Sherrill and I exchanged emails for this interview and it has been slightly condensed and edited.
Marc Goldberg: Your career has been across many different spaces, can you tell us about your journey
Sherrill Mane : Actually the journey began when I was in graduate school and full of exuberance and a desire to do good. One of the aspirations I had then was to become a constitutional lawyer specializing in first amendment law but that quickly dissipated when I realized two things: 1. I would have to actually go to law school and endure classes like torts, not the cakes, and 2. even if I survived that, I would not be able to jump straight from law school to first amendment law.
So I forged on with the social psychology of mass media, believing that media could inform, entertain and serve two noble goals. One was creating shared social and cultural experiences. The other was broadening democracy. Well, that was then.
Ultimately I had to make a living. Thus, began the career journey with jobs at companies like Nielsen and CNN which was part of Turner Broadcasting when I started there. That was followed by The IAB. There were other brief detours along the road but the more compelling memories and learnings come from the places I mentioned, where I worked the longest.
The different skills and experiences in those three longer tenured jobs paved the way for the consulting and advisory work at The 614 Group I have been doing for the last three plus years.
During the time I’ve been with The 614 Group, we’ve been thinking about and then developing a B2B research and content business unit that will be launching very soon.
MG: So at CNN, you were there at the beginning of digital, before it was considered “fake news” (I kid – I kid). What were some of the challenges in the early years? What is one thing that if you could go back with what you know. Change.
SM The gift of 20/20 hindsight really is special, isn’t it? By far, the job that was both the most hard work and the most fun of my career was the 14 years with CNN Sales. That said, one thing that I definitely would change would be the now infamous merger with AOL. But, that’s old news and smarter people than I have dissected it.
I recall something specific to CNN that occurred in the early days of the merger. It foreshadowed issues that are still with us today. If I knew then what I know now, I might have made more noise about it than I did.
Back then those who came from the digital only part of the company wanted to put countless intercept brand impact studies on the site to prove that online advertising works. The stewards of the CNN brand, executives who really believed in a responsibility not to interrupt news users during breaking news and who believed in the value of Edward R Murrow type of journalism, wanted to limit these studies or simply not allow them on the site.
Thus two imperatives that should have been reconciled emerged: make money through proving that the advertising works using measurement regardless of the consumer experience versus the pre-eminence of the breaking news brand and news as information. There was also concern about what could happen to the TV brand and business, the core revenue, if the digital side was “mishandled”.
MG: So you had to fight for the preservation of the brand experience and the value of news while helping to build the new business.
SM: Yes. I had to come up with guardrails to enable some studies and still preserve the consumer news experience. Some of the parameters were: cost of entry for a buy to be eligible for a study; the number of studies permitted on the site at once; limited home page presence; prior notice to clients that in the event of breaking news, studies will be removed to ensure best UX. This was accepted by my management and became SOP although I did have recurring debates with individual salespeople.
MG: You mentioned that early on there were two imperatives that should have been reconciled. Can you expand on that and on how it manifests today?
SM: Sure. I believe that with 20/20 hindsight, it is easy to see how we got to where we are today. We already had friction that remains with us today, for example: When does the centrality of the consumer and the brand supersede the business of data collection? When is too much too much? Is it more important to figure out which metrics really matter or should we just push out more metrics because we can?
Many of today’s woes started showing up early on and we were all too busy trying to monetize to pay attention. Thus, today, we contend with backlash on the privacy regulation front, with data use impropriety, with lack of sufficient investment in understanding the consumer, and with the struggle to define brand safety in an ever changing society and world.
And, this of course does not even go to the challenges to profitability of newsgathering and publishing in a world with way too many sources of information purporting to be news. The news and fake news debacle we’re living through, although larger than any individual business or business segment, is also relevant to today’s data and ID management debate. Here is the fundamental question: what is an accepted source of truth? Without that central baseline, anything can be called truth: fake news, Q Anon, really bad data, etc., etc., etc. We don’t look under the hood enough at very much and when there is so much to look at, it is harder and harder to do.
MG: Obviously I have a lot of things that I would change, like buy Google stock, Amazon stock…Can you tell me more about the start and the problems that you saw then and still see now.
SM: The rush to prove that online advertising works and that it can overtake the then TV juggernaut begat what I believe are at best, unvetted and at worst, false claims about measurement and metrics and media accountability.
It took years to re-educate the market on the improbability of the last click being the ONE metric that matters. Basically when the last click became a thing it was because the technology made it possible to track and not necessarily because it reflected how the consumer journey actually intersects or maybe even starts with ads. Last click thinking ignored things like the idea that advertising functions to create desire, a relationship to a brand, reinforce that relationship,etc. The last click both oversimplified and gave rise to inequities in proving value for brand advertising online.
Similarly, because server technology and the algorithms were smarter than the TV advertising delivery technology, algorithms rather than exposure to ads drove average digital CPMs… and for brand advertising that was down. The ongoing, to this day, demand for apples to apples impression and reach and frequency measurement across platforms has roots in the differing ad delivery technologies. And of course in the clash of business cultures and practices.
MG: You mentioned ad exposures and delivery technology, can you elaborate on that? I’m assuming that somewhere in this part of the discussion viewability will come in. I remember sending a note to Randall Rothenberg (CEO of IAB) and he routed me to you in 2012 when I was raising my hand about ad fraud, this was when you were knee deep thinking about this stuff.
SM: I remember, we had a great lunch discussion at Houston’s on Park Avenue, right near The IAB office. I was waiting for a question that would bring up this “origin story”. While fraud is another story for another day, I do want to say one thing. You definitely were the first person I encountered while at the IAB who both documented and raised his hand about fraud.
MG: Yes, I raised my hand, my fist , and my voice, I have been loud about it for a long time. Now I get to fight the fight at MMI. Since I want to keep this interview under 50 pages and not think about dining with someone in NY (Man I miss it) . Let’s go back to viewability and measurement! How did viewability come about?
SM: Unfortunately for me or perhaps fortunately, I am not sure, during my tenure at the IAB, I was asked to figure out a way to fix measurement so that there could be cross platform, as in cross media, measurement. That led to architecting what became known as Making Measurement Make Sense. It was a major undertaking with The ANA and The 4A’s and Bain Consulting and for the first year, MediaLink as well.
The first deliverable was viewability. With the leadership of the MRC and countless ad ops and digital measurement exec’s across the industry, a standard for the measurement of viewability was developed. That standard could be used to audit viewability measurement for the purposes of accreditation. Viewability did become currency but not until after implementation issues and marketplace posturing. It was a lengthy and sometimes even tortuous process.
The intent was to create a currency for digital advertising that permitted the measurement of an ad impression that had the opportunity to be seen. And the marketers and the agencies were adamant that an impression somehow be reflective of an ad exposure.
By having a viewable impression in place, the idea was to create an apples-to-apples core unit of exposure to ads across all media. This would then enable counting unique exposures across media platforms, monitoring frequency, and ultimately improving engagement and impact measurement.
From the get-go, the endless debate over Reach and Frequency was marred by different understandings of what R and F really signify. They are a counting mechanism. Back to the idea of a baseline, an agreed upon truth, RF helps everyone count the apples in the basket; RF do not assess the taste or quality of the apples in the basket. Taste and quality of apples determinations require ROI, attribution and other impact analyses.
MG: Where do you think we are today? I am referring to the industry as a whole when I say we.
SM: I am continually astounded that despite all the progress on measurement and all the smart, well intentioned people doing sooooo much hard work, there still is a quite a way to go for true cross platform measurement. Metrics and measurement impact campaign workflow in ways that measurement experts typically do not focus on. If anything, the pandemic accelerated the need to have common metrics and interoperability.
Today, societal, cultural and consumer dynamics are exceptionally fluid and marketers need to move super fast yet neither the inputs nor the tools are there. There is a really good discussion of this in a 4A’s white paper, Moving to Simplicity and High Value: A Call to Action for Workflow Automation and People Augmentation published in October 2020 in partnership with The 614 Group. As a matter of fact, the whitepaper was one of two pieces published in October 2020 that was created by The 4A’s Future of Programmatic and Automation Think Tank, a seriously sharp group of people who focused on how the marketplace can accelerate progress to a better future. The second piece of IP that the think tank produced was focused on identity management, Identity Management: Challenges and Solutions in a Post-Cookie World.
The think tank had its first and last in-person meeting when it kicked off in early March 2020 right before NY shutdown. Through all the dislocation, the group kept going and produced two timely and important pieces of IP.
Working with the think tank illustrated to me how far we’ve come in awareness of the issues the industry is contending with and how much focus some issues are getting within many individual companies, both agencies and marketers. This is creating a sense of urgency which I think is healthy and necessary.
I am glad to see that industry groups are still making progress on the march toward true cross media platform measurement.
Another piece of good news is that there is finally a conscience about privacy that seems authentic and not driven solely by fear of regulation. There is a desire to explain how data are used and to create easily understandable consent agreements for consumers. Not so long ago, the consumer was not even a word used in the conversation so this represents progress.
Ethical use of data and data quality are pivotal to the industry moving forward. I think there is still a lot of work to be done in these areas
MG: What are you doing today at the 614 Group?
SM: Following a successful ramp up, we are almost ready to formally launch a new B2B research and content business unit that we are calling Fathom. Lately I have been focused on Fathom and developing its first product, Snapshot, a monthly omnibus survey of executives from brands, agencies, ad tech and publishing. Snapshot is a cost effective way to tap into opinions and perspectives on a wealth of marketing and advertising issues across the ecosystem.
The 614Group has a community of executives who attend the Brand Safety Summits, and many who are and have been our clients on a variety of consulting engagements and they really are a community of thought leaders. We intend to tap into their wisdom as we build Fathom.
Fathom will, of course, also house a custom research business that will allow clients to examine a wide variety of their own specific issues and work with us to determine the content deliverables they need using the research findings. Let’s consider for a moment what that content deliverable idea really is. Depending on the client needs, it can be creation of presentations for internal audiences or for conferences, briefings for executives on strategic implications of the research findings, development and writing of go-to-market strategy, authoring blog posts, creating parts of investor relations presentations, etc., etc.
Throughout my career travels, it has become apparent that the talent and costs of bringing research centric approaches into thought leadership creation and growth management can be very challenging. The rigor, sometimes the complexity of getting the research done often generates a big research report but not necessarily a digestible set of conclusions, recommendations or strategic implications.
It is our intent for the custom research side of Fathom to create client content using the research findings and for Snapshot to provide clients with actionable information. We are very proud to be resourcing some thought leadership reports that we will be making publicly available free of charge through Fathom.
MG :You have an 11 year old son. Is he going to school in person or remote learning?
SM: All remote. In my opinion, all the children are all suffering.
I think that the inconveniences some parents are dealing with: the juggling, the lack of boundaries between work and home life, etc., are nothing compared to what children today are losing in learning and in socialization.
I worry about how to raise a kind, well educated, happy child who can become a productive adult – after all, without children who are prepared to take the reins in the future and make our economy and society function, who will contribute to my retirement fund? Seriously, what is happening to our children in this pandemic is one of my biggest worries.
MG: How has it been for you balancing work with your son home.
SM: Having him home is not the biggest issue for me. What looms larger is that he is in a transition school year, 6th grade, first year of middle school and it is all remote. Screens are a huge distraction. So, throughout the day, I peek in and out of his room to make sure that the screen he is focused on is the classroom. And, teaching him how to keep his schedule and to-do lists is an effort. Until the pandemic, I had forgotten about that element of being in school, the executive functions that school helps you develop as a child.
I am fortunate to have work, a home and food on the table and no COVID 19 casualties in my family so when the balancing act gets difficult, I remember just how lucky I am.
MG: I have been asking people where they would like to go first if all things were “better”. Where would your son want to take mommy?
SM: The list is long. The top three mentions are:
- Go back to Hawaii to swim with the dolphins again.
- Go back to Israel to do more comparison tastings of shakshouka and hummus and hang out at the beach in Tel Aviv.
- Spend lots of time at the parks in Orlando.
The top 3 are premised on the notion that this summer and not a minute later, he can take mommy to sleepaway camp to drop him off for the season.