Strategic Media, Inc.’s Founder and CEO Jeff Small sat down with Big Time Small Business Podcast Host Palmer Higgins to talk about SMI’s history, its future, and lessons learned during 19 years in business. Below are some highlights from that conversation. Listen to it in its entirety here.
What We Do
Jeff: Strategic Media is a full-service audio agency. What that means is we write and produce ads for advertisers around the country. Then we do the media placement and strategy for our clients—finding radio stations, satellite radio, streaming —and then monitoring the performance of that media so that we can optimize their spend and turn a profit for them.
Ahead of the Curve
Jeff: I started this business because I loved radio. I loved what I could do with it for the clients that I was working for. And what I mean by that is I knew that I could drive profitable returns for them.
But I also can tell you now, as any good businessman or -woman would tell you, is that I learned so much from my competition and partners about how to do things better. What we’re already doing well, but what we can build on. What things that they’ve found success with that we can mirror to our core values. And so people that are out there doing exceptional work have made us better. And we watch that closely, to make sure we try to stay ahead of that curve.
Investment in Analytics
Palmer: You’ve obviously had a lot of success. Nineteen years in business. A lot has changed in the industry. This is a good time to talk about the investments in analytics that you’ve made—millions of dollars spent in developing analytics—and you’ve highlighted it as a differentiator for you guys. Can you talk about what that’s entailed, and how your analytics are better, deeper, faster, whatever the metric may be, for your customers?
Jeff: That was the first investment we made when we started the company. We bought into a system that was called Media Buy Manager… and it served its purpose as media buying manager. Over time, because we had so much data in that system, all of our buys, all the performance [results] was entwined. Millions of records in there. We realized it was something that would need to be a lot more robust as the agency grew, and we’d need to build on that. So we hired programmers to continue to build on that system, that platform… Over the last 24 months we’ve converted to Tableau. We have realized out of necessity our clients need dashboard reporting, our clients need real-time access to their media and the performance of their media, and it’s been quite a challenge. We’ve been fortunate enough to work with some smart people that have allowed the transformation of the system to happen.
Measuring Advertising Response
Jeff: Back [when I first started the company], everything was drive to a toll-free number. Consumers didn’t have access—or they had access but it wasn’t as widely used—to going online and doing their due diligence to learn about a product or a service. So if they were interested, if we did our job in writing a quality ad that would elicit response, they’d pick up the phone to find out more… There weren’t multiple channels for a consumer to respond through.
Palmer: I see. It was a simpler time.
Jeff: Much simpler. So now the attribution model is very layered. Very complex. And there are a lot of considerations… We didn’t have surveys back then. We weren’t working with them, but they’re critical now. We didn’t have Google analytics back then. We couldn’t measure lift and we weren’t even really factoring that. But now we’ve probably got about five or six layers of attribution that we need to factor in to response data.
Palmer: You have the luxury of being able to look out fairly long-term; 2025 is a long time from now. What do you see for Strategic Media?
Jeff: There’s a lot of consolidation of the radio groups. So where we used to work with station to station individually around the country, we’re working with radio groups as a whole, and they’re managing hundreds of local buys at a time.
What I expect with the current trends of that consolidation is that we’re in such a position that we have a pretty good understanding of how much media we will book year-over-year. And we can make some bigger commitments upfront that we haven’t done in the past… On the terrestrial side, I anticipate that we’re going to be purchasing a lot more based on what our clients’ needs are, year-over-year. And we can plan on that because the clients that we’re representing have been along with us for years now… On the podcast side, the growth and the opportunity there is huge.
Power of Podcasting
Palmer: In the world of podcast, I’d imagine it’s so new and the growth is so fast that it’s got to still be a little bit of the Wild West of people trying to figure out what’s what. Is it live reads, is it nascent ads, what’s the ideal length of time, what’s the ideal positioning? And obviously every podcast can be different. Are there any lessons learned or rules of thumb in the podcast space, or is it still basically anyone’s guess right now?
Jeff: I think there are a lot of rules that are coming together. I went to Podcast Upfront a couple months ago down in Philadelphia and one of the speakers put it best when he said, “We’re still in the first inning.” There’s a lot to be learned here. That’s absolutely true, but there are a lot of similarities to how people consume audio. And this is an incremental audience. We’re not losing ears on the radio. We’re gaining new listeners from a different platform. These are people that are very engaged with what they’ve downloaded and what they want to listen to. So there’s a lot of power in terms of that messaging that can be put out.
Jeff: One of the bigger benefits we have is that for every X amount of dollars that we advertise on behalf of our clients, we give $1,000 to a local charity. Going to 2025, that number sticks out because I do have a goal by 2025 to give a million dollars to local charities. That is an 11-year stretch starting in 2014. We’ve got a ways to go—we’ll be at about $300,000 through the end of this year which is really exciting—and it’s something I’m really proud about. I’ve asked people that work for me, “What are organizations that you’re interested in? How can we help support them? What is important to you?”
Giving back here locally has been something that I probably have as much pride in as anything. When things are hard, we can point to that and say, “Look, if we hit this metric, we’re going be able to do XYZ with this [charity].” It gives [us] more purpose than just saying, “Let’s go be excellent media buyers. Let’s go really refine our process with the data that we’re using.” But why are we doing that? What’s the purpose behind it, beyond providing a livelihood for the 30 people that work at Strategic Media, and driving great business for our clients? It’s a little bit more meaningful.