Two MediaMonks talking Canada and digital transformation

In conversation with MediaMonks founder Wesley ter Haar, the phrase “digital transformation” comes up a lot.

His Dutch-born-turned-global shop became famous as a creative production company custom-fit for the digital age. The MediaMonks vision of marketing, as articulated by ter Haar, is about creating engaging, always on, data-driven content and experiences for brands across the multitude of screens and machines that mediate today’s customer journey.

“We want to be the best creative and content partner on top of the 10 to 15 technology companies and platforms that really connect people globally,” said ter Haar.

That vision was what appealed to advertising giant/gadfly Martin Sorrell, who spent some $350 million to add MediaMonks to his new advertising network, S4 Capital, two years ago. For Sorrell, digital transformation is a first principle of S4: The world is now digital-first and brands need to become digital-first, but traditional advertising companies aren’t doing that, so S4 will do it for them.

MediaMonks officially opened in Canada in April with the appointment of Jon Webber as creative director, followed by the hiring of Joseph Barbieri as senior vice-president of growth and partnerships in May. The Message spoke with ter Haar and Barbieri this week about the move into Canada, digital transformation for brands, and the impact of the pandemic.

Joe, what drew you to MediaMonks? When I saw what S4 was doing—specifically combining data with content with technology—that was a trifecta that piqued my interest. And they clearly were an answer, not only to what clients needed, but I think to the incursion of the consultancies. They were sort of the answer to that, but with a creative first priority.

What are you telling Canadian marketers about what is a new agency brand here? We’ve got embedded partnerships with all the platforms, and when you bring that story to discussions with the marketing community, that’s a point-of-entry conversation. And I think that’s a refreshing story that marketers are getting right now, especially in this market.

[For marketers] it’s not about ‘Tell me about your big idea and your approach to traditional models.’ Rather it’s ‘I need speed to market, I need assets that scale, I need to generate content that’s done on an agile basis. And I need someone who understands platforms at an intimate level.’ That’s a powerful story to bring to clients.

Wesley, do you still find you need to convince clients that modern marketing doesn’t have to be about big, “famous” ads? There are two parts to that. One is that the greatest trick traditional agencies have played on marketers is hiding behind the principle of the big idea.

The big idea should be something that impacts culture, changes consumer perceptions and behaviour. I see very few actual big ideas in the traditional agency landscape… If I count three or four a year that I would truly define as big ideas, that’s at the high end.

And then it’s about what does a big idea do. The traditional companies have defaulted to the term storytelling. But if you think about storytelling in the traditional sense, filmmaking, it can only go to very heightened moments right? It needs to make you laugh or cry.

We [believe] there is real narrative opportunity in storytelling across the consumer journey, people are experiencing your brand with machines and screens and touch points. That can also be storytelling. It can be an emotive, deep sort of connection with a brand because you’re enjoying the experience, you’re enjoying the product and service. It just isn’t a one-hit story moment. I think that’s the big shift that we’ll see more and more marketers get to.

Am I against fame? No, I am against this idea that every piece of work, every mediocre piece of work, is allowed to be called a big idea because there’s a traditional logo on the door. I don’t agree with that model.

How has the pandemic changed what marketers need or are asking for? The biggest change we’re seeing is, if you think about digital transformation, it was stuck in the important not urgent category. So, you’d spend nine more months with clients, talking about digital transformation before you would do a thing.

And that was really because it was moulded by consultants, and consultancies make money consulting and not so much creating. What COVID did was put pressure points on the ecosystem out in the open really, really quickly. And we had clients move from months and months of conversation to literally asking what can you manage in the next four weeks.

What does digital transformation mean to you? You’re not talking about more targeted digital advertising. No, the word [targeted] itself is so aggressive… why would you target consumers? It’s not the right language. And I think it’s a reflection of what our industry has been doing badly over the last six to seven years. We’ve created some amazing engineering, but it’s used with a real lack of empathy.

It’s an exchange of value. We’re going to put interesting, useful, fun, and sometimes famous ideas in play, and we’re going to interact with our consumers in a way that’s respectful and get them to be part of our ecosystem, and hopefully create value because of that.

Because if you create great digital experiences you don’t have to worry as much about retargeting? Brands have been able to shortcut to consumer connections over the last five to six years, with very little focus on the actual consumer. You could just feed the machine and it will reach people that sort of look like the person you’re trying to reach.

With cookies going away, some of the political pressures on targeting and retargeting, Apple killing the advertising identifier, all these things together—you could put COVID into the mix as well—I think it will long term change how digital is being wielded.

That to me is interesting. We’ve talked about the last few years sometimes being the darkest timeline when it comes to digital, because we have this amazing sort of connected interactive ecosystem and then it ends up getting used for a bunch of retargeted short videos. That maybe wasn’t the highest of marks we could have reached together.

You would say MediaMonks is thinking beyond that dark time? Our industry is sort of split into two. You have traditional creative, which, any way you cut it, sort of looks like a piece of film. And then you have the media side of the business, which is ways to distribute short pieces of film.

So the industry, the machine, is optimized away from experience to an extent, because that’s how traditional agencies, either creative or media, make the most money.

I think the gap between those two things is the ecosystem, is the narrative, is the consumer journey. And what happened with COVID is a lot of people went, ‘Wait a minute. We don’t have that, it’s not where we needed to be.’ In that very short period of sort of end of March, beginning of April, I’ve seen massive change in how businesses talk about digital.

David Brown