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Agency reps appearing at Centro’s Local Media Publisher Summit in Chicago said they’re ready to work with local media publishers, but they’re looking for non-cookie-cutter approaches. They emphasized that they’re overwhelmed by manpower shortages and that it is generally easier to work with portals, although it is not always “better” because portals don’t have the best local content.

The summit was a coming-of-age party for Centro, a six-year-old company dedicated to building an “agnostic” local network from all the disparate parts of the local ecosphere, including — based on the 220-plus attendees — newspapers, TV stations, community papers and alternative weeklies. Centro has recently been mentioned as a takeover target for major media companies such as Tribune and Gannett.

Comparing Centro’s approach with the portals’, which he positions as a Trojan horse option for local media firms, Centro founder Shawn Riegsecker emphasized: “It is your data, your consumer set. You do with it whatever you want to do with it.” But he also warned that they need the embrace of a network. The largest local site is 10th to 12th in its own marketplace because of aggregations and networks, he said. “We need to get it to second or third.”

The agency reps on the podium said they’re willing to do their part, and that local was increasingly demanded by their national clients. “Whirlpool wants to go market by market,” said Digitas VP Dave Marsey.

GM is also going for local in a big way. “We have 700 local dealer groups, and they’re dying to spend it locally,” noted GM Plan Works Media Director Jeff Hughes. “At the end of the day, we’re looking for local eyeballs. For GM, (local media is) just a couple of points,” in terms of overall spending. “But we’re talking about a $1 billion account.”

Critical Mass VP Scott Shamberg told the local publishers: “You guys are now in a good spot. You are the best aggregators of local content. We have money flowing away from the portals to more niche sites.”

But Shamberg also warned that at the local level, “everything is driven by ROI. That means the cost of getting someone into the store.” Local publishers are way behind on that front. Traditionally, Dell “would run a circular in every newspaper and get just a tiny amount of learning. But digital is all about accountability, and the best sites let them constantly optimize for their best results. “On, we can switch three promotions in an hour,” he said.

For LL Bean, it is all about “cost per order,” said Mediaedge:cia Interaction Senior Partner Matt Straznitskas. “It is kind of heartless.” But Straznitskas said he wants to push to get more local sites involved. To do so, however, means breaking an addiction to the portals. Many media planners became dependent on using the portals “six or seven years ago, when they showered us with attention,” he noted. Most agencies are short of staffers, and the portals come in with a complete media plan. We have to get away from that (dependence),” he said.

Digitas’ Dave Marsey seconds the emotion. “Yahoo! is great in terms of bodies. But they are cookie cutter. You have to bring something new to the table.” But local sites have not yet proved to be a panacea. Marsey complains that local reps are “always supporting the mother ship” instead of going in new directions.

GSD&M Director Dave Russell says local media reps “can’t have a good discussion” compared with the portals, and are often under-prepared and unsophisticated about technology. In fact, while the portals will craft a media plan for the overworked agencies, “we’re handling local media all on our own.” DoubleClick’s acquisition by Google is going to add to the pressure they face. “Measurement is key, especially for local. That’s why we need Centro.”

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