Media Experts: the first 25 years

A few remarkable achievements are evident when you peruse the details of Media Experts' first 25 years in business. The first is that a company starting up in Montreal with nothing but the naïve exuberance of youth has grown to be Canada's largest independent media management company. The second is the loyalty of both its clients and its staff, some of which have been with Media Experts since the early years.

A few remarkable achievements are evident when you peruse the details of Media Experts’ first 25 years in business. The first is that a company starting up in Montreal with nothing but the naïve exuberance of youth has grown to be Canada’s largest independent media management company. The second is the loyalty of both its clients and its staff, some of which have been with Media Experts since the early years.

CEO Mark Sherman founded Media Experts in 1982, and today the agency is responsible for more than $250 million in media spending – 70% of which comes from customers that have been with the company for 10 years or more. Along the way the agency’s growth has been highlighted by the launch and rise of Sega to Canada’s number one video gaming system, the successful launch of Clearnet’s PCS service, which brought in a record number of subscribers for a new network, and the pan-global management of Aldo shoes media investments since 1984.

How a Montreal-based indie won friends and influenced the national industry

The Media Experts story all began when Sherman brazenly decided to embark on a career in media by opening his own agency. He had worked at a Montreal radio station while attending university, and stayed in radio afterwards on air, as promotions director, and then in sales management by the age of 25. While dealing with ad agencies in his media sales role, he became fascinated by the media buying business. When the radio station changed management, he decided to switch sides and open his own media agency.

Having no experience in the agency business himself, Sherman wisely formed a partnership with Toronto shop Media Specialists – and Specialistes en Media was born, opening its doors in January 1982. In March 1987 he bought out the Toronto partners and changed the name of his Montreal agency to Media Experts. At that time it also became the first Quebec agency to sign on to the Adtraq media planning and scheduling system, signaling Sherman’s obsession with taking care of the agency’s customers and providing them with the service, research and information they want.

‘Good work is not only in an innovative billboard; it’s in a valuation system and in the day-to-day protecting of the customer, the day-to-day vigilance in making sure what you’ve bought gets delivered,’ Sherman says. ‘There’s not a lot of praise sung for that, but it’s very, very important.’

Developing a great working relationship with one of the hottest creative agencies around, Taxi, was also a key factor fuelling success and growth. Paul Lavoie, chairman and CCO of Taxi, met Mark Sherman in 1992, the year Taxi opened in Montreal. Taxi was the creative agency for Manager Jeans, and Sherman handled media buying and planning and doing miracles on a shoestring budget. He describes Sherman as someone with lots of smarts married with just plain common sense – AND very ambitious, so when Taxi won the ClearNet (now Telus) account, Lavoie recommended Media Experts for the media assignment.

That relationship led to the opening of Media Experts in Toronto to handle the new account. ‘I’m sure that turned heads at the time,’ says Lavoie. ‘Since then, Mark’s proven to be a valuable partner to us on Telus as well as the numerous other accounts we share. He’s also a lot of fun to work with.’

Case in point, Lavoie recalls Sherman’s performance at a presentation Taxi and Media Experts were making to Moosehead Beer in Saint John, New Brunswick. ‘It was his turn to speak. He jumped up, looked around the room, and started with a question: ‘Paul, how much did you pay for your room last evening?’ ‘Two hundred bucks,’ I replied. ‘What category of room is it?’ ‘Standard.’ ‘Well, I paid $115 and have the super deluxe suite. This pretty much sums up what I can do for you’, he said, and sat down. We didn’t win the assignment, but Mark’s been booking my travel since.’

Lise Doucet, VP marketing for Telus, has worked with Media Experts since the beginning of the relationship between the companies and credits the agency as a key partner in Telus’ success. ‘I don’t think they know the word ‘no’. In our industry, change is a constant, and they have been so accommodating. They never stop going beyond what is required. We’ve been very lucky because the relationship with them and Taxi has really been a partnership. I equate it to a marriage – and if it’s good, why leave?’

The relationship longevity thing isn’t an isolated example. The Aldo Group named Media Experts as its AOR in 1984. La Senza hired the firm in 1987, while a number of others have been on the roster for 10 to 18 years. Agency executives Debra Rosenthal, VP customer service, and Lisa DiMarco, COO, have been with the agency for 22 years. Vasso Fragos, VP finance, joined the firm in 1990, while several other senior staff including Carol Cummings, director of television services, signed on with Media Experts more than 10 years ago. In recent years, other high-profile hires include Penny Stevens, president; Luc Cormier, EVP; Richard Ivey, SVP customer service; and Robert Jenkyn, VP on demand.

Obviously someone is doing something right. Rosenthal says, ‘The success of the company both from an employee and customer standpoint, begins with Mark. His passion, commitment, intelligence, professionalism and loyalty have been contagious. The service we provide is a huge part of keeping our clients. How we keep our employees, well, it’s a little bit like a family.’

Sherman, however, downplays his involvement and passes credit for the company’s success to the staff, claiming his greatest skill is delegating. It’s quite an understatement from a man known for his negotiating prowess and strategic thinking skills, as well as his pioneering efforts in the areas of interactive TV and ROI research.

One of the things the company should be proudest of, says Rosenthal, is its orientation towards customer service, which trickles down from Sherman and is reinforced by the fact that clients are always referred to as customers. ‘We think it speaks more to customer service, focus and attention than the word client does,’ Sherman says.

This distinction is appreciated by Henry Fiederer, president of the Reitmans Division, a Media Experts customer since 1996:’They’re not only a buyer of media but a strategic partner to us in terms of developing our brand. Our relationship with them goes beyond a client-customer relationship. They’re a very important cog in the wheel.’

Sherman also takes strategic direction responsibility on an industry-wide level. And he’s been known to jump in when he sees an opportunity for Canada to lead, or when a wake-up call is required.

One such outcome is etc.tv. Sherman began to see the potential of interactive television in the early ’90s while consulting with Sega on the Sega Channel, which allowed video games to be downloaded over cable into a Sega Genesis machine. Sherman became intrigued with the possibilities opened up via coax cable’s data delivery capabilities, and by digital cable’s addressability and bi-directionality.

‘I saw a world where TV would become much more powerful and accountable,’ explains Sherman, ‘and we could have the same verification of commercial delivery on TV as we do online.’

In 2000, he established the ITV Lab at Media Experts in order to gain an understanding of how this change would affect his customers, spawning

on-demand advertising and etc.tv. Today etc.tv is run by Ian MacLean, VP and general manager. It launched in Quebec on Videotron’s illico digital cable network in April of last year. By using their cable remote, illico subscribers can link from 30-second commercials directly to long-form TV ads, on demand. It also allows bookmarking of the long-form ads so they can be watched at another time.

Major brands using the etc.tv service include General Motors, Ford Motors of Canada, Unilever, Procter and Gamble, Molson Canada, The National Bank of Canada and Videotron. This year, etc.tv plans to rollout cross Canada via agreements with the country’s other leading digital cable distributors.

Another example of Media Expert’s thought leadership involves ROI research. In 2004, when industry efforts to become more accountable were not moving fast enough for Sherman, he brought in New York-based media guru Erwin Ephron to develop a new planning model. Ephron used existing media research and made adjustments to get a more realistic number of people likely to see an ad.

The efforts to maximize media spend continue to pay off. This anniversary year has been a busy one for Media Experts, with the opening of a Vancouver office in March and the staffing of it with Jeff Berry, VP customer service, and Mike Rumble as media account director. There have also been seven recent hires at the Toronto and Montreal offices, including Robyn Brooking as director of its direct response media group. And six new customers have joined the Media Experts family this year: Grey Power Insurance Brokers; Eska; the Royal Canadian Golf Association; Enersource Corporation; Best Buy/Future Shop; and ING DIRECT – which should be a particularly good union, as they also know a thing or two about saving money.