Genesis Stories
Genesis Stories: An Interview with Mediasmith Founder Dave Smith

Dave Smith Mediasmith

David Smith

Mediasmith is an independent, award-winning digital advertising media agency, with expertise in media strategy, planning, execution and metrics, and has always been a leader in the evolving advertising media landscape. We service clients directly or partner with creative agencies to architect campaigns integrating traditional advertising, web display, video, mobile, search and social media. We have embraced the web since 1995.


If you can, please give us a little background on the genesis of Mediasmith, and did you ever imagine that it would turn into the powerhouse that it is today?

Mediasmith just celebrated it’s 26th anniversary, and we never knew that we’d have the longevity that we do, but the genesis of it came from my background and that of my partner, Karen McFee.

I’ve worked in the media business since graduating from college. I started first in New York, then in San Francisco, and came out of traditional media, having worked for a long time with Consumer Packaged Goods companies, but in the 80s increasingly worked with people in Silicon Valley and was getting involved with new media, which is really the genesis of Mediasmith which in 1989, made a lot of sense, given the upcoming convergence of Silicon Valley and the world of media. We didn’t know what the Web was then, but we knew things were changing.


Your agency represents some large, global brands, yet you don’t really have the massive headcount that other agencies do. How does your team of <100 take on the responsibility of managing all the advertising for brands such as GoToMeeting,, Salesforce, and the San Jose Sharks?

No matter how big an agency is, it’s separated into teams that are usually 5-8 people working on a piece of business from a planning standpoint, and so you don’t have to be 1000s of people to have a whole bunch of 5-8 people teams working on pieces of business. In fact, the Sharks are a smaller piece of business so those people can actually work on several pieces of business. The Citrix team for GoToMeeting, are dedicated to that business and due to the size and complexity are more than 8 people but you get the picture.

And it depends on the size of business, but it’s very easy to have with a group than less than 100, a very strong management team, as well as as many teams that are necessary to service those pieces of business that we have.


You’ve been in the media business for over 45+ years, so it’s safe to say you are an expert in the field. What’s some advice you can give to new or budding media planners, or even those that are aspiring to start an agency of their own one day?

Well those are two different things there, so lets take them one at a time. For a media planner, I’d say first of all, be a student. If you’re not interested in being a student of media, you’re probably not going to be a very good planner. Second of all, study broadly, relative to what’s going on with the marketplace. If your marketplace is the US, really have an understanding as to what’s going on society-wise, as well as media-wise, because the social and media worlds have very much collided these days.

Next, I’d say, if you want to move up through the ranks as a media planner, be willing to take things off your boss’ desk. Be willing to do the next job before you get paid for it, because those are the people who get the next job. And lastly– Show Up. If you are a media planner, or a media supervisor, or an AMD, you are depended on. Consistency is the hallmark of those people that are successful. That means that you’ve powered through, you’ve been through the headaches, and you don’t worry about punching the time clock and get things done. You’ve worked on pieces of business, and are not just working at a job. Take care of those pieces of business, and the business will take care of you.

Relative to an entrepreneur, running the company, you have to be a little crazy to want to be an entrepreneur. You’re taking on problems of your company, but you’re also taking on the problems of your clients, and all of your employees. So you’ve got to have a little bit of a willingness to do things outside of the norm in order to even survive. Also, you have to be willing to subjugate yourself and hire people who are a lot smarter than you are. The only way you can survive as an entrepreneur, is to have others; I read a quote today from Theodore Roosevelt that had to do with hiring really bright people and getting out of the way, and I believe in that sort of thing. Surround yourself with experts, and get the best advice and the best help that you can, and try to, while making sure the minutiae gets done, try to keep your eye on the big picture.


Why do you think Mediasmith has stood the test of time, and is thriving even to this day?

My partner Karen McFee and I both came up through the business in modes where we did everything as media assistants. I think Karen started out doing invoice reconciliation, I had done trafficking, and a lot of other things, and we survived by being willing to roll up our sleeves to do anything necessary.

One of my favorite Winston Churchill quotes, very quotable guy, is “It’s not enough that we do our best; sometimes we must do what is required.” I’ve always believed in that. We have had at least three serious incursions on the survival of our company, in the 26 years, one of which is the most well known, the dot -com bust, where the internet bubble burst. The financial turndown of 2007, 2008, 2009, but there was also a turndown in the early 90s. Serious challenges on the survival of the business, and if you want a business to survive you’ve got to be willing to hunker down and roll up your sleeves.


Is there a reason why you believe so many clients have went your way and want to work with Mediasmith, instead of some of the larger conglomerate holding company agencies?

I think that one of the things that we provide is a strategic overlay. A lot of folks use the term ‘Media Buyer‘ for what we do. And a lot of our competitors started of as media buyers, as in, “we can buy for you cheaper”. We started off from a strategic standpoint as planners. I like to say, “Who would you hire first, an architect, or a contractor?”

Given that we are strategic in nature, and always had a number of people here who could be Media Directors at another shop, our clients get that overview, that they might not get even at a big company. What we hear, when they come from a big company to our company, is that they saw the senior people on the new business pitch, but they were pushed down pretty far in the pecking order once business was assigned to the agency. We like to take care of our clients from a strategy standpoint, frankly that’s some of the fun of the business.

Also, service. We very much try to instill in our folks to be very service-oriented and to be in-tune with what the client needs. And also being honest- being honest with ourselves, being honest with people that call on us in the marketplace, and being honest with our clients, there’s nothing like transparency.


The advent of programmatic has disrupted the way media is bought and sold, and adoption seems to be on the rise by many major advertisers. Do you think that personal relationships will still be an important aspect in the future when negotiating media?

Personal relationships will always be a part of making the media deals. They may however not be as much a part of the final negotiation with the media, we may be able to do that more efficiently through automation. The advent of automation, which is what all programmatic is, gives us the opportunity to talk one-on-one at a higher level, and not spend all our time answering RFPs and doing all the details in the grunt work- it leaves that to automation- and permits us to have more strategic conversations with publishers. And the publishers can have more strategic conversations with us.

It was just that way for years in the magazine business. The magazine company publishers were much more strategic than the television sellers, and they were because the television sellers had to spend all their time delivering avails and doing detail work. Now that we can take that detail work out of internet advertising, I think there’s an opportunity for a much better strategic discussion between the buy side and the sell side.


What are some of the core tools your team uses to collaborate, to work with clients, to automate their processes, or to ensure campaigns run smoothly?

Anybody can take a look on our website and our tech stack, it’s something that is available for everybody to look at. I’ll just deal with a couple of them here we use: core tools at the start like comScore, TelMar (access a lot of different databases and for planning), we use tools like DSPs to help with the buying, tools like Mediamath and the TradeDesk. I’m also a believer in the DMP movement, and getting ahold of the clients data, and for them being able to better control their data and to leverage it.

The whole access to inventory through the exchanges is very important. Of course the technology has been around forever, kind of like the original internet media technology which is the ad servers. Ad servers are getting more and more sophisticated today, an example is being able to, on mobile, be able to see view-through data on in-app advertising. Those kinds of things are pretty important to us. Sophisticated tagging systems, and then systems that permit us to look at the results of the campaign whether it be direct response or branding, and permit us to do advanced visualizations like Tableau, which take data out of the spreadsheet and put it into a world where the client can maybe have a better understanding of what’s going on.

A wide variety of tools, I’ve just touched on some of them, but a wide variety of tools that we bring to the party and for any given client there might be 10 or 12 different technologies or more that we apply in a tech stack in order to make a campaign work.


Do you think that the scale and efficiency that programmatic provides, outweighs the potential concerns about lack of transparency, viewability, and premium inventory in the exchanges?

Those are all separate issues. Transparency is a function of what you build into the system. There’s no reason why we can’t have total transparency in everything we do. Those networks who tell us, that they can’t tell us everything in their network, because they have (bigsite)  inventory in there and (bigsite) doesn’t want everybody to know they are selling their inventory in that network, they don’t realize that very quickly, if not already, we will have more technology that will unmask everything. So somebody trying to cover something up, it does no good. It’s just like what I said earlier about telling the truth. Things have to be transparent in order to survive in our industry.

Issues like viewability- viewability is table stakes for doing the right kind of counting. Why would you want to count an ad that somebody didn’t see. It’s like it didn’t happen. Like the tree falling in the woods but nobody was there. So it’s really table stakes in the work that the MRC, the IAB, the 4As, and the ANA are doing in order to push this through, is long overdue and I very much applaud them. A year or two from now we will say, ‘Why was this an issue?’ because it’ll be something that will be omnipresent, and will be everywhere on every campaign.

I don’t think there’s a lack of premium inventory in the exchanges. Premium is in the eye of the beholder. Premium to you might be, to somebody else, something that they don’t want. So I think it’s for the buyer to determine what is premium. It might be in some cases, foreground activity, activity where a consumer or customer spends a lot of time with, or is highly engaged with. For another advertiser, it may be something that they transact with. For them, creating a transaction is very different from creating awareness.

I think there are a lot of different kinds of premium inventory, and it’s up to the buyers to define this, and then use the tools that are there to go out and try to find it. It’s also things they could do through personal discussions with the seller to help that too. But I don’t necessarily think that there’s a lack of premium inventory. There’s a lack of tools maybe to get you to identify the differences between premium and non-premium inventory but I think that’s going to improve.


What do you think are some of the biggest challenges independent agencies face in today’s landscape?

The perception that bigger is better. That the holding companies, because they are so big, must have the answer. When in fact, people when in media and in creative, move freely back and forth from holding companies to smaller, boutique companies. But there’s a perception again that bigger is better, that’s one.

Sometimes a lack of resources, or a lack of negotiating power, has been a challenge in the past. One of the wonderful things about programmatic is that it levels the playing field, the algorithm doesn’t know who you are. It’s like on the internet they don’t know you’re a dog. The algorithm doesn’t know who you are and anybody can win the bid. And I do believe, that’s why some of the very biggest agencies are getting out of RTB, because they realize they don’t have an edge with it. They are trying to make deals one on one, but are there still pieces of good inventory that we can buy through RTB? Absolutely. I think it is a challenge but programmatic and automation have helped us overcome that.

Another challenge is personnel. As an agency, and this is for agencies of all sizes by the way, we are constantly up against well funded start-ups who are attracting the same kinds of people that we are. So, we’re not only over time losing people to other agencies, but we lose them to technology start-ups too. That’s very much a challenge, and it gets hard to compete, and it gets more and more expensive to compete all the time.


If you had to do it all over again, is there anything that you would do differently?

How long have you got? (Haha..) I think for everyone there are things that you would do differently, there are woulda, coulda, shoulda’s; there are things that you might have set up different had I known that this would be a lifelong business rather than a business I was going to be in for 5 or 10 years. Might have planned some things differently. But in the overall, if you were to ask the question differently, do I have any regrets? No I don’t. Because we have a good solid company here, with a lot of happy employees, a solid management team, and we have a good time with what we’re doing, and we’re making a buck.


Where do you see the future of media buying going in the next 5 or 10 years?

I think it’s going to go two ways. Chance to become more strategic, by taking the detail work off of people’s desks. Getting out of Excel and getting into ETL (Extract, Transform & Load) for instance, and automating that whole process of passing data back and forth between buyer and seller and tracking systems. That has a chance to get more strategic, but also has a chance to get more efficient through automation, and I think that will be a good thing. And so that’s the day to day operation of the business.

I think from a media study standpoint, it’s going to become increasingly fascinating as everything is going to be a medium. With the internet of things coming along, there are going to be  message potentials in our everyday life that nobody ever imagined before. We used to deal with 5 media: Radio, TV, Magazine, Newspaper, Outdoor. Now we’ve got at least 11 media types, and you can argue, dozens more, although many of them can get categorized into one or the other. But we have new media types evolving all the time and the internet of things is just one example, I think it’s going to continue to gallop ahead. For those that are geeky enough that want to be in this industry, I think it’s going to be very exciting.

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