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'When there were fewer channels, you needed to know less' Karen Blackett

Karen Blackett OBE, chairman, MediaCom UK
Karen Blackett OBE, chairman, MediaCom UK

In a new series, in association with The Trade Desk, we interview the biggest industry names who then nominate their industry heroes to interview themselves. It forms a boundary-pushing chain-reaction...

Who are the industry's biggest boundary pushers, the ones who have really made a difference? And who do they most admire?

Kicking off the relay is MediaCom UK chairman Karen Blackett – selected by the Campaign editorial team.

Underlying many of the industry’s biggest issues is one simple question: will technology become the slave of the industry or its master? Karen Blackett is in no doubt where she stands: technology will play a big role – but the fundamentals of good work stay unchanged.

The future is now
In many respects, the future has already arrived says Blackett. MediaCom’s London workforce now embraces an eclectic array of talent from econometricians and robotics experts to market analysts.

"We’re employing people with psychology degrees while those with language skills are increasingly important because we need more cross-border thinking – and because the answer to a problem may not always be an ad," Blackett explains.

She likes to compare it with Avengers Assemble, the cartoon based on Marvel Comics’ superhero team – and a great favourite of her six year old son.

"A raft of different people with lots of superhero skills".

What’s happening shows the growing complexity of media and one of the most significant changes since she started in it 24 years ago. "Communication was simpler then. And because there were fewer media channels the amount that you needed to know was less."

Wizard apprentices
Blackett sees her proudest career achievements as the experiences that taught her the most; from her first taste of running major pitches as MediaCom’s marketing director to her first involvement in activity beyond the UK as chief executive for the EMEA region. "Not only was it very scary, it is the steepest learning curve I’ve ever had."

She’s also proud of the agency’s apprenticeship programme – which aims to make MediaCom more representative of the make-up of modern Britain – and Project Blend, an app to aid working parents. "It’s not about sacrificing family life but about how flexible you can become."

But what else does the future hold for the media agency? She predicts that it will become even more collaborationist with creative agencies and high-tech specialist companies.

"Media and creative agencies have complementary skill-sets," she explains. "It’s foolish to say media agencies dominate and creative agencies follow. There will always be things one or the other of us can’t do. It’s all about sharing information to get the right content for clients."

Embrace the future
Media agencies have little alternative but to embrace the high-tech future, she argues: "We’re all in the business of growth and you’re not going to future-proof your business if you have to be dragged towards what lies ahead kicking and screaming."

In MediaCom’s case, Blackett believes that scale is a big advantage when it comes to finding the right tech companies to help with clients’ business.

"The breadth of our client base allows us to test different technologies and we very much feel that we’re leading the way," she explains.

"I like to think of us as ‘informed pioneers’. That means we look before we leap – which is important with so much technological innovation going on."

And with just one assignment from a major MediaCom client having the potential to increase the value of a high-tech specialist operation by £1 million, Blackett’s name continues to top many an online Christmas card list.

At the same time, she suggests there will be a closer relationship between agency planners and tech teams.

"It’s starting to happen now – and the closer we can get to them the better," Blackett says. She sees this coalescing as "a marriage of beautiful minds" made all the more important with virtual reality set to explode like mobile.

Audi is one MediaCom client looking at virtual reality as way of allowing would-be customers to look around their cars just as if they were in a showroom. "Just as virtual reality comes into all areas of our lives so its importance to advertisers will grow."

Bringing diversity
At the same time, she expects agencies to better reflect the growing diversity of the society in which they operate. When Blackett joined the industry, people from ethnic minorities were as common as snowflakes in August.

Today, as one of a handful of black role models in senior positions, she hopes and believes ethnic diversity will follow the greater representation of women in the industry. "While we’re seeing more ethnicity the figures still aren’t great," she says.

With technology changing the face of the industry, Blackett is keen to emphasise the importance of human insight. "We need to know a lot about everything the key to competitive advantage is in consumer insight. It always was and it always will be.

Being human
"Whether it’s an in-store poster or a leaflet through the letterbox, you’d better be sure your content is relevant and interesting to people – and that you’re able to tell a story."

It is this philosophy that defines her view of programmatic advertising, once described as the industry’s equivalent of gluten: a frequently used buzzword that few people really understand.

Sixty per cent of MediaCom’s digital advertising is now bought programmatically, fuelled by the surge in mobile and video and a growing interest from major clients such as Sky – Blackett’s biggest client – Coca-Cola and Audi.

Programmatic linear TV trading has yet to evolve fully but Blackett expects it to be coming into its own by the end of next year or the beginning of 2018.

She counsels caution. "Programmatic is a trading tool and it’s here to stay. But it’s not the Holy Grail," she warns. "You still need the people behind it to deliver the right content. Programmatic is at its most interesting when it’s fused with really talented people."

That raises the question of where such talent will come from. The industry cannot compete with the allure of technology-based companies such as Airbnb, Uber or Hailo – and the salaries they offer.

According to Blackett, though, the industry remains well placed to stimulate young and talented people for whom noughts on a paycheck are not their prime motivation.

"We mustn’t forget that advertising is part of the cultural vernacular and that our ads provide the ‘water cooler moments’ for so many people," she says.

"We have to show young people joining us that they can make a difference whether it’s in helping raise money to cure cancer or in helping remove the stigmas about mental health. I can see in my apprentices that these things often mean more to them than six- figure salaries."

The next boundary pusher… Tess Alps
Blackett picks Tess Alps, executive chairman of the TV trade body Thinkbox. And it’s easy to see parallels between the pair. Both have shown resilience, have firm opinions they are not frightened of voicing and have held their own in the macho worlds of media.

After a media career spanning almost four decades, Alps is one of commercial TV’s most influential figures, credited with invigorating Thinkbox while being a relentless evangelist for the medium.

Blackett says: "Tess is bright and passionate about what she does. She has done an incredible job building a coalition of TV companies that compete for market share, ensuring that there is no dominant partner and that they work together for the greater good."

Karen Blackett: career highlights

  • 1993 direct response planner/buyer, CIA MediaNetwork
  • 1995 senior planner, Zenith Media
  • 1995 senior planner/buyer, The Media Business Group
  • 1999 director, MediaCom and Media Business Board
  • 2003 marketing director, MediaCom
  • 2008 chief operations director, MediaCom EMEA
  • 2011 chief executive officer MediaCom UK
  • 2016 chairman, MediaCom UK

About The Trade Desk

Recently named seventh on the Deloitte Technology Fast 500, ninth in Forbes Magazine's Top 100 List of America's Most Promising Companies and #34 on the Inc. 500, The Trade Desk powers highly sophisticated buyers in advertising technology. 

Founded by pioneers of real-time bidding, The Trade Desk has become one of the fastest growing demand-side platforms in the industry offering agencies, aggregators and their advertisers leading-edge technology to manage omni-channel advertising campaigns.

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