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Howard Liszt: Marketing guru looks to the future

Howard Liszt
Howard Liszt

There’s never been a change in communications as dramatic and rapid as the rise of the Internet. As the marketing world adapts to this earthquake, I thought I’d solicit some thoughts from one of my favorite sources from my newspaper days.

Howard Liszt retired in 2000 as CEO of Campbell Mithun, the grande dame of Twin Cities advertising agencies and one of the nation’s largest. But he isn’t sitting on his hands. He remains active through industry associations and continues with selected client work.

Most notably, Liszt has taught advertising for the last six years as a senior fellow at the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Minnesota. Those are some lucky kids; Howard is sharp, frank and has a well-reasoned answer for every question.

Following is a transcript of our conversation, edited and condensed for continuity.

Q: You were finishing your agency career just as the digital revolution was getting under way. Did you foresee the impact it would have on the advertising business?

A:
Yes and no. We clearly saw that technology was going to play an important role and was going to lead to a new media. In 1998 we identified a company in St. Paul called the Digital Café as being the kind of intellectual power we needed to bring into the agency. And we acquired them for exactly that purpose.

I did not foresee the scope and speed at which the business would change — the speed with which digital would become prominent and the rate of growth.

I don’t think in the mid-’90s most of us could see how rapidly it would become mainstream and how the 21st century media marketplace would be redefined. But clearly we could see the opportunity.

Q: Do you think agencies are doing a good job of developing their in-house digital capabilities?

A:
No. Most agencies have not done a good job in this area. Very, very few have developed it internally. Only those born after 1995 have it inherently in their system. Others are acquiring it and others still don’t have it.

Q: For those that don’t have it, is that a problem?

A:
I believe it is. That would be like an agency 20 years ago saying, we have no expertise in television. Advertisers expect you to be able to think across media and understand how they work and how to integrate them.

Q: When you look at the young people coming into the agency world 10 or 20 years ago and compare them to today’s students, what differences do you see?

A:
For that age group, digital is not new media. They’ve grown up with it. They want to work for companies, for agencies that are active in digital media as well as traditional media.

They’re so market-savvy. They think about and experiment with media and messages in ways that we never did. They’re more curious and they’re simply more up to speed.

I’ve talked to people in their mid- to late 20s in their first job in the ad business who felt the need to make a change because the company they were working for didn’t offer them enough opportunities to improve themselves in digital media. As the agencies were late to develop great digital resources, the students felt, “I’m not preparing myself for a bigger career unless I’m with a company that has a strong digital capability.”

Q: The traditional media have been in a bloodbath recently — newspapers and magazines particularly, but also TV. What will be the position of traditional media going forward?

A:
The struggles of traditional media are a combination of changing media consumption patterns as well as a soft economy. Changing consumption patterns are hitting newspapers the hardest. The newspaper readership among youth is considerably lower than it’s been among previous generations. It’s not a medium of choice among them. That’s concerning.

I don’t have the same concerns about radio or television. I have it to a modest degree for magazines. The medium which I think is most affected is newspapers. We have a generation of people from 15 to 22 years old who don’t read newspapers.

But traditional media are still the place where we consume most of our media. Those agencies that are digital specialists will have their own limitations if they don’t understand how to integrate their work into a broader media marketplace.

It would be like turning back the clock and having one agency do your newspaper advertising, another to do your television, another for radio and a fourth for outdoor. And you’ll have all these different uncoordinated messages running across uncoordinated media, and you have a mess on your hands.

Q: As the traditional media lose critical mass, will it become harder for advertisers and marketers to know where to reach people?

A:
No question. The need is going to be for media tracking services to both have accuracy in terms of measuring audiences, but also to go beyond measuring and understand why certain behavior patterns are emerging. And to understand the interrelations among media.

What are the trends behind media consumption? What is, in fact, causing media to be consumed the way it is? That’s why you see so many young people who want to be involved. It’s very exciting.

Q: It sounds like research might be driving the bus. Is creative going to be left behind?

A:
Not at all. Research can provide inspiration for creative people. It’s information they can leverage. It’s not just about head count. But you need to understand the role of the new media, what messages play and what ones fall flat.

Q: As the digital generation enters the agency world — very ambitious and with valuable skills — is this going to cause tension with the senior people who came up in a different era?

A:
No, just the opposite. What so many agencies want is an infusion — not just of youth, but of people who are not relegated to traditional boundaries, who think about and live in a broader media marketplace. This gets exciting to agencies and advertisers who are hiring people.

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