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Learning on the Job Helps Robertson Make Waves

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 constant optimization.”

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 e-commerce 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, Robertson says.

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,” he says.

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 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 TV 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 Kauffman’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 always loved the fact that it was so clear with 800 numbers. I was addicted to the idea of putting a product on TV 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.”

Robertson did infomercials for more products, then met Jay Walker, founder of, 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, and to buy into his approach. “I know that sounds really e-commerce-based, but a lot of what we do works with brick and mortar as well,” he insists. “But we really love the e-commerce 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.”

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,” Robertson says. “I’ll have you working with people who can work with you and teach you.”

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 lot.”

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