Mike Robertson, chairman and co-CEO of Ocean Media,
describes himself as a "glorified media buyer. I'm a media buyer who just happens
to own the company."
Ocean Media is an independent media agency that
focuses on return on investment and analytics. It tests advertising plans on a
small scale before ramping them up.
"In advance of a test and in advance of a rollout,
we look at the numbers and we mutually agree on what will define success," says
Robertson, who started the agency in 1996. "So we really invest very little
dollars ad-wise to get a response rate. And based on that rate, we're able to
determine with a fairly high degree of accuracy where we can grow the campaign
and scale it. The more data we get, the more refined it becomes, and there's
And there's plenty of data. "That's the beautiful
part of this day and age: we get minute by minute data from the Websites,
especially on the eCommerce side, and so we're able to integrate that with our
own MAP program, which is media attribution planning, and we're able to
identify which networks, day parts" and even commercials are producing sales,
The approach works with all media, but Robertson
says it works especially well with television, both broadcast and cable. "We
buy a combination of everything from direct response to last minute remnant
time. We also participate in the upfronts."
One recent success story is Just Fabulous, which
sells handbags through a monthly subscription service. The company wasn't a
national TV advertiser when it hired Ocean. "We started with very few dollars,
$400,000 or less," Robertson says. "As
you can imagine, everyone is concerned with the cost of national advertising,
whether it be broadcast or cable. And again, we had mutually defined goals that
we were ready to attack and try to obtain and reach and we did. And they are
growing pretty quickly. It's really based on the return on investment. If we
don't do it, we'll evaluate it and see if we can't tweak it. But we've
minimized their risk and now we're focusing on the upside."
Another fast-growing client is Angie's List, which
recommends local contractors and other service providers. Its spending rose
600% in the first year, 300% the second year and 100% this year, and plans on
another 100% next year. "They're going to be right up there [among] the
fastest-growing brands we've ever had," Robertson says.
There is only one radio and television advertising
class on Robertson's transcript from his days at the University of Kansas-and
he doesn't remember taking it. Other than that, when it comes to media buying
and planning, Robertson says he's completely self-taught.
Robertson grew up mainly in Kansas City, but he went
to school in 10 different cities because his father worked as a corporate
hatchet man for Ewing Kaufman's Marion Laboratories, assigned to fix
underperforming divisions of the companies. "He would fire the bad, hire the
good, turn the company around and move on," Robertson recalls.
His introduction to media buying came when he worked
as an analyst for Dick Fabian, who made a lot of money with an investment
newsletter and was looking to get into other businesses. Fabian created a piano
course and asked Robertson to promote it on TV with an infomercial. When hiring
professionals to do the job didn't work, Robertson decided he and Fabian could
write a better script themselves. They did, and Robertson produced the "See and
Hear Piano Series," which ran for 10 years.
"I enjoyed planning and negotiating my own media,"
Robertson says. "I just always loved the fact that it was so clear with 800
numbers. I was just addicted to the idea of putting a product on television and
being able to get an instant gratification on whether or not the product and
the show and the price points and my media were working."
He adds that while "It didn't always work back then,
I sure learned a lot."
Robertson did infomercials for more products, then
met Jay Walker, the founder of Priceline.com, which had not yet begun to use
national advertising. Robertson convinced Walker that using his system,
Priceline could get into national media in a low risk way. "That was my big
break," Robertson says.
Similarly, he was able to convince the founders of
FreeCreditReport.com, eHarmony.com and Overstock.com to buy into his approach.
"I know that sounds really eCommerce-based, but a
lot of what we do works with brick and mortar as well," he insists. "But we
really love the eCommerce position that we're in just because we're able to
dial our analytics in so quickly, so carefully and so closely."
At Ocean Media, Robertson has to make sure that the
people he hires are willing to get with his unconventional culture. "If they're
fairly smart it doesn't matter" if they have a national television background,
he says. "If you're smart we can really teach you what we're doing and how
we're doing it."
And Ocean doesn't maintain separate departments for
planning and buying. "I always had a problem with that disconnect. We are all
planners and buyers and if you can't do it alone, then I won't have you working
on it alone. I'll have you working with people who can work with you and teach
It's worth learning. At a time when other agencies
have been thinning their ranks, Ocean has been growing at a 37% clip, which
translates into job security for staffers.
For fun, Robertson is learning the movie business.
Last year he produced Five Star Day.
It starred Cam Gigandet from the Twilight
films and Jena Malone from Stepmom
and Into the Wild and won the top
prize at the Stony Brook Film Festival.
He financed 100% of the film and of course, did the
media himself. "I told my director Danny Buday I was going to steal his [film]
education in six months. I didn't get the degree yet, but I sure learned a
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