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Michel Sara in Global leader series by Chiara Molena

After gaining the 10-year expat badge and working for over 8 years in corporate across China, Australia and the UK, I recently realised that I have way more questions than answers.

Very conscious of what I don’t know, I decided to spend some time collecting what I believe is the most valuable currency to invest in my future and development: the exposure to the vision of forward-thinking people that are way smarter and way more experienced than me. I am finding a way to gain exposure to others’ vision to nurture mine.

Given that I need to convince these exceptionally busy leaders to share their vision with me and considering it would be a shame not to share it, I’ll frame these conversations as a series of brief interviews.

Conversation with MICHEL SARA

Michel Sara is – simply put – a truly outstanding 360-degree marketing leader with over thirty years of international experience.

After an MBA at MIT Sloan and 10 years in leadership roles at some of the top creative global agencies (of the likes of Wieden+Kennedy, TBWA and JW Thompson), in the early 2000’s Michel’s career took an interesting turn that put him at the forefront of a rising trend that was at the time (and is still today) disrupting the way we do marketing – the study and rigorous application of marketing efficiency parameters.

In 2002 Michel joined as a partner IMC – Integration Marketing & Communication – the world leader in the auditing and measurement of Marketing Effectiveness, at a time when talking about marketing investment mix was still a very new thing.

The company’s core product, the Market Contact Audit®, has screened more than 32,000 brands among 891,500 consumers across all key categories, 90 markets and 40 languages.

After 5 years at IMC, however, Michel realised that clients didn’t just benefit from using the MCA tool alone, but could also greatly benefit from an expert consultant guiding them through the implementation project from ideation through execution and tracking – so, he created ROI\marketing to fulfil this goal, working mostly with global brands, such as Jim Beam, Lucozade, Danone, Kellogg’s, Nissan, Renault, L’Oréal, Nespresso, Bel, Courvoisier, …

Michel has also been a Visiting Professor in Marketing Efficiency at top MBA school in the world – Instituto de Empresa in Madrid.

So how do I know Michel and his work?

My first encounter with Michel’s work was in the form of a ‘brutal’ marketing budget rationalisation: I was working on the malt whisky category at Beam Suntory Australia as a Brand Manager and – when the MCA studies led by Michel were implemented – my budget and the touchpoints I was allowed to spend it on were ‘axed’.

To the ones reading this article who have been brand managers at some point in their career, I won’t have to explain that taking away budget from a brand manager and telling them how to spend what’s left of it is somewhat like taking away a lolly pop from a kid, replacing it with broccoli and telling her to eat with manners.

In short, it’s the right thing to do but at the time I didn’t like doing it. The results, however, were unbelievable: the impact of the MCA studies on the budget efficiency and, therefore, on the bottom line of my brands, was unquestionable.

In the following years, I was fortunate to work with Michel a few more times and I continued to support the implementation of his MCA studies in several markets and for several brands.

When I decided to start this interviews series I knew that marketing efficiency would have been a passion topic I wanted to talk about. And there was nobody better than Michel to shed light on it.

Michel, how did you transition in your career from MD of a large advertising agency in Paris (JW Thompson) to becoming a partner in the company that pioneered a structured approach at the forefront of marketing efficiency? What was the reaction from clients when you were proposing them the first MCA studies?

During my 10-year tenure in advertising agencies I kept noticing a growing frustration amongst top executive that wanted to gain more clarity and a better understanding of the optimal allocation of their budget. It was difficult to decide how much budget to allocate behind specific activities and what mix would be more effective- so to join a company that was developing a systematic approach to measuring efficiency and effectiveness (the MCA) seemed like a natural and rather exciting evolution of my career. The founder at Integration-IMC (the company that patented MCA) was a friend and he was onboarding senior partners at that time. So, in 2002, it was relevant to my experience to make this shift because MCA is not only about the analysis of marketing efficiency data: individual brand identities and stories also influence greatly the choice of investment mix.

When we started proposing the MCA, even the concept of ‘touchpoints’ was new. Customers however were very reactive to our proposition and it was clear that the demand for marketing efficiency metrics and measurements was destined to grow.

Let’s take a step back for readers who might not have a traditional or ‘blue-chip’ marketing background: could you help to define a touchpoint?

Touchpoints are all the types of activities that your marketing budget could be allocated against to engage with consumers. Examples of touchpoints span from social media ads to out of home advertising, consumer PR or promotion at point of sale. Brand owners sometimes underestimate the number of touchpoints or communication channels that they use, let alone the real amount of money they dedicate to each of these activities.

Could you explain more specifically what MCA studies are, what they include and how you work with your clients to help them with the implementation process?

MCA is a quantitative consumer research that is specific to one category in one country. The touchpoints used by the whole category within this context are analysed and through a specific methodology, they are classified and ranked in order from most to least influential. This constitutes that backbone of our research.

Once we have a picture of how the category works, we then analyse brand performances and compare this with the investment behind each activated touchpoint to determine cost efficiencies. Measuring the brand performance against this framework can uncover opportunities for budget optimisation and, very often, show that brands are spreading their budget ‘too thin’. Once the diagnosis is set and shared with stakeholders, we start building the Integrated Communication Plan through a zero-base budget approach.

Zero-base budgeting has become extremely popular in recent years, with companies of the likes of Coca Cola, Procter & Gamble, Beam Suntory and many others adopting this approach.

The marketing budget is built bottom-up. Instead of looking at what the brand spent in the previous year and increasing a few percentage points “here and there”, this approach allows companies to start from a blank sheet and keep only those activities that are the same time relevant in their category and meaningful for their communication / positioning platform.

Ok, now that we have a clear understanding of what MCA and zero base budgeting are, can you tell us more about how you work with your clients? What is the process you go through with them?

Scope the category.

Our first step is to define a list of touchpoints activated by the category our client is competing in. This list of touchpoints is naturally specific to the category (you don’t activate cars like spirits) and covers a wide spectrum of activities – media, digital, sponsoring, PR, WOM, CRM, point of sale, etc. We usually end up with a list of around 35-36 touchpoints in a category. They need to represent 100% of the ‘spend options’.

The second step is defining our brand’s competitive set – usually singling out 15-16 key brand competitors.

Get the metrics and provide diagnostic.

Now that we know our category and the competitive environment, we conduct the quantitative study and measure what we call the brand experience, i.e. how consumers have interacted with the competing brands across all the pre-defined list of touchpoints. With the knowledge of their investment, we come up with our diagnostic. As explained before, we often find that brands are over-investing in less influential touchpoints and/or that they are investing too little on too many touchpoints, below what we call ‘visibility threshold’ – which means that they don’t cut through the “noise level” of the category.

Implement strategy.

While drafting our strategy, the starting point is always ‘the content’, we need to align on what it is the brand story. Once we know what we want to say, then we choose the right channels to optimise the touchpoint mix, with the benefit of the learnings gathered in the diagnostic phase. We first choose the hero touch points, those that will be the anchor of the brand for the next marketing cycle. Only then we pick the supporting touchpoints, with clear linkages between all the selected touchpoints so that they are not just piled one of top of the other but intentionally synergetic. While doing so, we make sure we cover key stages of the consumer journey, remembering that this journey is never linear as often portrayed.

When we have finished our selection, we look back at the activation programme before we started and agree where to DIVEST. It’s generally a hard moment for the stakeholders: it’s easier to choose what to keep, harder to agree on what to stop.

Check the outcome.

We typically go back after one or two years to measure the outcome of the new integrated approach through a second wave of MCA measurements, which has the double benefit of checking how the competition has performed in the interval.

Can you give me an example of a project that you’ve been running and that had a very strong outcome?

We worked for a brand in the spirits industry that was activating 23 touchpoints – albeit its budget level was rather modest. It was immediately clear that a large number of touchpoints were not even reaching the visibility threshold of the category. We ended up selecting only 10 touch points, divested 14 and added 1. The process was definitely a wake-up call for stakeholders to implement a fewer, better, stronger approach. Although the number of divested touchpoints was huge, senior management and stakeholders quickly realised that they could have a much better plan while spreading the same budget on a much tighter selection of touchpoints.

The MCA process is not a painful: marketers find it challenging, but very refreshing and exciting.

Are MCA studies something that only big corporate brands should consider?

Big corporations are the most common users. But I would argue that SMEs with limited budgets should be even more conscious of how their scarce dollars are being used and ruthless on not spreading too thin.

Chiara Molena