Media Buying Briefing: How the multi-tasking Court Avenue aims to reduce digital ‘friction’ for its clients

The lead image shows an illustration of three people stacking blocks that have ones and zeros on them.

This Media Buying Briefing covers the latest in agency news and media buying for Digiday+ members and is distributed over email every Monday at 10 a.m. ET. More from the series →

Did you know that the first concrete paved road in America was named Court Avenue, in Bellefontaine, Ohio? Clearly someone saw the future potential of transportation and decided to make a better, easier path for cars, trucks and motorcycles to travel. 

That moment in history inspired the name of San Diego-based Court Avenue, an independently owned agency group that specializes in digital, but also acts as a tech incubator and consultancy for clients including Kia Motors, Taylor Guitars and Epson computer products. The most recent win is U.S. Air Force’s Rapid Sustainment Office, for which Court Avenue is handling website, technical platforms and social media work, according to a company representative.

Launched only months before the COVID-19 pandemic began by two friends, co-founders Kenny Tomlin and Dan Khabie, who crossed paths for years at WPP-owned or -acquired agencies including Rockfish, Digitaria and Mirum, Court Avenue is expected to reach $13 million in total revenue in 2021 (including acquisitions), according to a source at the firm.

“When I read that the first paved road in America was Court Avenue, I thought that’s a great brand for a business that’s focused on innovation and transformation. While it didn’t shorten the physical distance between two points, paving roads shortened the practical distance, and it removed a lot of friction,” said Khabie, who described his role as the “natural hunter” for new business at the agency.

Filling out the executive triumvirate at Court Avenue is CEO Michael Stich, another WPP veteran who also brings strategic consultancy experience from time spent at McKinsey. 

Tomlin, who is Court Avenue’s inherent networker with the big Rolodex (if those even exist anymore), laid out three goals he and Khabie set when they first launched Court Avenue in the latter’s garage: “First and foremost, we wanted to build around digital transformation strategy. Most people would agree that COVID was less of a disruptor and more of an accelerant. The second was we wanted to do some acquisitions and investments with great entrepreneurs in early-stage businesses and help them grow. And the third was we just want to be a home for innovation. We want to launch products and invest in products.”

Scott Sturcke, Epson’s director of creative services, video and online marketing, said he works with Court Avenue on a project-by-project basis, but has grown that remit of online AOR work over time, from websites built to broader digital strategy work. Sturcke said he’s comfortable with Court Avenue’s “unagency-like” approach, having worked with Khabie when he was at Digitaria and Mirum. 

“We’re currently working with them on trying to understand more about the digital customer journey, as we evolve our business,” said Sturcke, who added he doesn’t consider Court Avenue a vendor, but rather part of his team. “How do we make sure we improve that digital experience for customers across the board? That can be someone buying a $12 ink cartridge on our site to someone looking to buy a $500,000 printer through a deal, that doesn’t have anything to do with e-commerce.” 

An e-commerce marketing director at a major consumer packaged goods client of Court Avenue, who declined to speak on the record, said he knows Stich well from his days at Rockfish and VMLY&R, knowing he could get “scrappy” help in three areas: Help understanding the digital commerce landscape, guidance in scorecarding the landscape (performance metrics, sales growth, etc.) and the development of an interactive AR tool that shows what the kitchen will look like in five years.   

“They move quickly and I don’t need to handhold them with daily standup meetings,” said the exec, who added that “With [their] price tag there’s quite a difference from other players. And most important to me, it isn’t a fight — I need you to make what’s in my head better but I don’t want to debate with you what’s in my head.” 

Even though Tomlin, Khabie and Stich consciously chose not take outside investment money they have acquired businesses, including most recently Modifly, a social marketing operation that specializes in GenZ-targeted platforms like TikTok and Snapchat.

Finally, as a tech incubator, Court Avenue has also developed a product called MainZero, which stores the most important emails forever across every email account a user has. The product has only been used internally, but is being readied for a public rollout in coming weeks.

“That’s what clients hire us to do,” said Khabie. “They want us to add speed, convenience, and transparency into the relationships with their clients [or] their internal systems.”

Ultimately, time will tell if upstarts like Court Avenue — as well as You & Mr. Jones, or even the recently rebranded S4 Capital (now called Media.Monks) — can peel off enough business from agency holding companies for all of them to grow. To use a naval analogy, with more and more PT boats competing with the holding company aircraft carriers, it’s only a matter of time before they start running into each other.

“There’s something happening here,” said Nick Emery, founding partner of You & Mr. Jones Media. “Everyone’s having a go at this.”

Color by numbers

Online video platform JW Player compared ad avails in digital video from July 2020 to July 2021 to see what content categories are growing or shrinking, both for the U.S. and globally. (Ad availability reflects the volume of impressions in a category that advertisers can buy using JW Player’s contextual targeting solution.)

The biggest gainer in percentage both in the U.S. and worldwide was business travel, which doubled in interest. The second-biggest growth in the U.S. was in family and relationship videos, which registered a 68% jump. The biggest loser, ironically given the previous stat, was dating, which dropped 387% in interest. Globally, the second-biggest gainer was events and attractions videos (up 62%), while the biggest drop was in North American travel (at -179%)

Takeoff & landing

  • Havas Media Group expanded its relationship with diamond producer De Beers, winning global media duties for De Beers Forever brand from GroupM’s Mindshare. That brand will be collapsed into one De Beers brand, which will be handled by Havas Media Group’s London-based luxury international unit. 
  • Publicis Groupe’s Team Lift won AOR duties for health club chain Planet Fitness, handling media buying/planning, as well as data/analytics, creative/brand partnerships and marketing strategy. 
  • Richard Hartell, a longtime media veteran of Publicis Media, was named Essence’s global chief client officer, responsible for the GroupM-owned agency’s relationship with Google. 

Direct quote

“It’s our job and responsibility to help reduce the load of ads in such a way that they don’t feel like they are stopping me from doing the thing I want to do, but then focus on innovation-led engagement as a theme or lens through which we look at how we make those work. That means that our media buying and strategy has to work in a more symbiotic relationship with creative.”

— GroupM North American CEO Kirk McDonald, on how to reach consumers in a largely ad-free environment.

Speed reading

  • To read more about Kirk McDonald and what he’s doing to transform GroupM North America, please give my feature on him a read. 
  • In his latest Future of TV Briefing, Digiday’s senior media editor Tim Peterson examines the new types of ad breaks and formats TV companies are creating to refresh marketing in video. 
  • And senior editor of research and features Max Willens looks at how companies like Apple, Firefox and Neeva are venturing deeper into the world of private and ad-free browsing

More in Media

NewFronts Briefing: Samsung, Condé Nast, Roku focus presentations on new ad formats and category-specific inventory

Day two of IAB’s NewFronts featured presentations from Samsung, Condé Nast and Roku, highlighting new partnerships, ad formats and inventory, as well as new AI capabilities.

The Athletic to raise ad prices as it paces to hit 3 million newsletter subscribers

The New York Times’ sports site The Athletic is about to hit 3 million total newsletter subscribers. It plans to raise ad prices as as a result of this nearly 20% year over year increase.

NewFronts Briefing: Google, Vizio and news publishers pitch marketers with new ad offerings and range of content categories

Day one of the 2024 IAB NewFronts featured presentations from Google and Vizio, as well as a spotlight on news publishers.