After 11 years with Mr Smith, Ron Sneddon has cut the ribbon on his own independent media agency, Super, which has a heavy focus on digital media and branded content. And, after a small experiment involving GoPro cameras and a few Kiwi families showed him that traditional thinking around media consumption wasn't keeping up with the reality, he says it was time for a different approach.
Sneddon says his time as a current affairs journalist has "always sat at the heart of what his offering is" and has served him very well in this industry, because it's all about "trying to peel back all the layers that surround the kernel of truth". He says Mr Smith was "incredibly successful", but he worked there for five years longer than he'd spent anywhere before, so it was time to do something new and he started to think about doing long-form documentaries, sold his shares to the other partners and settled on an idea of putting GoPro cameras on a few rugby players from Northland and following their trials and tribulations (Vero and Finch did something similar with The Australian rugby team).
As part of that process, he got hold of some cameras from a mate who had a film company and he gave half a dozen to some family friends and got them to turn them on in the evening to see what they got up to at home.
"I just wanted to get hang of the technology, that was my interest for the documentary. But I got some of the footage back and it was amazing how they were relating—or not relating—to in-home media."
He got a few more cameras and gave them to a couple of a total of six families in Auckland, Wellington and Dunedin and had them film between 4pm and 10pm.
"We had people wearing them on their chest and initially everyone was sitting still and speaking very nicely, but after a few days they forgot about it. And what I discovered was that some of the things we used to think about media consumption are perhaps no longer relevant. The greatest thing was that the primary screen was not the TV. The primary screen was maybe a third or fourth screen. And there was a very personal relationship with that media. The personal relationship they had with a bit of technology was incredible."
He says it was common for a family to have up to three televisions on, "with not a soul watching with any degree of attention".
The second interesting thing, he says, was that the idea of target audiences like household shoppers with kids, or 25-54, were not really reflective of media usage.
"The media consumption of a 25 year old is vastly different to that of a 54 year old. [This study] is not qual and it’s not quant, it’s more by accident, but it’s been really helpful in talking with clients and advertisers and people in business about the changes and the way in which to capture that change."
Advertisers want certainty, he says, and traditional media measurements and currencies are really only part of the picture.
"I started my radio career in 1988 at Radio Hauraki, and I arrived on the day when we became number 1. I asked 'why are we having all this champagne?' And it was because we'd won the ratings and the way they’ve done that survey hasn’t changed in the intervening 30 odd years. They still do it with a diary ... TV ratings can only tell you that the TV’s on. They’re not telling you if anyone’s in the room, or if they’re watching the commercials. And they don’t want to. What we found in our very home-spun, number eight wire GoPro experiment is that the traditional thinking is absolutely wrong. People weren’t huddled around the TV having a lovely time. The kids virtually ran away as soon as the last gobble of dinner was gone."
And while some might find it depressing that some families ate dinner in front of the TV as they each looked at their mobile devices, that's possibly balanced out by those who went away to read books (how quaint!) after dinner was finished.
As The Research Agency's Andrew Lewis wrote recently, brand advertising on TV isn't cutting through like it used to. And Sneddon agrees, because, at the end of the evening he'd talk to the participants on Skype and ask them about the advertising, whether they remembered any of it, and if so, who it was for. And generally, they "had zero memory" of what they had seen them, what was in them or who they were for.
"They were almost invisible," he says.
There's plenty of more robust research into changing media consumption habits. And he knows there will probably be researchers and media types who say "it's not a proper sample and you can’t make decisions based on that research".
"But it’s bloody interesting information about what goes on in a family home that no-one else has got off their ass to get and that’s the point of difference."
Another part of agency's business is looking specifically at teenagers, and it has created a full-time youth research team of 30 to feed back on emerging media and how advertisers can tap into that.
“We wanted to be at the front of the wave and our team of teenagers are hardwired into tech and social media, their insights into brands and how digital advertising impacts on them adds a new dimension to what’s out there."
Obviously, a number of brands still favour the advertising approach of 'let's drill it in to everyone's brain over and over again' approach. And it won't operate in the cookie-cutter media model, where media is traded as a commodity.
"The big problem with that approach is that media isn’t a tin can, it’s a living, breathing thing, with which people have intimate relationships. Media has the power to change lives, yet it's being treated like a soap powder ... I think planning is very much a model. This is what it is, this is the audience, this is what it costs, plug it into the computer, out pops an optimised schedule that's the same as your competitor's. They look the same, and there's a lack of imagination and a lack a sensibility of real people using real media. I think in the modern age, the art of planning and thinking is not about rushing to the computer. You look around at a cafe or at the bus stop and you'll learn more."
He says the nature of the business is based around getting personal. He points to the example of a coffee roaster, where it's thinking about "how you might reach people when they’re in the frame of mind precisely for that coffee and what would change their purchasingbehaviour and what medium or mediums they would use and accept advertising as opposed to avoiding it".
"It's less about slamming tarps and reach and more about intense personal engagement with media and how to use those media in a non-invasive, complementary way. It’s really exciting."
While he says it will do traditional work and buy an ad in Coronation St if a client wants to, it will do it more intelligently. And it will also focus on branded content, with Annette Bennett, ex TVNZ & the BBC, leading that charge. Sneddon will also work with Brendan Jarvis from The Space Inbetween to serve its digital needs (and that pair are set to launch a separate business focused on content in the coming weeks).
"[Branded content] is an elegant fusion between entertainment and commercialism. You can't get the balance wrong. A good example is Stevens on Masterchef NZ. The name's on the chopping block. It’s not overly invasive and people get it, they know they need funding for these shows to be made."
So will this approach limit the types of clients it could work with?
"There are some clients, particularly global brands, who like that factory approach, and fair enough. But at Super we won’t work with clients who are absent from the process. If we don’t know a client’s business we can’t help them and we insist on a very personal relationship.”
He also believes the smart marketers want to know "what else?".
"Unless you’re changing, you’re not doing anything because the world’s changing around you ... If you've got a shopping list ad that people see three or four times that night, you might as well be singing Dixie because no-one’s paying attention ... If you need a fridge, you can go to each of those places online, or there’s an app you can use to check the price without leaving the couch and then use that to get a good deal ... At the minute, I think we’re going to get invited in to bigger brands to look at projects and particularly new products. But we’re not a media shop. They’ve got their model. That’s all good. Ours is at the other end of the spectrum. It’s really tactile."
While the agency is mostly focused on media, he says Super is a fusion of media and creative. But whatever happens, he says it will always choose the best option for the client, rather than listening to "an agency suit pushing for a TV commercial because there’s bigger margin in it for his/her agency".
"I believe every idea should be audience-driven, or, if you like, media-driven. We would never do anything before we examined the audience. We put aside our own commercial benefits to do the right thing. That’s how I roll. And that’s where I probably do stand out and the journalist in me comes to the fore."
As of day one, he says it has four clients (although he didn't want to give their names, because "the last time I did that someone pinched one"). And there are six people on the employee roster, all with very different skillsets.
"If you’ve got a 22-year old planner at a big media shop they tend to see life through 22 year old eyes. That’s not a criticism, that's a reality. And that’s why I’ve chosen people who aren’t me and who are totally different than me to be in my business. The thing I’m drawing on is sage advice with a modern lens ... People say to me, you’re really brave. You’ve stepped out of a successful business and reinvented what you were doing. But most people have six jobs in their lives. I’ve probably got a few more in me yet."