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Meet the Media Minds: Liam Mullins, managing partner the7stars

Liam Mullins, managing partner the7stars, discusses the future of media buying

Ad land has a penchant for celebrating creative, often forgotten are those planning, buying and executing the campaigns. Meet the Media Minds sees The Drum address that imbalance and dig into the models and strategy of the world’s biggest media agencies.

This week, we grill Liam Mullins, managing partner of the7stars, about the biggest threats to the industry, staying ahead of the pack and what’s next for the sector.

What would be your first lesson for a newbie buyer?

Why are you here? It might sound like an obvious question but the available career paths in a media planning and buying agency have never been more diverse – it’s changed massively since I started out.

Planning and strategy, tech and data, commercial and trading, a wealth of digital roles or working on big, impactful partnerships that play with popular culture. The opportunity is huge – learn fast and then focus on what flicks your switch.

What are the biggest challenges facing the business?

The biggest challenge facing the7stars is the same one that’s facing every organisation in the country. How do we continue to recruit and retain the very best people at every level? It’s never been more important for the success of both our business, but also that of our clients’ businesses.

In order to do that, building a diverse and inclusive company is absolutely critical. Diversity, equality, and inclusion are now, thankfully, table stakes, but organisations must go further than that and create a culture where people feel truly welcome, valued, and free to be who they want to be.

As we emerge from lockdown, creating a unique culture is going to be even more important (and challenging) than ever, especially in a world where people expect unprecedented flexibility. Ensuring we keep our culture-first, values-driven approach at the heart of what we do is what keeps me up at night.

What platform or channel excites you the most (and why)?

At the7stars we try not to think about the channel first. We know the communities we are trying to reach don’t think in terms of channels, in fact most consumers don’t even like advertising.

Instead, we work with our strategic platform Gravity Planning to understand consumer states and how a blend of messages surfaced at the right time, when they are in the optimum state of mind, might create the biggest impact. What excites me the most is the media planning craft of truly understanding audiences and deploying the right comms mix in that moment to deliver the right client results.

What’s the most clever or innovative use of media you can think of?

I’m going with a the7stars example, obviously! Perhaps less obvious though, is the fact that I am going with the humble meme.

That culturally relevant, humorous image which sums up a situation or a relevant mood. We used the meme to great effect when launching Stormzy’s Vossi Bop into the UK charts, with the sole objective of getting it to number 1 in the charts.

We understood that Stormzy fans spend tonnes of time online consuming content. The content they didn’t like consuming, however? Online advertising. We discovered that 83% of the Stormzy audience sent and shared memes at least weekly. The problem was that memes are essentially silent so perhaps not the best format for launching a music single. So, we created content that added Stormzy Vossi Bop lyrics to relevant memes to get our audience sharing and discovering the track.

The assets were so good that Stormzy ended up sharing them himself. We beat Taylor Swift to the coveted #1 spot, with a whopping 45% more sales in week one. With 12.7m listens on streaming services, Vossi Bop received the most streams in one week for any rapper... ever.

How is your agency evolving and how’s that differentiated from the competition?

Effective modern communication demands that creative, media, and technology work seamlessly together to deliver a holistic narrative to consumers. This change has led to the transformation of the CMO role. Quite often wearing multiple hats across CTO/CDO/CEO. There is a real urgency to unify and make good on the promise of joined up communications that frees great ideas and connects consumers.

At the7stars we are responding to these changes and the expanded remit of the modern day CMO. As we face a rapidly changing and unpredictable world, advertisers have never needed their media agency partner to be more agile, innovative and expert in media delivery. Our independence benefits our clients because we are free from corporate structures and processes. It means we are free to create what we need and build the products and teams that can truly accelerate business growth for our clients.

That’s because we are unlike other agencies. That difference started the day we launched in 2005. What has kept us growing and moving forward throughout that time has been our philosophy of freedom. Freedom is the ethos that underpins how we work, how we think and how we treat our people.

From the freedom we give our employees to grow, and think laterally, to the way we select partners and plan/buy media. We are unshackled by big network deals, processes, and bureaucracy. From the beginning, we have always challenged the things we don’t think are right for clients.

We were the first agency to lead the call for greater transparency and the first to formally adopt ISBA’s framework agency contract to drive that transparency for advertisers in an increasingly complex ad market.

The brand relationship: how’s the power dynamic, pay and the payment changing?

Unquestionably, in the last decade, media agencies have commanded greater attention from brands and marketers as they have broadened their remit across digital and analytics, technology and data, as well as content and partnerships.

However, I believe that the media and the message have never been closer, and the stronger the relationship between a client and agency team, the better the results - every time.

Moving forward, agencies can only build trust through transparency. The traditional (network agency) model is increasingly under pressure. Hidden rebates and kickbacks are now expected to be disclosed by most clued-up clients and some agencies have struggled to make the pivot without rebates bolstering their profit margins.

Is tech making your job easier – or complicating matters?

While partners, platforms and processes sell a silver bullet, technology without simplification definitely complicates matters. Our role is to get multiple components to knit together and bring simplicity to our clients’ lives, ensuring that technology is a help, and not a hindrance.

Being technology-neutral, and not encumbered with an unwieldy network platform, trade desk or tools, means that we are able to curate the best bespoke build for each client within our existing operating system. When you get technology right, it has the power to liberate people so that they can focus on what they do best - to think, grow and drive positive outcomes.

Where’s the money going? What’s the shift over the years?

Overall, undoubtedly, we are seeing the money continuing to move towards digital platforms and partners, a trend that has been further accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic. There is, however, a great deal of variation by category. Many of the large digital disruptors and DTC brands truly get the role that the traditional above the line media can deliver.

Our client Gousto, the leading online recipe box brand, really understands how a combination of broadcast messaging, alongside content-rich partnerships, can work effectively alongside some of what are normally labelled “bottom of the funnel” channels.

Additionally, with the imminent death of the cookie, albeit postponed, the once labelled ‘legacy channels’ such as TV and print are beginning to create customer IDs that work across their entire infrastructure. This presents a one-off opportunity to reverse the trend of the digital players eating everyone's lunch. Ultimately, we empower our planners and unshackle them from inward-facing agency deals to ensure that they are free to deliver plans that can best deliver to the client’s objectives.

Make a big prediction about the sector.

I hope that advertising becomes a shining light for what a truly diverse and equitable future-facing industry should be. As I make this prediction with both my the7stars and MEFA (Media for All) hats on, in my heart I don’t believe that it will happen, at least not at the pace that it needs to.

From a racial equality standpoint, advertising seriously lags behind many others in both the number of people of colour joining the industry, representation amongst the senior leadership teams and also how people from Black, Asian and other ethnic minorities rise within their roles. It’s also the same across other areas of gender and neurodiversity to name but a few areas where advertising needs to improve.

This is still the case despite concrete evidence from almost all of the leading management consultancies that shows that diverse businesses deliver tangible commercial and organisational benefits - they grow faster, do better work and ultimately are proven to be more profitable.

So, my prediction (or maybe real hope) is that the industry finally gets its act together and properly represents the vibrant and diverse communities it is meant to be marketing to.

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