Anush Prabhu – Global Chief Strategy Officer, Creative Transformation and US Chief Strategy Officer at Mediacom – spoke to WARC’s Anna Hamill about media fragmentation, creativity in the context of platforms and data, and putting brands first.

When it comes to skills and expertise required by your team on a day-to-day basis, what have the biggest changes been over the last few years?

Looking at the biggest changes happening, it is that the world is almost turning upside down in terms of strategy. I think we were always an industry that would look at people and say “alright, what is our audience looking for?” The word ‘audience’ itself connotes that there’s someone talking to you as a group, or there’s a brand sitting up on stage and addressing an audience. That is not the world we live in anymore, I feel like we are a lot more democratized.

Even if you look at the world of media, it’s a lot more addressable. About 80% of media is addressable. But from a content perspective, we still don’t address those audiences, because partly we’re addressing an audience rather than addressing people. To me, the biggest shift that needs to happen is we need to step off our strategic pedestal and start to live where the audiences are.

How are you adapting to that change?

The thing that is constant to me is that a strategist always needs to be connected to culture. The culture today plays out more in platforms, media and technology. It’s almost like a person looking at one large screen versus 500 small screens – that is attention in a fragmented world. The ability to take out information from a fragmented world… that to me is a skill set that is very different. I also feel like a strategist today also needs to address both the world of media and creative, because more and more people are rejecting old school ads.

If we are doing it right, we should be connecting through media technology and, in some ways, data. So those to me are the conduits that any strategist needs to be connected to. They need to be connected to how to also drive and deliver creativity and inspire creativity in a platform-led world versus the one screen that they used to look at.

What do you see as the biggest trends coming down the pipeline, in terms of broader industry trends that you and your team will need to really understand and adapt to?

I think the biggest trend is that we are now in a new age of creativity. Today, what we need to do is reconsider the world of creative thinking in the context of platforms and in the context of media, technology and data. That, to me, is the biggest change that is happening that we all need to get ready for.

What steps are you taking to develop your team’s capabilities for the future of media?

We are trying to build a new kind of agency where media and message truly come together in different ways. Part of that equation has been bringing in talent that is diverse. For example, we have a strategist that used to be a copywriter. We have strategists that used to work in social agencies and we have strategists who used to work in creative agencies or even at media platforms. It’s a diverse set of talent that work with each other to complement the datasets and other experiences that they have.

Then also comes diversity of everything else: we need to kind of address and speak to fragmented audiences and cultures. Given that I’m a person of color, I know that my family – while we are very American and while we are people of the world – also have our nuances in how we look at media and how we address the world. Understanding all those nuances requires you to have people that look different.

How do you bring in skill sets for the platforms that are very much in their embryonic stages, such as the metaverse?

It all comes down to intelligence gathering; data, insights and being closer to the people who use it and who are experimenting with it. That is where we always need to go back to – understanding that if you connect with the people who are using it, you then have a better understanding of what you need to produce.

To me, that is always the starting point. Then it’s figuring out that, at the end of the day, anything that we do – whether it’s new media or old media – needs to connect back to your brand’s purpose and mission. For example, the short-term mission of a particular campaign or the larger objective and purpose that the brand has.

There’s a brand perception issue as well.

Right. We always need to put the brand first as an engine. That then drives everything else we’re doing and makes sure that as a brand, you’re relevant to that conversation. Of course, people behave very differently on different platforms and expect the brand to be different on TikTok than they are, for example, on television. But along with that comes the opportunity, because there used to be a time when you could only connect with the consumer when they’re sitting in front of a television.

Today, I can connect with them at different moments and in different moods and understand what each of those are to make ourselves a lot more relevant to each of those areas. It comes back to the audience versus people… you then start to understand and look at everything in a very different lens.

How did the upheaval of COVID change any of your working practices as a team?

If I’ve discarded anything, it is my old beliefs – that you would have to sit down together in an office, looking at the whites in each other’s eyes to really have a conversation and to make creative ideas. In the last two years. Mediacom has won the most awards of any media agency, and that has happened at a time when we weren’t sitting in front of a big board sketching out stuff together. We have also had two of the more successful runs that Mediacom has ever had, from a business perspective and all that during a time when we were at home working differently.

We are a lot more agile than we ever were. Today, we are not shy of using that access that we have. To me, it’s like we are a lot more connected than we were before, and I feel like that is a big plus in terms of work environment. Now the difficult thing that we have to figure out as leaders in our industry is how do we still drive culture in a place where we are not together.

How is your relationship with creative teams and clients changing over time? Have expectations changed in terms of what your team is expected to deliver?

Integration is the name of the game, but integration has been the name of the game for quite a few years now. But we were trying to integrate and build this new integrated car with an old chassis. In the creative industry, media agencies have the new chassis. I think that we, as an industry, need to realize and recognise that we need to build this integrated offering in a new way with that new chassis in mind. To me the new chassis is data, media and tech.

I think the industry has made a big error in the last 5–10 years. When data started to come, we started to silo our industry even more – not just from the media and creative perspective, but from brand versus performance perspective. And that has brought about a massive downturn in the creativity of the industry, in my opinion. Creativity has come down.

We need to recognise that for performance to also work, the more creative it is, the more chance it has of delivering better performance. Creativity delivers better outcomes, and if you are doing it right across all platforms, you need the people who can think creatively across those platforms and each activate them that way as well.

In the coming year, what do you expect to be the most significant disruption to strategists or planners that you work with?

The disruptions to strategist would be, number one, that they don’t live in and they cannot strategize in a siloed world anymore. If they are thinking of themselves as a brand strategist or a commerce planner or as a data strategist, they are thinking of a specialized world that will exist less and less. We need more hybrid people who can work and think across all those lines. So number one is like stop thinking in silos as a strategist.

Number two to me is, again, you need to start thinking of the different people within your audiences, and how they are different and not just of how they are all alike. It’s the difference that we need to start recognizing in this world.

Number three to me is fair and square media and creative integration. That is a very welcome disruption to me. If we don’t seize that disruptive trend, and the power of the creativity that we need to deliver, we will fail.