Peter Swain: A Tribute to MBS

Peter Swain arrived in Canada in 1972 as a young media buyer looking for media-related ideas to take back and apply in the u.k.As a base for his investigation, he used the then-fledgling company, Media Buying Services, which had been established...

Peter Swain arrived in Canada in 1972 as a young media buyer looking for media-related ideas to take back and apply in the u.k.

As a base for his investigation, he used the then-fledgling company, Media Buying Services, which had been established two years earlier by Peter Simpson, a young media entrepreneur.

mbs was the first agency in Canada to adopt media as its sole function.

Instead of returning to Britain as planned, Swain took over the reins at mbs at a time when the media planning and buying function was being handled traditionally by departments within full-service ad agencies.

Swain and mbs began introducing models and systems to the market as an independent service, growing through its own advertiser client list, as well as providing media services to ad agencies without media departments.

By 1979, with the election of Progressive Conservative Joe Clark as Prime Minister of Canada, mbs was hired to take over the agency-of-record function for the federal government’s ad account, then the largest media spender in Canada.

Swain introduced a centralized buying system that synthesized all government spending into one ‘Agency of Management’ system. The process remained in place even after mbs lost the contract when Clark’s short-lived regime was voted out of office later that year.

mbs has remained at the forefront of the media scene as other independent companies and standalone operations within ad agencies have come to embrace the mbs media concept over the years.

Strategy spoke with Swain on the 25th anniversary of mbs’ official opening.

I am extraordinarily excited by the era we’re in today. There simply couldn’t be a better time to be involved in the communications industry, and media in particular. When I look back over 25 years, I see many accomplishments. But, as I look ahead, I feel, in a sense, we are only at the beginning.

The excitement comes from anticipating and preparing for what will soon be a profoundly different world. The implications with respect to the way we will be communicating among each other are staggering, affecting every part of our lives.

Even the bus stop you visit at the end of the street may soon have an info-dock that you can tap into. New technology will be everywhere, and with it will come a whole new set of communications challenges and opportunities.

Information has so far been governed by ‘others’ – by governments and by media owners who have said, basically, ‘Here is the information package.’

Now, as technology changes all of that, the question arises whether people will want to be masters of their own media-gathering, and whether they will edit out advertising. I suspect not. But, the question remains.

The real driving force behind all of this is the phenomenal explosion that will soon be released in computing power.

To better understand what I mean, I think it’s helpful to draw a parallel between computing power and electrical power.

We take electricity entirely for granted. We never even think about it.

Computing power will soon become exactly the same kind of utility.

When the first electrical connections were made, people introduced a single light bulb to their homes. Gradually houses became wired and more appliances were added.

We are now at the stage where we soon will have computer-based devices that can be plugged in anywhere in our homes, even on the streets.

I read a quote recently that described conventional broadcasting as being similar to the time when there was one big, central mainframe computer transmitting to millions of, essentially, dumb terminals.

The future is a world of smart terminals, all with their own computing capabilities, all connected. That’s mindblowing.

There is no longer one mainframe. Every person, in every house, now has his or her own computer, all joined together in one massive system.

Think for a moment about how far we’ve really come. The average car today has as much computing power as the early pcs.

The ramifications for advertising suppliers are extreme. Imagine, for example, the case of an interactive communication for a car manufacturer.

Will the ad agency design and get paid for the gateway that entices a prospect to get interactive, or, the software labyrinth that keeps the prospect interested, and informed?

Will the media owner get paid for that 10-second gateway, or for the time spent by a prospect searching the labyrinth?

And, that’s just looking at one media entity – television. What about the other 100 different variables that will soon be available?

I suspect we will begin to see the emergence of new sources of highly specialized creative expertise.

One such resource that comes readily to mind is Pirate Radio. You could argue that the kind of specialized service Pirate Radio provides for the radio medium could also apply to cd-rom or any other medium.

In this scenario, the media company becomes the centre of everything. A broker, a guiding hand through the maze of opportunities, and a resource facilitator.

One phenomenon that should happen, but, surprisingly, hasn’t really caught on in this country, is the rise of highly creative, or otherwise distinctive advertising agency entities.

Examples that spring to my mind are Geoffrey Roche and Rick Padulo. I think it’s a real indictment of the rest of the advertising industry here that so few have done what these two have.

If a Roche and a Padulo can come seemingly out of nowhere – and I suppose I would throw my name into that same ring – and become tops in their field, why can’t others?

Where are the new names? What is happening at all these faceless, grey multinationals?

I used to know every [major ad agency] president in this town. We would all meet, often to have informal chats about the business. That simply doesn’t happen today.

I foresee a split occurring in the creative process. Those people – or companies – who come up with good marketing concepts will continue to have a highly valuable role to play.

These are the people who create the message that goes along with a client’s product or service. This creative function will never cease to be important.

The physical execution of that message, however, will increasingly be sent down the stream to the appropriate creative specialist.

Traditional agencies, presumably, will be the ones who will offer the service of creating the message – generating the core idea that the client wishes to communicate.

It will then be up to companies such as ours to determine how best to get that message out, whether on a cd-rom, conventional media, whatever the right vehicle might be.

I think most clients are already thinking this way. Most today are prepared to make more than one decision when it comes to choosing an advertising supplier.

There is absolutely no reason why Canadians can’t assume an important role in the new North American marketplace.

The changes we see happening are only opening up new opportunities. And, the old order is breaking down. Madison Avenue has certainly lost its cachet. Even the definition of national boundaries is being rewritten.

Old boundaries will disappear and new ones will open up and be created, generally speaking, around common interests, with people connected by a computer system to an electronic village involving constituents halfway around the world.

This has many far-reaching implications, social and political, and they are difficult to encapsulate, but, as with the concept of global marketing, the real issue for marketers will continue to be how, in this vast expanse, they can find local applications.

If there is a dark cloud, I would say it is the way the Canadian advertising industry is being emasculated, almost at every turn.

I am particularly concerned with the effects that the continued economic dumping practised by so many of the multinational agencies here is having on the Canadian industry. It’s killing the business.

What’s particularly frustrating is the way some agencies so readily discount their media departments. They are happy, it seems, to give away their media service for a few percentage points, or, for free, in order to serve some other, supposedly higher, purpose.

Not only is that a questionable strategy from a practical business point of view – when you consider the increasing importance and complexity of our new media world – but, think of what it must do for the personal esteem of the media people in the agency.

How must it make them feel?

It signals that they are perceived as incidental people who are being sold cut-rate, or given away as a ‘gift-with-purchase’ in order to win a creative assignment or make connections in some other country.

This practice, akin to picking stockbrokers based on their cost, is hurting everyone here – the agencies themselves, and the media who are forced to deal with understaffed or demoralized media departments.

If a media owner has to do business with a department that is being treated by its own organization as nothing more than a cost drain, then, yes, it will be difficult for that new media owner to set up a meeting, never mind working together with media planners to exchange new ideas and progressive thinking.

It’s frustrating for the media, and, I know, for many agencies’ media directors. Privately, they would tell you the same thing.

To compound this concern, we are seeing advertising decision-making drift out of the country almost daily, and that is very sad.

I thought that the most dramatic statement that came out of the [first] Congress of Canadian Advertising a couple of years ago – more startling in my mind than the speech that Hugo Powell gave – were the comments from a leading multinational client.

He said he didn’t understand what all the fuss was about because, in Canada, after all, we’ll still be able to do all the packaging and point-of-sale stuff.

And, I thought, ‘Exactly. That’s what all the fuss is about. Precisely his point of view.’

It seemed strange to me that people in the audience and afterwards didn’t pick up on this point and make an issue out of it.

I suspect that very soon we will be talking about grps and other traditional methods of measuring media with nostalgia, as though they were part of a very distant past. The measure for any medium is going to be what I would describe as identifiable consumer response.

No matter what it is, whether magazines or mass network television – which will still exist, I’m sure – the big question will be: ‘Did anyone tune in and pay attention?’

Media owners will have to become part of that process. They can no longer think of themselves as only providers of programs, leaving the job of figuring out who’s watching or reading to the agencies.

Clients can now follow a product through to the consumer.

With Smart Cards, they can trace who buys their products, where they are bought, and even with the use of a computer chip implanted, say, in the middle of a toothpaste tube, keep a monitor on how much of the product is being used, and, therefore, when the user is ready to buy a new one. If we can get a physical product comprised of atoms in the hands of a consumer, it should be a snap to get digital bits of data to and from her or him.

It’s worth contemplating that advertisers might increasingly follow the product route with a communications message.

When you think of the billions of dollars that Canadian advertisers pay subsidizing the entertainment industry – and a lot of media – you’ve got to wonder why the industry hasn’t done more to justify to these clients that the communications route they’re using really does work.

The industry here has for so long tacitly agreed, ‘We don’t want new audience measurement technology because it may show that people don’t watch commercials.’

And, few have seriously challenged that position.

That’s what will have to change. Media owners and the agency community must do more to prove that their products are effective. The burden of proof really, now, rests with all of us.

Our company has always been – because of the innovations we brought to the marketplace – an initiator and a leader. If that has meant having to be something of a maverick and on the ‘outside,’ then, I say, so be it.

We are constantly sticking our necks out.

There have been discussions over the years about whether or not media companies such as ours should be invited to become members of such organizations as the ica [Institute of Canadian Advertising.]

My view is that you should never become a part of something if you are going to lose your voice in the process. If it adds to your voice, it could be fantastic, and I would be there in a minute if that were the case.

But, if it means homogenizing to everybody else’s viewpoint, then, I say, we’ve got a lot better things to do.

Having said that, I still fervently believe that someone in this country has to step forward, take some control and drive this train of an industry.

I find it so strange that an industry that invented such phrases as ‘improved’ and ‘dynamic’ and ‘better’ – all these superlative terms – is itself so incredibly conservative and dry.

We tend to be averse to new ideas and outspoken people.

Of course, the irony in all of this is that clients are coming to us, by definition, for leadership. We’re in an industry that sells a service that supposedly makes products and services look distinctive so that people will want them. Yet we have this grey wash of agencies. Something is wrong with this picture.

On the other hand, I must say that what the industry might lack in flair it certainly makes up for in civility.

For example, I will never forget the letters and phone calls I received from agency people after I turned down the offer of the Federal Government AOR contract in 1984 for reasons now best known to Stevie Cameron (author of the recent book On The Take about the Mulroney years.

This was a time when I had rather more press than I could handle and I greatly appreciated the moral support.

When I first arrived here, I was amazed at how backward the media industry was. As a buyer in the u.k., I had on my desk, every week, exactly what ratings were achieved by the spots that I had bought.

I could also see everyone else’s because they were all published, every week. It showed second-by-second performance. Every week, I knew whether I had done a good job or not.

Here, you would wait for months for the same kind of information, which, even when it did arrive, was incomplete.

That’s changed somewhat. The degree of interest and the degree of knowledge have increased as advertisers have begun to pay more attention to this huge portion of their marketing spending.

But, the change has been evolutionary. There was never one big turning point. The development has been slow and steady.

The election of Joe Clark as prime minister in the late 1970s, and the role that mbs assumed as the federal government’s agency-of-record was certainly a key moment in our company’s history.

It taught me a few things. One of them was personal tiredness. I think I was holding down five jobs at one time.

The faith that the new federal government placed in us when we put together a new system for federal government media planning and buying was a wonderful acknowledgment of the work that I and others at mbs had been doing.

It was, I must say, also quite fascinating to see the turnabout among some of the more established agency principals of the day.

In fact, I will never forget how little time it took for them to call me with congratulations, and to arrange to meet so they could present their companies to me.

I took it at face value and just thought it was smart. I had the most respect for those who had the brains to realize that whether right or wrong, this was the new way of doing things.

I found it frustrating to have to deal with those others for whom it was, ‘grumble, grumble, grumble,’ all in the background. I was surprised by those agencies who seemed to prefer being regressive in trying to turn the clock back, or those who were simply trying to be damaging by leaking things to the press or generally making mischief.

I am a pragmatist, and, I suppose, a perfectionist. I’m always trying to improve. Obviously, attention to detail in my business is something that really counts, and that’s one of my strengths.

But, I’m also a bit of a dreamer. My other passion in this world is architecture and design. One of my greatest thrills was when I won an award for architecture. Being on stage with a group of accomplished architects was something I’ll never forget.

I’m also a great believer in people. I know it sounds corny, but, I can tell you that the greatest satisfaction I have is in the personal development of the people in this company.

I fully subscribe to that saying: ‘Whether you believe you can, or believe you can’t, you’re going to be right.’

I believe that’s true of business as well as architecture. In architectural terms, I know, as I’m trying to fit everything into a design and to make it work, that it may take me hours and hours and hours. But, I know that I will find a solution.

In business, there are usually more unforeseen variables that come your way, and, it may take months. But, I know, as with solving a design problem, that I will come up with a solution. I absolutely know it.

That’s another part of my style. I believe in polish. My ideas may not always be the ones that set the house on fire, but I do contribute a great volume of brainpower. I will put all the time I have to an idea to polish it and polish it, as much as it needs, until I see it begin to glow.

The opposite to me are those who may be super bright and full of great ideas, but, perhaps, prone to taking rough-hewn concepts, placing them on the table, and not giving them the chance to be made great.

If I have one guiding principle – if there’s one thing I remind myself of constantly – it is that I am in the human resource management business. The caring for people is No. 1 in my book.

Probably, the majority of my day is spent in the realm of ‘what’s turning our people on … what’s turning them off.’

I firmly believe that if you’re in the service industry, attention to your own people is the difference between profit and loss, and, most certainly, growth.

As we get bigger, and as our industry gets more fragmented, that aspect of human resource management will become even more important.

We have an art program at mbs, for example, and a sabbatical program for senior management who get time off after 10 years.

We have many reward programs for good ideas. We’re constantly working on new ways of rewarding our people and recognizing them for great work. That’s the secret.

Yes, it will be increasingly important to be able to process and massage data faster than the next person. But, at the end of the day, a computer system is just a computer system. It’s the people who run it that make the difference.

I think, increasingly, if not already, you will find that the quality of the people will be the differentiating factor.

We are on the brink of an era of change unprecedented in history, greater even than the industrial revolution. Not only will we be completely reorienting our concept of media and communications, but, we will also go through a period of profound change in the way we conduct ourselves as human beings.

This change will take us into a world that will, in many ways, be unrecognizable from the world today.

I’ve spent the past six months trying to put a paper together, which we intend to publish soon as a kind of white paper on the new media.

We’ll be looking ahead as far as we possibly can, if only to then begin to articulate a vision of the future.

It’s almost not important whether what we come up with is right or wrong. It’s more important that somebody advance a point of view.

At the moment, the marketplace is filled with confusion over what the future holds, and I’m worried that what could follow this state of confusion is apathy.

I’m frightened that apathy will arrive in the form of people saying, ‘It’s too difficult. I don’t want to worry about this stuff. I’ve got enough on my plate coping with today’s problems. Let’s just get the publication done and out the front door.’

That attitude, if it sets in, will only serve to slow up progess.

So, my solution is to step forward, and, without saying I’m necessarily right, at least say, ‘Here’s my view. Here are the pros and cons. This is what may work, now let’s go after it.’

And, you know, you can mold your destiny. If you set a map for yourself, there’s a chance, at least, that it’ll happen that way.

Having foreshadowed the market 25 years ago, we at mbs are interested in doing that again today, and are in the process of recreating our company.

We’ve talked to a wide spectrum of people, tapped into various resources, basically pulling together information from as many sources as we could find.

We have a task force within the company dedicated to doing this. We are challenging all conventional wisdom, and thinking and building a reasonably solid picture of how the future might look.

One of the valuable outcomes of this exercise will be the focus it might provide to other commercial communications services, because media is obviously at the centre of it all.

The media function will clearly no longer be a matter of simply buying a tv spot.

The question we are asking ourselves as a company is how will we be able to assimilate all the data in order to be effective to our clients.

Media planning used to be choosing from among six media. Relatively simple.

Can a media planner be an expert on 100 different media? Big question. How do you become an instant authority and be able to render an intelligent decision on which one of these media, or combinations of them, are best?

Our challenge is to develop a system that can instantly provide our media planners with the latest information on state-of-the-art media options.

Some of these challenges will only be solved by companies with size and cash. You will need massive computing power and the people who can pull it all together.

We will have to adjust our infrastructures and build new mechanisms to deal with the changing marketplace. And, that will be very, very expensive.

At mbs, we will have a new computer system in place this year. We will have spent $400,000 on computer upgrades last year alone. It will take that kind of investment on an ongoing basis to stay ahead.

I believe a few, very large companies will emerge with sophisticated operations capable of remaining on top of change.