerings were very siloed. Everyone had a completely different interface, everyone had a completely different way of defining audience.
OpenAP has been a huge step forward in trying to make things a little bit more uniform. But at the end of the day it’s uniform at the front end, and it’s uniform at the backend, but in the middle you are still having to go through the individual network silos. So there is still more work to be done there. Both within OpenAP and the fact that not everyone is part of that system. You look at Viacom Vantage [which Fox has agreed to license] — it’s a great product, but a lot of people out there have great products. But you need to aggregate it all together. When you look at it independently, we’re still struggling a little bit. But I think there is so much learning we can do by testing that I do think there’s benefit. Turner’s product is evolving, and Turner is now part of AT&T [a Hearts client]. So it’s a really exciting space to be in. But it’s still challenging for the agencies to have to aggregate it all together.
TVWeek: Though your founding client was P&G, a company that has a reputation for knowing a lot about its customers, Hearts has a number of clients now and some of them are not necessarily as sophisticated. Are you getting what you need from third parties?
Cullen: I think there is a lot of good third-party data out there. And while yes, there are different levels of sophistication with various clients, there are also different levels of confidentiality in terms of sharing first-party data. Even if a lot of that data is blinded, we are still going to be cautious with what we can share. That’s where I think an agency can do some targeting that may not happen through an OpenAP.
For some of those other clients who may not have as much first-party data, third-party data is certainly viable. You can use it for segmentation and buy smarter. So that’s where I think some of these open AP systems can come into play a little bit more.
TVWeek: Do you worry about the power of TV in a world where so many people no longer watch TV the way we did growing up?
Cullen: Today you do need to look at video holistically and plan for it that way. The one thing I don’t think is happening is that lots of people aren’t watching. They are still watching. They are just watching on different screens [and] watching on different timelines. So they are still watching, but they are watching differently. So you just have to get them where you can. You have to migrate your media plan to do that. The issue we still sit with is being able to measure them properly.
One of the challenges marketers have is seeing how younger people use media and how these different generations want to be spoken to. The opportunity we have in some of the platforms is the targeting we can apply to them. You can actually reach them more effectively if you target them correctly. You can serve them a message that is relevant and, hopefully, welcomed. As opposed to a message that is invasive and breaking what they want to see. That’s the trick: creating more content messages. Which is tough for some of the smaller advertisers to do. The trick is to be able to do that segmentation and scale it. We want to give your daughter a message that’s relevant to her, vs. what we do with some of the linear channels giving audiences a broader message to hit a ton of people. You don’t want to over-target. You want to make sure you target smartly. You can still aggregate them and scale them, in terms of a broader buy, but still have enough custom messages that are relevant in the right places.
So I still think we can hit them on Hulu, we can hit them on YouTube. We just have to hit them smarter and in a way they are going to accept.
TVWeek: It seems to me that ever since we’ve had separate media agencies there’s been talk about re-marrying creative and media. It seems as though we’re going through a period now where that talk is louder. What are your thoughts about this?
Cullen: I think we still have room for a lot of improvement there. You do see some accounts putting agency’s creative and buying back together. So everything old is new again. For certain accounts, yeah, that model works better because it’s integrated.
But I also see that we can work very well with outside creative agencies. The key, critical thing is communication. We are getting all this information about consumer journeys, so if you are delivering the right message it’s going to be so much more effective and impactful.
If the media agencies can affect what creative gets produced, and that circle keeps continuing, I really think that’s when the best work gets done, whether it’s within one family of agencies or it’s not. As long as you have agency partners willing to work together, both sides benefit because you’ll have the right creative to put in the right places. And you won’t be producing a message that’s really not relevant to a consumer. We still hear a lot of people just taking the television creative and cutting it down for digital, and I get why people do that, but if you can get creative that’s more custom it’s likely to be a lot more impactful. Which means media and creative have to work super close together.
TVWeek: There continues to be a debate about transparency between media agencies and their clients.
Cullen: We have a very firm, firm stance that we are 100% transparent. In terms of programmatic that’s one of the big things. A lot of times you’ve felt that it was a black box and you didn’t know what you got. No. We want to be able to show our clients every single URL that they ran on if they want to see it. We want to have all that backend reporting so that they see every single thing. They should know where they ran, and we want to know where they ran so we can optimize effectively. We are completely open book. We are very transparent to our clients and we expect the same from all our media partners. We actually demand it. There are certain media partners we would love to do business with, but because they are not fully transparent to us, we don’t.
TVWeek: When you came into the business, clearly it was primarily a relationship business. Are we losing that as programmatic takes more of a stronghold, and is that good or bad?
Cullen: I still think relationships are very important. Yes, as things get more automated things are going to change. But I do think relationships are going to serve us well as a lot of our linear partners put a lot of their content on DTC platforms, pulling it away from other places. The relationships we have to get that premium content are going to serve big agencies well. And that in turn serves our clients well. We are the ones who are going to get the first looks and the first opportunities and thus the first bids at that. We are seeing it happen already, and it benefits our clients. So relationships remain very, very important and valid.
TV ratings are declining. We see that. We also know that consumption is just moving. So as more and more premium content moves to direct platforms, because of our relationships, we are going to be in the best seat to get in on that, vs. those who don’t have those relationships.
TVWeek: Last question: What keeps you up at night?
Cullen: It’s just being able to validate to our clients with true measurements that they need to migrate holistically to video. We’ve been very successful with getting them into sophisticated custom audiences. I do believe people are still watching TV, but that they are watching it differently. So it’s making sure that my clients are seeing that and are able to prove out the ROI when they do move into the other screens and platforms. There is a lot of new technology that is out there with ACR [automatic content recognition across devices], set-top box data and others, that validates where those unreachables are viewing. So to me, it’s so very important to be able to take my clients on this journey and make them feel comfortable.