Cairns Oneil's president on building growth in a sluggish economy

Devon MacDonald says it’s the industry’s top challenge: Amid forecasts of 1% GDP growth, ‘How can a brand improve its sales by 10%?’

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Like their partners in the Canadian news industry, the country’s media agencies are undergoing unprecedented transformation. The National Post is holding conversations with leaders of Canada’s largest agencies on the fast-changing fundamentals. This week, Devon MacDonald, president of Cairns Oneil, a Toronto-based full-service media agency based in Toronto, speaks to writer Rebecca Harris.

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How have the fundamentals of media planning and buying changed in recent years?

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What I see is a change from media delivery and planning for delivery of media to an integration of media and an integration of data within media. Providing those connection points for customers and for clients has really changed how media is planned. Clients want to be able to understand what data they can get out of it, what proof points they can get out of it, to tie it back to their business. And so, you almost have to start at the end to get to the beginning about what your final output is going to be. What are your final results going to be – from a business perspective, not a media delivery perspective. And I see that changing and increasing every year.

How is your agency winning new business these days?

The agency was founded on the insight that there’s a gap in the Canadian market for clients to choose from. On one hand, there are large-scale operating companies that service global clients and at a significant scale, but often struggle with resourcing and retention and agility in servicing clients. On the other hand are boutique agencies or smaller independents that struggle with scale and depth and technology. That void existed when the agency was founded nearly 13 years ago, and I think it still exists today. And so, what clients find appealing about our offering is we do have scale, experience and depth in media, with a very open and transparent model and access to information and access to costs, with high servicing as well.

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What big consumer shifts are on your radar?

The plethora of choice continues to be exponential for consumers. I think it’s amazing for media, it’s amazing for content, and it’s amazing for consumers… They’re not beholden to a schedule or platform. They have zero loyalty to any media brand. They simply follow their nose as to what they want to enjoy and what they want to consume. And I think that’s great for consumers. It’s a challenge for marketers to solve, it’s a challenge for media agencies to solve, and that’s why interconnection of data and the ability to plan from the end to the beginning to the outcome is so important.

For consumers, where I’m concerned is how platforms are gaining traction and using algorithms – another form of AI – to retain eyeballs through negative content or through misinformation or the content they’re using is depressing. I’m worried about that in general for consumers, for society and for myself as a consumer and for my children. I’m worried about that, for a chase of eyeballs from media publishers to retain people.

How do you solve for that?

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Our role as an agency is to advise advertisers about where they should be and where they shouldn’t be, about what platforms they want to support and what sort of behaviours they want to support. We were early last year, along with a couple of other agencies, to say we’re not going to support paid advertising on Twitter or X anymore because of the negativity and the racist, homophobic and antisemitic content that continues to this day. I’m glad we made that decision and I don’t see us going back. So, continuing to talk to clients about brand safety and educating them about how the platforms work and how their ads are going to be served, and them being comfortable with that, whether it’s in a newspaper or whether it’s in generative AI, or whether it’s in a feed… marketers really need to understand what platforms are best suited for their brand.

What are the brands that are breaking through to consumers getting right?

I would say there’s two main things. One is they’re maintaining consistency in advertising and consistency in messaging. Clients that are switching messages or creative too often can confuse consumers who maybe don’t understand the brand to begin with. And so, the brands that are doing the best job connecting with consumers are being consistent with their in-market timing and with their messaging.

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The other thing that the best brands are doing to connect to consumers is having a very diverse but interconnected plan of media. The connections available between platforms is high. There are great ways to understand attribution and to understand the consumer journey. But clients need to be prepared to choose more platforms or to choose better ways to engage digital reach to stay connected with consumers as often as possible… Brands that are only using a couple of platforms are going to struggle with maintaining engagement with customers.

What are the biggest challenges facing the industry today?

I think every marketer has to do more with less. There is a lot of pressure on growth for all of our clients. And in a time of economic uncertainty and concern about consumer spending, not many categories are growing… In fact, some are shrinking. And so, it’s very challenging for marketers to achieve growth targets and to promote new products or to invest in new products along the way. There’s a higher level of scrutiny placed on performance, which often damages brand advertising. I think a lot of clients learned about the importance of brand advertising from the pandemic and the importance of maintaining messaging. But the pressures on budgets and the pressures on supporting sales continue to challenge marketers. And so, in an economy that has forecasted 1% GDP growth, how can a brand improve its sales by 10%?

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Can you share some predictions on what’s next for the media landscape?

Fragmentation of audiences and proliferation of media partners and media companies is going to continue. Eventually, there will need to be a consolidation of connected TV/OTT partners. There are too many offerings. I don’t think it’s sustainable for those companies to continue to build and continue to expand. The cost of quality content production is only increasing and audience sizes again are being fragmented, so consolidation will eventually happen. Will it happen next year? I don’t know.

I’m fascinated that Amazon created and purchased the first Black Friday NFL football game (which aired in November). And they’re in a completely different business than their broadcast competitors. They’re in the selling-of-goods business and the selling-of-memberships business, not in the selling of media. And I think it’s a fascinating disruption that’s occurring within broadcasting, particularly within the sports category.

Read the rest of the series of conversations with leaders of Canada’s largest media agencies on where the business is going next:

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