Questions for Rob Norman, Worldwide CEO of MEC Interaction

Big agencies give a lot of lip service to channel neutrality, but few have taken decisive steps to restructure their operations around that ideal.

WPP’s Mediaedge:cia, which recently consolidated all its lead generation into a single unit called MEC Interaction, is an exception. The unit is led by Rob Norman, who was previously chairman of Mediaedge:cia UK and CEO of search-focused agency Outrider Worldwide.

Norman is a quick-witted, outspoken Brit who won’t hesitate to invite you over to the MEC offices on 7th Avenue to see for yourself the changes that have happened there. He recently took out a few minutes to talk with ClickZ about the launch of MEC Interaction, his “peripatetic” role at the new unit, and his take on New York five months after moving there from London.

Q.So are you media agnostic now?

A.Clients don’t actually want channel neutrality. They want informed prejudice. I want to create a battle of channels here. It’s so much more exciting when we have people inside the agency who have an informed opinion and want to have a scrap about it.

Q.How many people are in the new unit, in the U.S. and globally?

A.One hundred forty in the U.S. Globally I’m not making any claims, because it’s a work in progress. But I’d imagine there’s as many again outside the U.S.

Q.How do the reporting relationships work, and what’s the physical office space look like now?

A.The reporting relationship is this. We have me, in a global job — which is great because you can always be somewhere else. Then you have Alan [Schanzer, former managing partner at The Digital Edge], who has reporting to him a group of practice leads. And we’ve got the wonderful Sarah Hammel [former Wunderman Media finance director], who is the COO.

We’ve just taken the second floor of 825 Seventh Avenue. The people from the different disciplines are completely intermingled. Planners with buyers, search people with DRTV people. We’re trying to increase the osmotic rate.

Q.What will be kept separate?

A.Outrider, which is the search brand, will carry on [serving] a very specific market. There are a lot of people who want to have a specialization in search. We will maintain Outrider as a separate brand as well. That’s kind of important.

Q.How do you measure campaign success differently now?

A.What we have done is rewritten our code [so it] integrates with all our systems and brings back the data in a common format, so we can compare any data next to one another.

For example, if you’re paying $5 a click to get 500 clicks on Google and you then increase the DRTV rate by X, can you reduce your bid on Google by $3 a click and still get 500 clicks? We’ve got the toolbox to look at this stuff. This business so far has been really obsessed with optimization within channels. Now we’re adding that layer of optimizing across channels.

Q.What’s your sense of how well this kind of integration project has been executed at other agencies?

A.I don’t know.

Q.How much trouble are you having finding good people?

A.We’re having a lot less problem with it than we did before we did what we’re now doing.

For sure, there’s some level of talent squeeze in the market, but right now, for the first time in a while, I can talk to Alan and his team, and they seem to be much more comfortable with the recruiting scenario than they have been in a while.

If we bump into someone who’s a super-talent, we’ll move mountains to hire them whether we’ve got an obvious slot or not.

Q.You talk very fast.

A.Chalk it up to enthusiasm… We’ve had a very good week. It’s been incredibly gratifying.

Q.Do you aim to buy in blogs?

A.Yeah, I think we’re interested in helping our clients participate in blogs and learn from them. The thing that most interests me is the whole 21st century backyard fence. As long as we think about it in those terms I think there’s a load of opportunity. [The strategy] is going to be very specifically defined by the blog, by the subject and the client.

Q.Describe a day in the life of Rob Norman.

A.I have a job that has many responsibilities. Yet, in terms of command and control, it’s extraordinarily limited. Yes there are people who report to me, but it’s too complex to imagine you’re going to do it by mandate.

It’s an extraordinarily peripatetic position.

Part of my job is holding the vision. Almost all of the rest of it is enabling other people to [achieve] it. If we all agree on what the vision is and there is a barrier, [whether] at the client or internally, I help remove that barrier. To the extent that it’s practical, I do client work.

And I’m a very happy New Yorker, having moved here in January from London.

Q.How do you like New York?

A.I love the weather. It’s like living in 12 different countries all on the same day. It’s hilarious. It doesn’t just rain; it drowns here. It doesn’t just snow; you disappear into the drift. It’s comedy weather.

And I’m a huge Mets fan. I do claim to be one of the very few English people in advertising who has an understanding of the infield fly ball rule.

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