From Bullets To Buckshot: Acxiom CEO Scott Howe On The SMG Partnership

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Scott-HoweOne must forgive Scott Howe, CEO of big data solutions provider Acxiom, for gushing a little. “I’m kinda preaching here but I feel passionate about this, because I’m an agency guy, but I think the days of the silver bullet are done,” he told AdExchanger. He’s referring to advertising and marketing messages that adhere to a single theme.

“Our audiences are different and everybody wants to be talked to in the terms that they want, in the order they want,” he explained. “The silver bullet idea gets replaced by silver buckshot. Instead of a single creative theme where one size fits all, you can have thousands of creative themes that tie to a central idea, each of which is tailored to the audience that will best respond to it.”

Wednesday’s announcement that Acxiom and media agency Starcom MediaVest Group (SMG) had agreed to “multi-year” partnership, through which SMG will use Acxiom’s Audience Operating System (AOS), is the first step of loading the shotgun. Functionally, AOS on the surface resembles a data management platform (DMP) but Acxiom insists it’s more in that it connects both online and offline consumer information.

While Acxiom is well-established as a provider of third-party data, which its clients use to better target prospects and customers, its partnership with SMG is notable.

Howe spoke with AdExchanger about what this all means for the marketing industry and for Acxiom.

AdExchanger: Why is Acxiom only now striking deals with agencies?

SCOTT HOWE: It’s a huge mind shift for us. Two years ago, the Acxiom I joined talked about our target-direct advertisers. Now we’re talking about who’s our list of publishers, who’s our list of agencies, who are our direct clients, and who are the software providers we want to market with. For 40 years, we’ve been a company that’s prided itself on working directly with major advertisers. But as we have created this construct called the Audience Operating System, what we’ve realized is that there is a need not just amongst our traditional advertisers but amongst their agencies, their publishers from whom they purchase media, and their tool providers—software applications and developers. Anybody who can benefit from ingestion and effective utilization of intelligent data is something we now think of as a potential customer.

What’s happening on the agency side that’s making this partnership feasible?

I grew up in the agency world at a time when it seemed like every major agency was trying to figure out what their own unique technology would be. We created Atlas on Avenue A Razorfish. Publicis created Vivaki. Increasingly, agencies have recognized that by utilizing and being open to external partners, they can accelerate some of those [data-driven] efforts.

That’s the case with the Acxiom-SMG partnership?

That’s the case here. [SMG CEO] Laura [Desmond] and her team at Starcom will have access to our data and our developers. And overtime, entirely new apps and products can be created through our support. But make no mistake: our goal with Starcom is to support them and to create incredible experiences and results for their clients.

When did that shift toward partnering happen, and why did it happen?

I give huge credit to executives like [Desmond] who grew up in the digital space and realized that part of the goal of technology is around connectivity. You can’t innovate in every area but you can foster innovation by assembling great teams.

What can media agencies do with AOS that they couldn’t do before?

Advertising to me is about storytelling. It’s about communicating a message to a prospect or a customer that convinces them to think differently about your brand, whether it’s to buy something, to believe something, to learn something. And what’s the best mechanism for storytelling? The books we read as kids, serialized chapter stories where each sentence builds on the last, and each chapter builds on the one before until it reaches a crescendo.

If that’s the goal of marketing, how hard is that to do where instead of telling your stories in a 60 second commercial, you’re doing it in a 468 banner or an email that someone might look at for a few seconds?

As media fragmentation has exploded and consumer behavior has embraced different devices, telling a seamless story to an individual across those different touchpoints has never been more difficult.

Can you go into that a little more?

[With AOS] Laura and her clients can tell a seamless story across all of these touchpoints, where each interaction builds on the one before, whether it’s a piece of direct mail, or an email, or a television ad. It’s down to a user level where when you tell a story, instead of thinking about which banner performed most effectively, advertisers can think about which media mix performed most effectively. What is the right combination of banner ads versus email versus direct mail versus television? And have all of those impressions be linked back to individuals so you can see how may messages did that individual see and in what order they see them in so you know which sequences and mix is most effective.

So is AOS primarily an agency play?

No. It comes back to a huge network effect. One [problem] in the marketing world is that everyone is speaking a different language. If I’m a marketer and I figure out exactly who I want to message with which message treatments, I can’t possibly traffic that campaign because when I go to my email provider, they might see the world and the people in it one way. When I go talk to Google, they see that same user as cookie number 5679. When I talk to my television provider, they’re talk about TRPs (target rating points) and GRPs (gross rating points).

Everyone is speaking a different language so in a world of fragmentation, it becomes very difficult to traffic seamless campaigns across all of those touchpoints. If you can make data a common language that everyone can embrace, then everyone in the industry wins—with the exception of advertising waste. That’s the big loser here.

When I talk about AOS having a whole new wave of clients, we see this as an agency play, a direct client play, a publisher play, and a software developer play. Anyone who is a participant in the advertising ecosystem, by virtue of having accessible data and the ability to communicate with one another, everyone wins. By virtue of linking up the ecosystem participants into the system—the publishers, the agencies, the clients, the software providers—each of them can better talk to each other and can better utilize a common set of data. That’s what we’re trying to do here.

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