Advanced Intelligence Show – Sergio Alvarez, Ai Media Group

Sergio Alvarez, CEO and Founder of Ai Media Group, and Kenneth Kinney, VP of Marketing and Digital Strategy, discuss looking forward to the future of digital marketing and performance on Ai Media Group’s “Advanced Intelligence” show.

Kenneth: So Sergio welcome to the first ever Advanced Intelligence show. Thank you for founding Ai Media, but talk about the road we’re looking at today. I mean obviously we’re starting this show on the back end of 2020 when everything is so very “2020” but, from where you started the company over a decade ago till today has this been one of the most trying times you’ve ever seen?

Sergio: It’s up there. I mean 2020 has been trying for everyone.

Kenneth: Well, you also started it though during 2008 when the global economic pandemic was also hitting us.

Sergio: I was just going to say it was definitely a different year. It’s familiar for us in the sense that there was a lot against the organization in the world back in ‘08 when we started. So that has certainly helped us because we’ve gone through this before, albeit not a pandemic. So there’s similarities but there are a lot of things that are specific because even during that timeframe during another global recession, people were still advertising and being able to see each other. This has changed everything with mobility, out of office, and just technology… the way it’s expanded, which allows us to be remote, but we’ll get into that.

Kenneth: Well, how do you really approach leadership differently because I think one of the things that’s really interesting this year, especially, and it’s going to be this way going forward is you’re seeing so many more employees that obviously were forced to go remote and everybody… I’ve been doing this for years, but a lot of people were learning how to go remote and get their work done. What’s also been a really important shift that I don’t think it’s talked about enough is how does someone running a company all of a sudden get forced into trusting their entire employee base. You’ve still got to keep the lights on, get the work done, service your clients, and everything else. Talk about what that’s been like for you with really having a workforce that you can engage, trust, build and keep everything moving forward.

Sergio: I mean, it first starts with having good people. That sounds easy enough when you have that trust because even when you’re in the office you have to trust that people are working. Now with that being said, it’s very easy to walk the halls and see what people are doing. So the first thing when this all happened was that the trust factor grew exponentially because everyone was in this together. Right? So that wasn’t so much the problem when it first happened. The challenge, not so much the problem, the challenge became we started to get three four months into it. Where now you start thinking about the “trust factor,” because in the beginning everyone’s just worried about staying together, healthy, and making sure that the company survives and you’re servicing your clients. So the trust factor’s high. As time goes on, what you have to get comfortable with is “are people getting too comfortable” and “are they doing what they’re supposed to?”

So there’s a lot of technology that’s come out. You’re not just talking about time tracking but how are you more efficient with people. Communication is through the roof. So as much as you communicate in person, and I still prefer that and as I think many people do, the overabundance of constant communications… the obvious Zoom meetings that we have, the GoToMeetings. You are touching base with people more than you did before. So again, it brings that trust factor back up that people are “in the know.” You see it in the quality of the work and the execution. But again when you hang up the phone, you don’t have the ability to just walk down the hall again and say “hey that thing that we just covered, is it actually being done on time?”

Kenneth: So all those things considered though we’re in a world now where not only does your leadership have to change but really agencies. We’ve seen a lot of agencies where that whole model has changed dramatically. And although we’re more on the technology side, how do you really see a lot of the agency place in the performance marketing and digital marketing world with how they go forward to succeed and what is, I hate to use this, but “the new normal?”

Sergio: Well, I mean assuming it’s the new normal and we don’t go back to the way it was, this has been changing all along, even pre-pandemic. And what I continue to see is that agencies are continuing to have to meld with technology. You have to be all enabled into one. And it’s been happening for a while, but certainly with everything that’s gone throughout the last eight months at this point in time, technology and agencies have really come together and that’s what clients are looking at. It’s heavy integration. It’s a lot more insights on behalf of the client. It’s not just about the execution. And that even involves like the branding campaigns and everything else that happens. Is it leading to that result because everything is so accountable. So long way of saying is that for agencies, it’s no longer about just different pieces. It’s how do all the pieces fit together to that end result, which is going to be an ROI which is what a client is looking for.

Kenneth: So the role of the agencies the world that we’re in has also changed but it was just a couple years ago when we were working together, I was on the client side. Think about all the marketers though that are going through the changes today. What are the things that you’re thinking about, specifically with attribution, because so much of the pandemic has forced people to look differently at their marketing budgets? There was a lot of stuff they couldn’t do before. Attribution, which was important to me and you before is now I think becoming a lot more important today, because people have a limited spend because of the economic downturn that we’ve gone through.

Sergio: Well, accountability is the core, right? That’s what attribution actually leads to. And what marketers continue to see, and pre-pandemic, is the fact that all these dollars that are being spent; social, video, mobile, content, etc.; how are they all leading to the whole? And we all knew that but one of the things that the pandemic has allowed us to really look at is to be able to say that we know that there’s more consumption, which is what means what places for marketers to spend the media buy, but that’s where that accountability with the attribution really comes into its own, allowing us as agencies and on behalf of the client to figure out what levers to pull. Because we know that, just taking the two biggest properties Google and Facebook, we know that they’re performing but it’s not good enough to say we know. We have to be very articulate through an attribution system to be able to say these are the weapons to be able to be pulled. It’s not just the brand that’s leading to the conversion of the organic site. There’s a very heavy lift. And for the marketers, agencies, clients out there that are getting it right, it means lower dollar spend or more efficiencies and/or just increased revenue because they know what levers to be able to toggle at the right time. Hence attribution.

Kenneth: Well, and something I talked about all the time especially in speeches is everybody’s media mix and their attribution models have been broken for 2020. So it’s so important, so much more important today, to look at what’s actually working now as opposed to looking at just historical data and trying to plan everything. The way we consume today is so much different than it was 12 months ago and beyond. Attribution has just gotten such a renewed focus again as a “have to”. At least people are starting to look at it hopefully the right way. What are you seeing as far as capabilities then with attribution because you mentioned, Google and Facebook, again two very high walled gardens that somewhat work together, but how do we need to start thinking about attribution a little bit differently?

Sergio: Well, a couple of things. One of them is compliance and it’s probably the one leading away with GDPR and CCPA. So that has hampered some of the efforts. It’s also helped other companies that are out there. So it’s really about being ultimately having a hashed ID, for lack of a better word. So we’re able to keep that privacy wall, but then using the attribution because this year has changed everything. This will be the one year that people will not be able to do a year-over-year comparison because it’s been such an influx of people going to online for no other reason is that we’re living our world online more so than ever. So you’re going to need those attributes to compare this year against what actually happened month-over-month, week-over-week. And without being able to pinpoint what impact or I should say what inception point led to that end point, it’s going to be very difficult for marketers to learn from this as the year goes on and in particular when we get into next year.

Kenneth: Oh absolutely. I was just going to say when looking at 2021, a lot of them can’t look at 2020 data… when we’re back out in the world and everybody’s got a vaccine and so on. They’re not really looking at 2019 data or shouldn’t be because that’s different. It’s looking at those real time triggers. Then what gets what gets you excited about the technology? A big reason I even came to the company was because you had a patented attribution technology that was amazingly able to tell me a much bigger and better story of what the customer was going through the purchase journey with all the advertising spend. But what excites you about the technology that we’re able to bring to market today?

Sergio: The pivot continues to excite me today. In particular this year is the vast amounts of data that’s being collected and how that media mix continues to change. So the ebb and flows in particular for 2020… you could compare other years, year-over-year, and be able to see seasonality and what was going and that still holds true. But so much has changed this year and by being able to bring it down to those individual users, their consumption points, and as I always say from that inception to the sale, we’re getting that much more richer data as to how to impact the campaign. And I can literally say across the board, assuming that the campaign did not have to pause because of the pandemic, they’ve just seen massive increases because of the media shifts that we’re able to take advantage of in real time.

So no longer a guessing game, even though we’ve never been about guessing, but we’ve been able to act on that data that much quicker because there’s so much data about the data. And obviously the more data that you have, the more predictive modeling that you can do in the more real time information to make that next step to action. To me, that’s the most exciting part.

Kenneth: Well another thing, one of the things I referenced that you say all the time, “at the end of the day the channels don’t matter.” But when you look at all the different data points that we’re pulling in, is there anything from a channel perspective that really excites you this year that maybe didn’t in the past? Is there anything that’s jumped out? Is TikTok now your most important channel? I can’t say that without laughing. But, I was always a big proponent of Bing for example because it was kind of the “redheaded stepchild” of the search world, but who’s going to turn down 10% incremental lift on a channel that where the people that use it, use it religiously, and the people who don’t great, but I won’t ignore it for 10% of my leads. But from a channel strategy, what kind of gets you excited about things you’re seeing differently that you maybe didn’t before?

Sergio: Well we’ve always had cross device. We live in a multi-screen universe. That’s been set for years. That becomes even more so today. With people being inside, there are so many multiple devices within an actual household that people are using. So the continuing focus on just mobile and as I said cross-device identity has been a big piece in being able to stitch that together. And it’s amazing how much the social networks have a massive impact on the end result, yet they don’t get the proper credit. And as we know, using the example of Google and Facebook, they’re both going to take credit for that sale, but in the bank the clients can only put in that one order. Being able to see that social may be doing a very heavy lift in the top of the mid funnel and then ending up in that brand term at the end of the day is gold because we know where to spend our dollars. And that’s become even more apparent because of the consumption that’s happening right now. Therefore, by knowing what those toggles are that you need to pull along the way, we’re ending up with more conversions and more efficiencies as we go throughout the client’s campaigns.

Kenneth: Well, another one to me is connected TV. Again, as something supporting that lift that I’ve been screaming about for years. You’re not touching the screen on your 65-inch laptop to convert but, it’s making you pick up your phone. And then you convert from there. So it’s really where that’s going.

Sergio: That’s correct and that has an IP address and that can be tracked and that goes up to the other devices. The biggest thing to me is the journey and it’s amazing to see the amount of touch points and consumption that it takes for somebody to convert. There’s this misconception that the end result is somebody typing in the brand name and the conversion is where it just ends. Yes, that’s where it ends. It’s all those pieces prior and then looking at lifetime value of the client. But most importantly, what is the true acquisition cost of a client because it’s not in that last converter. It’s all those pieces; the time market; the type of assets that took; and then ultimately when it converted. Taking all of those and mapping them so you can actually see and then actioning on it, that’s really the next wave of digital marketing.

Kenneth: One of the most important things though as well, and I know we’ve spoken about before, but you talked about the vast amounts of data. But with all that data, one of the most important things today is really creating insights from that data. So how are you looking at taking these vast amounts of data that we’re pulling in from so many sources and creating a story that the marketer can digest to make the kind of better choices they need to make?

Sergio: You have to be careful of analysis paralysis because there is so much data that’s out there. But one of the key components that you have to look at is you do have to get the individual data of the user… obviously maintaining compliance. But once you have that, then you can start to apply fractional attribution and then you can start to roll that up. Once you start rolling that up, now you can have better conversations with the clients and even for ourselves for optimization to be able to say what is leading to that end conversion. And by doing that, now we can start to backtrack and that’s what gives us the insights. Being able to have conversations with our clients to be able to say we had heavy spends on programmatic and social media and it looks like they didn’t convert in and of themselves. And take view through conversions aside, I’m talking about just actual hard conversions. But then we see a massive lift when it comes to the campaign, and/or when it comes to organic. That middle piece, those insights, that’s what we’re bringing over to our clients and that informs not just our media strategy but their overall media strategy, inclusive of looking at their offline media. So what are they doing with linear TV. Where are they looking with direct mail. Those are all touch points that you can start to bring in and see the impact on the home.

Kenneth: So when we look at where we’re going, 2021 is right around the corner and there are a lot of emerging trends that we talk about every year with what’s going to perform well. How are you seeing the future with what we need to really concentrate on at least near to mid-term?

Sergio: Well a lot of pent up demand. So that’s the one big thing and that’s something that the clients are looking to me. That’s something that obviously as consumers there’s a lot of consumption for it. What I continue to see is a massive amount of integration because clients have seen that it’s not just the marketing. It needs to be tied to what’s going on in their internal systems, whether it be legacy, CRM, BI tools, etc. So by 2021 it’s meeting that demand that’s pent up, but also with a very tight integration as a push/pull because we’ve heard a lot of that with the clients. And it’s not just the marketing effort. The marketing effort has to see the end result, which means the sale for the client, the booking, whatever it is that they’re looking for and that data needs to be pushed back in real time to the marketing efforts. That’s what I continue to see and will be a lot more of in 2021.

Kenneth: Fantastic. Well Sergio, as the CEO you have a standing invitation to be on any and all future episodes of the Advanced Intelligence show. So have a wonderful day.

Sergio: Thank you so much. Appreciate it.