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How a Concordia ad exec went digital

Mark Sherman, CEO of Media Experts, talks the genesis of his Montreal-based company
September 25, 2017
By James Gibbons

At the turn of the 21st century, major changes took place within the world of advertising.

“It used to be a 30-second spot on TV or radio, or an ad in a newspaper or a magazine,” says Mark Sherman, who studied commerce at Concordia and is the founder and CEO of Media Experts, one of Canada’s leading media buying firms.

Mark Sherman Mark Sherman, who studied commerce at Concordia, sold 62 per cent of his Media Experts equity in 2015 | Photo courtesy of Mark Sherman

Then at the turn of the century the digital revolution went from a walk to run. “Today we have to be pros not only on how old media works, but also how they work together with new and emerging media technologies,” says Sherman.

Media Experts opened its doors on Mackay St. — near Concordia’s Hall Building — in 1981. At the start, the company employed only three people, compared to 160 today, including about 25 John Molson School of Business grads. They’ve also moved to a larger, sleek office space in Montreal’s Mile-Ex neighbourhood.

“What we offer is consultative, as we’re advising advertisers where their ads should go and why,” says Sherman of the services his company provides buying media for large corporations. It’s proven to be an in-demand service, with clients such as BMW/Mini, Interac and Bell Canada among other household names.

Sherman attributes his company’s success to a nimble, resourceful spirit, a focus on craft and dedicated customer service.

“Entrepreneurs have a simple philosophy: you go, you get. If you don’t go, you don’t get,” says Sherman. An example of this ethos includes their pioneering of programmatic advertising in Canada.

“When you visit a website, let’s say The New York Times, the ad that appears on your screen is based on your online behaviour, including the data collected on you,” says Sherman. “The ad you see is determined in just one two-hundredth of a second as advertisers bid in real time to appear in front of you.”

Mark Sherman with Supertramp As CHOM-FM’s promotion manager, Mark Sherman (far left) met bands that included Supertramp. | Photo courtesy of Mark Sherman

Sherman’s company is ahead of the game in other ways, too. “We’re the first Canadian company to have a business relationship with Facebook and the first to get Google AdWords certification,” says Sherman. These credentials matter, as the online environment is constantly changing, being at the leading edge is critical.

Media Experts is also among the first in Canada to use Dynamic Creative, an advanced advertising technology that enables real time ad tailoring. “We can customize an offer in a fraction of a second dependent on your data, who we think you are and what your behaviour is,” says Sherman.

A start on Montreal’s music scene

While a student of commerce at Concordia, Sherman began working for the Montreal rock n’ roll radio station CHOM-FM. Little did Sherman know that would open doors to starting his own business.

“I was doing the ski reports. I did them 27 times a week for 17 weeks for $1,000,” recalls Sherman. That amounts to $2.18 per show. “It ended up being a very good investment.”

The job description involved travelling in a CHOM-FM-branded jeep to the slopes, around town and even to the Loyola Campus of Concordia. From that job Sherman became the stations promotion director, just as radio listening transitioned from the mono-AM to the stereo-FM frequency.

“I was the first to have this kind of position in Canada. Before, there wasn’t aggressive marketing for FM radio,” says Sherman. Part of the job involved dressing up as the station’s mascot, Rocky Racoon, just like the Beatles song. Job perks included rubbing shoulders with rock stars at their prime — including Supertramp — and being backstage at concerts.

By the fall of 1978, CHOM-FM was the most listened to FM radio station in Quebec. Sherman’s role, building up the station’s audience, prepared him for his next challenge in the sales department, vending advertising spots to local advertisers.

From one radio station to all media

While at CHOM-FM, Sherman saw the opportunity to go into business with a Toronto-based firm called Media Specialists. He made his exit from radio and set up a Montreal branch with a partner.

“I went from being able to sell ad spots for CHOM to buying space on any TV channel, magazine or newspaper, which was very different,” says Sherman.

By 1987, Sherman had bought 100 per cent of his company and renamed it Media Experts. In 1996, Sherman expanded with a new office in Toronto, located within another company called Taxi — also a Montreal-based advertising agency. The co-founder of Taxi, Paul Lavoie, partnered with Sherman on a then-unknown account, Clearnet Communications, which was to have a $25 million media budget.

“Clearnet was acquired by Telus in 2001. Faced with losing the business, we challenged our much larger global competitor to pitch for the account,” says Sherman. “They said they didn’t want to, that we could have the mobile division and they’d be happy to keep the landline business. It was a David and Goliath situation where we had the rock and they ran away.”

The next frontier?

On the topic of virtual reality, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said “the future is coming.” However, from the perspective of buying advertising, an old medium is what’s up-and-coming, according to Sherman.

“Television is suffering because it doesn’t target people. Money is flowing away from TV and into digital media. Also, viewers are going to Netflix, which doesn’t have commercial opportunities yet,” says Sherman.

At some point in the near future, says Sherman, as subscription revenue for on-demand entertainment maxes out, the need to continue driving growth will bring streaming media companies like Netflix to incorporate advertising as a new source of revenue.

“Ads on Netflix will be targeted to the individual viewer, just like digital media. This disruption of the TV advertising ecosystem will change it dramatically over the next 10 years. TV will become targetable and trackable.”

With nearly 40 years in business and an entrepreneurial attitude, Sherman and his company are up for the challenge.


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