If this is the digital century, whose early days will be remembered by the coming of age of such companies as Amazon, Google and Netflix, Christine Merrifield will surely have an honored space among the pioneers.
Merrifield is the president of investment, activation and operations for media agency MediaVest. It’s been reported that she helps guide the spending of $1 billion in digital budgets for MediaVest clients. Clearly, the blue-chip companies that make up MediaVest’s client list — such as P&G and Coke and Honda — spend many more billions on TV as well.
A year ago, Merrifield and Google announced a landmark pact in which Google, for the first time, made an upfront deal with an agency. Said Merrifield at the time, “This new partnership truly enables MediaVest to realize the promise of online video at scale, which has been talked about but rarely realized.”
The deal was typical Merrifield, say a number of sellers who know her well. It was smart, groundbreaking, and a win-win for buyer and seller alike.
Merrifield is so well-regarded in the industry that a number of buyers and sellers were genuinely surprised that we had not named her our Media Buyer of the Year one of the other 12 times we have given this honor. Sheepishly, it even surprised us.
TVWeek’s Chuck Ross had the privilege of interviewing Merrifield, and an edited transcript follows. It begins with one of the best stories we’ve encountered about someone starting out in media. Merrifield’s story involves some of the most successful, best-known and well-respected people in media: Jon Mandel, Bo Argentino, who currently runs ad sales for NBC’s syndication unit, and Geri Wang, who heads up ad sales for ABC. Once upon a time …
Christine Merrifield: I went to school in Buffalo and then stayed there for a year afterward and worked for a small agency. You did everything at a small agency like that. Then I said to myself, Christine, if you really want to do this, the mecca of advertising is New York City. So I moved back in with my parents, who lived in Long Island.
Back in the day The New York Times would have these ads for generic media jobs. I answered one. It was a headhunter. And I went on interviews all over Manhattan. I had to take typing tests. Because back then — this was the late 1980s — one of the routes into the ad business was through being a secretary. In the middle of one of these typing tests I realized I didn’t have the patience to go this route and called the recruiter and told him.
I think he was shocked — I don’t think he had ever sent anyone out who quit in the middle of the typing test. He sent me to Ogilvy to interview in the local [spot TV] group. I didn’t even know what that was. The woman who interviewed me offered me the job on the spot. Excellent, right? I told her that I actually had another interview that afternoon with Grey — and I had made a big deal with them about landing that interview. So I asked her if I could call her that night after the Grey interview. She said absolutely.
So I went to Grey. It was Geri Wang and Bo Argentino who were the two women who interviewed me. I told Bo that it’s very nice meeting you and you are lovely ladies and [the agency] looks like a great space but that I had actually gotten an offer about an hour ago, and thank you for your time, but I think I’m going to accept that offer.
She said, “No! You cannot take that job!” And I said, “Whaaat? I need a job.” Then Geri came in and she agreed with Bo. They said that they could not offer me a job that day, but that they were going to call me in a week. But they said I could not take the Ogilvy job because it was in local, and that I needed to be in national [media].
This is 1988. I took the Long Island Railroad and went home to my parents. I told them I got offered a job and they go “Yay!” and then I said that these two really nice ladies said I shouldn’t take that job and I should wait for their call in a week. That didn’t go over that well. Though I give my parents credit — here I am a 22-year-old kid saying I really know what’s right for me. Let me listen to these ladies. I felt a connection with them right away.
A week goes by. Nobody calls me. And now I can feel the eyes of my parents, thinking to themselves, right, they’re going to call you. And I keep saying, “They are going to call. They are going to call.” A week and a half goes by and I call Bo. And I said, “I don’t know if you remember me,” and she said “Oh yeah, we do. We totally do. We’re going to make you an offer in a few days.” So I told my parents — and you have to understand at this point I had stopped interviewing for a job thinking, “Oh, they want me.”
Well, two days later they did call me and made me an offer. Back in those days they paid you nothing to start in media departments. Like I was going to graduate school. I started at $8,500 a year. My parents were like “What?”
I was a junior buyer. That department at that time was under Jon Mandel. There were 12 of us. He only hired women. I got trained by the best. Most of them became very successful. A lot of us are still in the business today. Geri was my first boss and she’s been very successful. Bo as well. It was a phenomenal group.
TVWeek: And that’s where you met Donna Speciale as well, yes?
Merrifield: Yes. Donna worked in Rhode Island and then came in to Grey as a more senior person. It was an environment that fostered strong personalities, who were also hard-working and conscientious. We were empowered to do what we thought was the right thing to do. I give Mandel a lot of credit for that. He hired a lot of people and empowered them. If we didn’t make the right decisions he definitely let us know, but he empowered us to swing for the mountains, and you either did that or hung yourself.
Ironically, after I got married, we moved to Rochester, and I did sell locally for the Fox affiliate. But I only did that for a few months because that’s all I could take in Rochester, and we moved back to New York City. I went back into the national team at Grey. In fact, I think Donna and Jon hired me three times in my career.
TVWeek: Interestingly, you have this terrific background in traditional media, but today many people say you’re truly an expert in digital media. How did you make that transition?
Merrifield: Back in 2007 we consciously, here at MediaVest, saw the change in online video. There began to be some kinks in the armor of television, and about online video we began to say, “What’s going on over there?” At the same time our digital teams were going to be buying video. And we had our folks who bought traditional TV. So we consciously came up with the idea of what we called “cross-athletes,” to bring together digital buyers and TV buyers as one team. It was really a beta test. We knew we’d get some of the digital people who didn’t want to learn about what some call “old media,” and would be resentful. The people who were buying TV were more eager to learn about this new thing called digital. We did this for publishing and at-home, but not for local. So we lost some folks, but kept others who wanted to take this journey with us.
Ever since then it’s been an evolution and an amazing journey that doesn’t stop. Every day something is changing in our business. It keeps you so active and engaged. Because if you are not, you won’t be succeeding. It’s evolved into this much bigger and broader role with all forms of digital, with the measurement conversation, and we’re still on this journey of merging more and more together across all channels.
TVWeek: What would you say the relationship is today, for marketers, between TV and digital? It seems that we are still at a place where digital gets a lot of the conversation, but then you’ll get others countering, touting how great TV is. Do TV and digital butt heads a lot?
Merrifield: I don’t view it that way. What is happening is consumer behavior. The TV guys, with their phenomenal content, have just distributed it to different channels and different screens. It’s not one or the other. It’s an “and-and” at the end of the day. For the digital guys, they are now chasing after the traditional guys again. The traditional guys have all this great, phenomenal content, and that content really fosters and builds those other screens, which is quote, “their” [digital’s] business. But [digital is] building more and more relationships with those traditional content suppliers, and we’ve seen it, with even Facebook and others creating their own content engines inside.
It’s a journey, and I think we are only starting to settle in on the roles where everything fits in. It’s nowhere near stopping yet. And there’s more consolidation every day. I think it’s more and more about content, consumer behavior and where that content is being distributed, [plus] how you can measure that content, that’s what is starting to merge together as one.
And for an ad agency, we don’t buy it by channel. I don’t have the digital team over here and the video team over there, because that’s not how my client wants it viewed. They are looking at their total consumer — what consumer behavior is doing. So we have to actually mimic the consumers. Because if we don’t mimic the consumer we look like dinosaurs. That will never be the case here.
TVWeek: You have mentioned measurement several times. Are you satisfied where measurement tools are right now?
Merrifield: We are still on that journey. There are two horses in the race right now, ComScore vCE [Validated Campaign Essentials] and Nielsen OCR [Online Campaign Ratings]. [As an industry], we still haven’t settled on either one of those.
With Nielsen it’s ironic that for so many years we’ve talked about Nielsen, [with many people complaining about] how they measure TV, and now everyone is jumping on Nielsen to do cross-screen measurement, and I’m wondering where did those voices go? The things people complained about we’re now jumping over. I just think we are not completely there yet.
We need more forums for the ad agencies, the marketers and the sell side to get together to have these conversations with Nielsen. I think we still have a long way to go, unfortunately. We’re not there. We are all developing our own type of surrogates, if you will.
TVWeek: Most of the billions in advertising goes to television, with digital chipping away at that. That will just continue?
Merrifield: Again, I think the conversation goes back to if they are frienemies or what. The traditional guys have digital, and the digital guys are trying to have more and more content that is worthy of more and more of those TV dollars. Where do I see it moving? The consumer is moving more and more toward digital. So I would suggest that more and more money is moving there. Whether it’s on the content we love and adore from the broadcast guys, or whether it’s on new user-generated content.
[Part of this will be driven by] what the next generation of users deem is top tier and prime for them. I have a house full of millennials, and it’s interesting to see how they watch video. It truly is wherever and whenever it is. My son, his favorite channel is YouTube. He’s 17. But he will watch traditional TV with me, too.
TVWeek: Will he watch commercials? My 18-year-old son won’t. When he watches traditional TV he will sit down and watch it 15 minutes after it’s started so he can fast-forward through the commercials.
Merrifield: My household is a little different. They know what mommy does for a living, what pays the mortgage and will pay for college. I think commercials are creative content. Some of these kids think some commercials are pretty funny. So long as commercials are kept creative fewer people will fast-forward through them.
Frequency is an issue [with digital viewing]. Hitting people over the head with the same commercials. It’s a challenge. Going back to measurement, this is something we need the digital side to get much better at. When I say digital it’s not digital like Google vs. the major networks. It’s whoever has digital distribution of [the networks’] content, the idea of frequency is off the charts. It has to be reined in. At the IP level. You should not be pulling up a show and seeing multiple spots of the same creative. It’s a huge problem. We’re getting better at it, but it’s still a problem. That would turn off our kids faster. We, at least, understand that the commercials underwrite the content. The kids don’t.
TVWeek: I’ve heard some in the network TV business say that as the audience becomes increasingly fragmented, eventually the networks may have problems drawing a mass audience. Thus, this argument goes, moving forward it may be more difficult to develop a broad-based hit such as “The Big Bang Theory.”
Merrifield: I actually think it might be easier to get a mass audience across multiple screens, and there is a relationship there. Will it be in the same day, date and time? Maybe yes, maybe not. “Game of Thrones” is doing phenomenally well on HBO, and that’s a pay channel and everyone seems to be talking about it and knowing about it. If there are more screens there’s a bigger opportunity get this mass. It just may have to be redefined. It’s not sitting home at eight o’clock on a Thursday night watching one screen. If there is good content people find it. So I think it’s just another business model that we are evolving to.
TVWeek: Let’s say you are right. Is that going to be OK with marketers, that a future show might be hitting a mass audience, but that it may be over a number of days and over various devices?
Merrifield: This goes back to your question about measurement. If I were a content person, I would want every dollar of every impression I had. And the issue is not that marketers don’t think that their customers are watching content on multiple screens. And it’s not that the content guys don’t feel that consumers will watch multiple screens, because they are the ones making the deals to get their content onto multiple screens. It’s a measurement issue. And one of reach and frequency of it all. I challenge the entire industry to get together and [solve these issues.]
I’m sure that there is money being left on the table on both sides. I’m sure there are people who are over-playing [commercials] because they don’t know the frequency with which they are hitting the customers over the head, and at the same time I think there is money being left because people are not paying for what they don’t know. Because they can’t measure it.
So it all circles back to fixing the measurement. All of these screens are not going away. If anything, we are getting more of them. To the next generation, the phone is their first screen.
TVWeek: Isn’t one of the problems that technology is increasing faster than our ability to measure how the technology is being used? So the gap between how technology allows us to behave and our ability to measure the behavior is increasing.
Merrifield: Yes. I agree with you. The delta is too big. We know that there is great content out there. But if you can’t get to the heart of the reach and frequency of your consumer on it, it hurts everybody. So we would love to see, quote, “more supply.” We would love to see that we could capture all those and pay for all those impressions. But we can’t yet. And it’s not leap of faith. It’s not like buying a cable network before it was rated by Nielsen. Because eventually that cable network, within 12 to 18 months, was going to be rated by Nielsen.
This is a much bigger conversation. We haven’t even found the path to say we will be able to measure something that provides reach and frequency, that can adhere to separation guidelines.
In the digital space the ad serving business is a phenomenal business for them. The revenue they bring in is amazing. So they have all mastered that side of it. So I guess I’m really challenging the industry: Do we really want this kind of measurement? Do you really want the answer? Or are you really happy with what we have but like to squawk about it? I don’t know.
We are a ComScore vCE agency. We are not a Nielsen OCR agency. They are very different as far as delivery is concerned. I worry about that. So we have very challenging conversations in the marketplace. OCR is the Facebook universe. Facebook is getting older. If that continues to be the only universe of OCR, we’re going to see some revenue getting hit really hard on those younger demos. And then it’s going to be, “What happened?” I just know we are not moving forward and fixing either one of these measurements.
TVWeek: Is this one of those issues where the biggest hurdle is that not enough money is being thrown at the problem to fix it?
Merrifield: No, I don’t think that’s it. We are in a disruptive phase in our industry. We all have to get to the table and come up with a solution.
Look, this is a phenomenal business. We all keep moving forward and every day is something different and we all need to try our best to stay on top of it as much as possible. Another agency might have different opinions about something, but I think all the agencies are, at the end of the day, looking to do the best thing not only for our clients, but for the consumers of our clients’ brands. And if we stay laser-focused on that, it’s all very clear. If the consumers are changing their behaviors, we have to change with them. If we don’t then we are not providing differentiation for our clients.
TVWeek: Last question: What is it that keeps you up at night?
Merrifield: With digital channels, we have to get better at operational excellence. We have to get better, as I mentioned, about the frequency. We have to make sure that our consumer experience is a good one. And right now, if you talk to anybody, the frequency of seeing those spots is the biggest complaint. It’s like getting hit over the head and it’s a turn-off. Digital needs to take the lessons from the linear guys that made them so strong and so powerful and so wonderful for our consumers. On the linear side, we need them to be more dynamic and ready for change quicker than they currently are. I think there is a happy medium for both.