Media Buying Briefing: Strategy veteran Anush Prabhu says agencies need to change how they help launch brands

It’s an unavoidable reality that every few years the art and science of branding changes.

Over the last three years, the changes have felt more tectonic, thanks to a pandemic that changed media consumption habits dramatically. But the rise of DTC companies and the effect of startup culture has bled into mainstream branding to create an altered environment in which agencies — especially media agencies — have had to adapt. 

Anush Prabhu, until last week the global chief strategy officer of Creative Futures at GroupM’s EssenceMediacom, thinks about those changes pretty much constantly, mulling what agencies need to do to keep up with branding efforts that need to deliver more impactfully on a performance level rather than just traditional brand building. 

Prabhu at the end of last week parted ways with EssenceMediacom, following an eight-year run during which he spearheaded the infusion of creative into Mediacom’s media work. Prabhu declined to say what his next destination will be.

The following interview, which has been edited for space and clarity, was held before Prabhu left EssenceMediacom. 

How has startup culture affected the way brands launch in this post-pandemic world?   

The first reason is the startup investor culture itself — the investment funds and the crowdsourcing platforms that have become the lifeblood of these new brands. And the people behind these funds and platforms expect quicker returns and signs of success with smaller initial investments. That has kind of forced an inversion of the funnel into performance media — which has also trickled up to bigger companies, who are also seeing their approach change, creating more of a performance-driven culture. 

But there’s a change in the media landscape itself. People are spending a lot more time in new media environments, like social media and gaming, where community-based efforts have been driving better performance and outcomes. That to me is the reason for the change we are seeing.

If you look at successful new brands today, they do it by being people first. They develop a great product, and then they take it to what I call the People’s Court, which is essentially social media and community driven efforts. And the community drives their success while being supported by lower-funnel advertising. In other words, they become like people’s champions. By doing so, these brands spend a lot less by relying on cultural relevance. They also have a lot less to spend. So it’s almost like the need to operate within certain finances in this environment has created an effort that people have found success in.

Any client or category that offers a good example of what you mean? 

If you look at the fitness category, for example, No Bull is one brand, Vuori is another brand that have been gaining a lot of success through people-first efforts — they rely on community and social. Even if you look at the bigger brands that are gaining success, like Crocs or Barbie, they’ve been brought back to life by connecting with this people-first culture through social media or by thinking media first. 

[Mattel’s] Barbie didn’t think about an ad. It was a content and media driven big idea that connected with this string within culture, and just pulled and tugged on it so successfully that it’s still a conversation. 

But Barbie’s been described by many as just a 114 minute ad — and Lego did it years before. 

I think the vernacular that we need to change is thinking about advertising vs. communications. Because to me, it’s not just ads that make it today. We are in an environment where ads are less accepted — half the time people spend in media are not supported by ads anymore. So we have to create new ways to connect with people, new methods that don’t rely on a formatted ad. And that to me is one of the big changes that requires the industry to think differently. It requires more integration between media and creative in very different ways than we used to talk about when they were in integrated.

How does the agency world adapt to this and and what tools do they need to help launch brands, whether they’re established companies or startups?

I think the biggest shift the industry needs, whether it’s a media agency, a creative agency or otherwise, is to change the culture. Because [agency] culture today is still very reliant on being channel first and ad first, rather than people first. Insights and strategies to create an idea and inform where it lives need to be integrated to every aspect of the brand’s approach to their market. But currently, the way it is fragmented — where we have created worlds of creative, media, social, commerce, and hundreds of different agencies that brands have these days —  make it very hard to integrate. And that, to me, is what is required for the culture moving forward. 

A lot of holding companies or even agencies within the industry are having a financial crisis, if you will, where they have to become a lot more efficient. I would use that as an opportunity to culturally integrate their services to not only drive efficiencies, but mainly to drive better results and better outcomes. Because that is the solution that is needed. Efficiency comes as a byproduct of reintegration. We are so far away right now as an industry from that cultural integration, that the work needs to begin pretty much immediately. 

As far as the tools, AI and today’s technology can really help shape the data and shape the tools towards a right sizing that can help to make communications overall more relevant and effective. The more we think about the holistic picture of the outcome, and create technology to enable that bigger picture vs. creating silo’d tools, the more effective we will be as an industry.

Color by numbers

With the U.S. presidential primaries underway, MediaRadar’s ad intelligence division Vivvix CMAG released political ad spend findings for January. It’s only going to grow from here on out. — Antoinette Siu

Some highlights:

  • Nearly $6.6 million in future buys were placed in a special election to replace former Rep. George Santos in New York.
  • Boston was the top market, attracting $4.9 million in early January, with New York in second place with $2.16 million in ad spend.
  • Among PACs, the first big pro-DeSantis group, Never Back Down, has spent some $36.9 million since April 2023 across broadcast, cable and radio. 
  • The grand total across TV and radio ads is $49.6 billion so far for the nine delegates.

Takeoff & landing

  • Dentsu expanded its AI offerings from largely internal systems to external ones with an expanded agreement with Amazon via its managed services Bedrock and SageMaker. The arrangement lets Dentsu globally deploy third-party and open-source models across various product and engineering teams, led by Dentsu Japan  
  • GroupM last week named Sharb Farjami its new North American CEO, moving over from his most recent role as NA CEO of GroupM’s Wavemaker. Farjami replaces Adam Gerhart, who temporarily added those duties to his role as global CEO of GroupM’s Mindshare following the departure of Kirk McDonald. 
  • Publicis Groupe’s full-year 2023 financial results showed an impressive 6.5% organic growth across the French holding company, led by Publicis Media, which accounted for more than 10% growth. Data unit Epsilon also recorded 10% organic growth.

Direct quote

“To be able to understand a category, to find sources of volume, to create creative that will move those audiences to then build full-funnel media that is both paid and earned and owned…That is a really comprehensive capability that every brand marketer would be looking to basically business-plan [with] next year.”

— Sam Levine Archer, Publicis Groupe’s chief solutions architect, describing the company’s CoreAI platform

Speed reading

  • Speaking of genAI, I wrote about independent CourtAvenue’s latest AI platform, Genjo, and how it’s being put to use for client Kia. 
  • Antoinette Siu covered the changes among influencer agencies, noting the recent spate of European-based shops expanding into the U.S., which remains the biggest market for the segment. 
  • Marty Swant broke the news about IBM’s partnership with the Recording Academy to bring new levels of generative AI to this year’s Grammy awards.
  • Kristina Monllos had a candid conversation with a media buyer who anonymously says that the platforms are looking for more predictability when it comes to ad spending this quarter.
  • In last week’s Media Briefing, Kayleigh Barber canvassed media buyers on their willingness and readiness to consider alternative IDs

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