Delivery Sessions Interview with Jess Kennedy, Director of Media at ZLR Ignition

The world of media is changing by the minute, but ZLR Ignition is determined to stay one step ahead — and they’ve certainly helped their clients do the same. That’s because the award-winning brand agency knows the importance of putting the audience at the forefront — and using data to drive smarter decision-making. But as we head into a cookie-less future, how does it plan to keep its targeting precise and effective?

Assemble sat down with ZLR Director of Media, Jess Kennedy, to get the answers. She’s sharing how their agency helps ignite brands through deeper connections and multiple touchpoints with their audiences, as well as how they’ve evolved with the latest new trends in the media world.

Tell us about your background in Media, and what led you to your role at ZLR Ignition?

My very first job out of college was actually at ZLR, working as an office manager and media assistant, so I truly learned media from the ground up. ZLR gives everyone the opportunity to choose their own adventure and get involved in whatever projects we’d want in support of our individual careers, which was awesome for me starting so young in the industry.

I remember at one point, my boss came up to me and asked if I knew anything about these ads that follow you (retargeting ads), which were so new at the time, so I called Google! Growing up with digital media, that’s really how I learned a lot of things over the years.

I eventually grew eager to learn more about the B2B space, so considered a new experience. I made a switch to another ad agency as Media Supervisor, which threw me into the trade show and business world. It was a totally different type of planning for me — more print heavy and digital direct with the emergence of programmatic advertising and paid search also shaping the space.

In 2016, my previous Media Director reached out, asking me to lead digital strategy at ZLR, which was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. I came back and took on our entire strategy as Digital Media Strategy Lead, which eventually evolved to the role I have today as Director of Media. But I am grateful for my time away because my experiences allowed me to really come back with a more well-rounded media skill set.

How does ZLR Ignition approach their paid media strategies with clients?

We put the audience first. Whether it’s building a persona or understanding their media habits; we do our research. We map out an entire day in their life to truly understand who they are and how they consume their information. Our goal isn’t to just reach them through one tactic, but with multiple touch points throughout their routines. Are they playing Pandora in the background while they work? Are they checking Apple News on their commute? Do they frequent the local pizza shop and read the flyers on their pizza boxes?

Smart digital is not just throwing media out there and hoping it sticks. It’s using all the great targeting elements out there to make sure we’re really reaching our audiences and driving them to our clients’ websites.

What does that research look like? How do you get to know this level of intimacy with your clients’ audiences?

It’s all about developing a connected strategy. From a media standpoint, we can pull MRI (Market Responsiveness Index) and Scarborough data, which includes local and national consumer insights across multiple categories, such as household income, leisure activities, shopping behaviors, etc. Additionally, our strategy team will go out and do interviews with people directly. So when we’re building our personas, we’re not just solely focused on media, we’re getting that holistic view of the person we’re trying to target regarding all of their interests

These personas are based on the individual’s demographic and psychographic data, as well as the top websites, social platforms and media they’re using, which help us build our media plans and guide our decisions. This ensures we are reaching the audience on their terms. And we update them periodically to make sure we are following the most recent trends in media consumption.

How has the world of media changed recently? What is different in regard to consumer expectations and marketer/business efforts?

I think the biggest trend right now is this shift to the cookie-less world. When it does happen, that is going to shake up everything for digital. We’ve become so accustomed to hyper-targeted marketing and getting to know audiences on an almost invasive level, so as we lose access to some of this information, we’re basically going back to the basics. And that means contextual targeting (or targeting based on relevant sites that consumers have visited).

Marketers will be forced to focus on their CRM lists and ask what first-party customer data do we really have? And can we actually use it? A name won’t get you very far, but a name and an email or a name and phone number can bring you those higher match rates.

Secondly, I think Podcasts will continue to dominate. People are increasingly wanting to advertise in this space — both live reads and placed ads — because it’s how younger generations are consuming their media. I think the pandemic played a large role with more people working at home and having more time to listen and explore new media. And now, everyone has Airpods in no matter where they are. People are always listening to something.

Lastly, video – specifically, short-form, user-generated content videos. The rise of TikTok and Youtube shorts has made video the king in terms of awareness. This type of content really engages people with a less refined and more candid vibe than videos of the past. At the same time, YouTube and Facebook continue to see tons of success in edited video, especially with older audiences. This allows us to get our creative teams more involved and focus on the elements that make these ads work. For example, moving to vertical formats from horizontal that was typically used for TV. Or planning mobile-first versus mobile-friendly; understanding these specs and how to optimize each for where they’re being served.

What’s your top advice to businesses/marketers to really stand out in today’s digital landscape?

In general, the media landscape is very fragmented. There are so many devices in our world — you can have your TV on with your tablet in your lap and your phone on the table in front of you. And each of those are placements where your ads could be reaching you. Marketers have to make sure they have multiple touch points in your media plan because that frequency is so important to reinforcing your message and becoming memorable in the minds of your audiences.

Often, marketers will only get wrapped up in one area, and that’s it — for example, paid search. But that’s old school thinking and simply doesn’t work on its own today. You have to think about how a person moves throughout their day and figure out the best way to intersect with them naturally. So based on their behavior, we may complement the paid search strategy with video or audio to drive more awareness. If you’re only on one medium, it means you’re missing the larger universe and the opportunities it could bring.

What are some of the best practices that you tell your clients in regard to their media strategies?

Here are a few things you’ll hear us say to our clients regularly:

  1. Don’t be a focus group of one. Just because you dont pay attention to billboards, doesn’t mean the target audience doesn’t. You have to know your audience on that deeper level to know what will work and what won’t.

  2. Media is objective. A successful strategy is based on facts and numbers (and this is why I love it!).

  3. Use your historical data! In many cases, this info can tell you exactly how many impressions each placement has and what could happen if you move from one medium to another. This data will actually show you the impact your decisions will have.

  4. And to students: Don’t be afraid to take the job! Even if it may not be what you imagined for yourself, you never know what you’ll learn or where it can take you. My career path is a perfect example of this!

What’s next for the future of digital media?

Like I mentioned before, I think we are headed back to the basics in terms of programmatic advertising. Real-time bidding isn’t going anywhere, but we’ll be back to the basics in how we learn about our audiences. Media buying will also change a lot for people. You can now digitally buy spot radio and TV, so instead of negotiating with local affiliates like we have for so long, soon it will all be automated bidding, which will change our world quite a bit.

I think the biggest thing for anyone getting into media is to get training. There are so many options out there to learn, and it’s exciting. Digital changes every day, so you can’t get too worked up when Meta takes a targeting criteria away or changes a policy — you have to roll with it! The cookie-less future is something that will impact a lot of marketers, but we’re all consumers too. This privacy is important to everyone, and we’re learning together. Just keep educating yourself and exploring new certifications. Stay sharp and informed, and hopefully, we’ll see there’s a lot of exciting opportunities on the horizon.