Robert L. McNeil Jr., CEO of IMAGES ad agency (Photo: Lonnie C. Major)
Robert L. McNeil Jr. was still living in a dormitory at Georgia Tech in 1989 when he came up with the idea of a full-service advertising agency focused on the African American consumer. It was the same year MIT professor Tim Berners-Lee wrote a proposal for what would eventually become the World Wide Web. In two decades, Berners-Lee’s brainchild would change the face of advertising and other industries forever.
McNeil, president and CEO of IMAGES USA (No. 6 on the BE Advertising Agencies list with $86.5 million in billings), fully appreciates this evolution by using technology to give his firm its competitive advantage. “Years ago digital was something that a lot of people didn’t understand. Nowadays, digital is the industry that we’re in. It’s no longer just a part of it,” he asserts. “For every single plan, every single client, every single opportunity that we bring to the table, there is a direct digital focus within the opportunity.”
IMAGES has expanded this thrust as the climate has grown increasingly brutal for black-owned agencies. These firms must contend with competitive pressure from larger general market agencies that have developed in-house multicultural marketing shops, as well as potential clients’ decreased ad spending to reach African American consumers in favor of the faster growing Latino market. Despite these challenges, McNeil forges ahead with a staff that stays ahead of consumer trends and understands how to strategically deploy a mix of digital solutions for clients.
GO DIGITAL OR DIE
Why is this important? Take a look at the statistics. Americans spent 22.7% of their time online engaged in social media in June 2010, compared with 15.8% for the same activity in 2009—an increase of 43%, according to Nielsen. “Given the tumultuous last few years and given the tectonic shifts in how we communicate with people via apps and mobile, some agencies are less prepared than others to really meet some of the new needs that are cropping up,” says Greg Head, president of HEADFIRST Insights & Strategy, an Atlanta-based marketing research firm. “Bob does a tremendous job of acquiring great talent out of large agencies and different organizations.” This seems to have given IMAGES a competitive advantage, Head adds.
McNeil, one of Black Enterprise’s Top Executives in Marketing & Advertising, agrees social media is an industry-wide game changer. “Another game changer is talent. I’m really excited about some of the young people that we’ve seen that come out of college to our agency with a fresh perspective and new ideas.”
Understanding that social media is a two-way constant stream of communication is key. “When you go on to social media you no longer control the conversation with the consumer and you don’t want to,” says Ricki Fairley-Brown, partner and chief marketing officer at IMAGES. “You want to plant a seed. Social media provides this wonderful platform for a conversation that you can just throw seeds into and create the conversation, but if the consumer says they don’t like something you’ve got to deal with that, too.”
A SIX-HEADED MONSTER
With clients that include Amtrak, KFC, and Hillshire Farm, IMAGES mainly offers six services. They are:
• Advertising. This area includes media planning, buying, and placement.
• Creative services. This involves the design and implementation of advertisements for television, radio, print, and digital—all standard mediums that people use to try to reach an audience.
• Market research. This helps clients determine the potential of a particular ethnic market—its size, scope, buying power—and a particular product’s market share.
• Public relations. This includes crisis communications and media relations.
• Strategy. If a client has another ad agency and they’re happy with the creative product but not the results, IMAGES may be retained to help the client develop a marketing strategy.
• Field marketing. IMAGES provides creative concept testing services in any U.S. market to offer clients feedback on what consumers liked or disliked about how a product was marketed, as well as how competitors are positioned in the market.
In each of these areas, technology plays a vital role. “IMAGES’ overall strategy from a digital standpoint is to implement digital and social vehicles where it’s relevant for our client,” says Genifer Stewart, the Amtrak account supervisor at IMAGES. “We don’t want to force clients into the digital world if it doesn’t really make sense for their business.”
For Amtrak, IMAGES crafted a digital campaign in 2010 to increase ridership among the millennial generation that centered on a contest where students would upload a travel-themed video and compete for $3,000 in prizes. The 2011 video contest incorporates Facebook and Twitter, Stewart says. “We’re doing a lot of things that are video based, and by utilizing digital and social media to expand these campaigns, we’re strengthening our reach.”
For Hillshire Farm, IMAGES created a banner advertisement on Pandora, an Internet radio service that boasts more than 75 million listeners in the U.S. “We have an insight around our African American moms who are very, very busy. We know that with this consumer segment the role that technology plays in her life is really important,” says Kristin Kroepfl, director of marketing for Hillshire Farm. “The other piece of the puzzle, we also know that recipes are really important to her as sources for inspiration on how to cook with our smoked sausage product. So the program that we did with Pandora was all about combining these three insights together: her busy life, the role of technology, and her need for the meal suggestion.”
SHARPENING THE DIGITAL FOCUS
So the IMAGES team took those insights and added an interactive element. “The idea was you spin a recipe wheel and you’ve got different recipe options that spin out of that—from a Caribbean meal to a traditional soul food meal—that featured any one of our varieties of smoked sausage,” says Kroepfl. “Consumers just picked from those recipes and there is a link back to our website.” According to Kroepfl, the end result was a 90% rise in the number of visitors from Pandora to the “Mama’s Kitchen” section of the Hillshire website, an 85% increase in the number of visitors to the “Mama’s Kitchen” section, and a 43% rise in the amount of time visitors spent on “Mama’s Kitchen” pages.
According to Fairley-Brown, another one of Black Enterprise’s Top Executives in Marketing & Advertising, the idea is to build some sort of Internet presence for every brand IMAGES works on that’s either relevant to the commerce of the brand, like building volume, or relevant to a community-related angle. “One example is the work we did for Hillshire Farm,” she says. “IMAGES built upon the foundation of the [Hillshire Farm] website and transformed it into a welcoming portal, with content and imagery that was relevant to black women: ‘Mama’s Kitchen.’”
Looking ahead, McNeil is hoping to land new clients, particularly in the automotive and pharmaceuticals industries. “We think the auto industry is rebounding well and I think both the U.S. and the foreign automotive makers have all shown good profits and good returns. As their revenues continue to rebound, hopefully they’ll continue to increase marketing to multicultural consumers,” he says. “And with the baby boomers now at retirement age, we’re looking at this large population that is going to be more dependent on medicines and drugs to help people live life more comfortably or to fight illness and diseases.”
Regardless of the new industries IMAGES pursues, technology will remain an integrated component of the firm’s sales pitches. And as new apps, devices, or platforms emerge that connect manufacturer with consumer, McNeil looks to stay on the leading edge of those changes. “I think our industry is in a hyper-evolution. Things are changing fairly as fast as we can actually keep up with them.”