MediaLink’s Wenda Harris Millard Cuts Through the Digital Clutter

A beloved figure in online advertising, Wenda Harris Millard ran sales for Yahoo during its heyday and helped create brand advertising online. She has also been an executive at DoubleClick, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, Adweek, and Ziff Davis, plus served as chairman of the Interactive Advertising Bureau, to name only some of her many accomplishments. But she prefers to talk about what she’s doing now, as president of MediaLink LLC, a strategic advisory and business development firm.

The Makegood: People regard the time that you led sales for Yahoo! as one of the most successful runs in the nearly two decade history of digital advertising. What do you remember most from that time?

WHM: It was a very different time from now. Yahoo was a very troubled company at the time. It was not beloved by Madison Avenue, so my team and I set out with very large ambitions. Our goal, which we called Project One, was to be the leading media sales organization in the world — not just in the digital space, but in the world. That very large ambition was helped by an extraordinary level of talent there and wonderful customers who helped us succeed.

The Makegood: Today’s landscape has become more complex with agency trading desks and an acronym soup of advertising technologies (DSPs, RTB, etc.). What advice would you give to someone who was leading a digital sales team today?

WHM: The biggest piece of advice I could offer is I think you need to be a student of marketing and advertising technology at large. It’s not enough to be great at being digital, you need to really understand the business your customers are in. It’s marketing, not just advertising, and it’s not just digital advertising. What your customers want is someone to help them navigate a decidedly complicated marketplace.

The Makegood: What advice would you give a company that traditionally published print magazines?

WHM: I think a lot of the challenge that magazine publishers have, and it’s completely understandable, is that they define themselves by their distribution channel. The think of themselves as magazine publishers vs. content providers. It’s a very difficult challenge to get your head around being a content provider as opposed to a magazine publisher but I think it’s just striving to look at the world differently in that sense.

The Makegood: The growth of MediaLink has been dramatic. What’s driving that growth?

WHM: The best way to think of MediaLink is as a next-generation boutique consulting company. It’s next generation because all our professionals (about 50 people now in the company) are operators. We’ve held the jobs our clients have. We really understand their business from an operating standpoint. It’s not a theoretical world. We really understand their business because we’ve been there. The reason growth has accelerated like it has is clients don’t want that theory in the perfect world, we have a bias toward action and clients really appreciate that we do high-level strategy, all with an eye toward implementation. That makes a tremendous difference.

The Makegood: Can you tell us about the kinds of clients you work with?

WHM: We have three sets of clients we deal with. First are the Fortune 100 companies, many of those are on retainer. Then emerging and established media and technology companies. The third group are private equity and venture capital firms looking for advice on investment and acquisition. It’s fascinating. The Fortune 100 are under the umbrella of digital literacy. We help them navigate the landscape. With the emerging companies, we help accelerate their businesses.

The Makegood: As we move into 2012, we have both an election year and a Summer Olympics. Typically that means spending on advertising is up. At the same time, some economists are concerned about another recession. How are your clients reacting to all of this?

WHM: We haven’t really seen a pullback in spending, but I think also there’s a lot of confusion about what’s advertising, what’s marketing. I think spending will shift. We’re all thinking in much broader terms. We haven’t seen a cutback. We haven’t seen people particularly intent on cutting spend.

The Makegood: Will brands continue to invest in owned and paid content?

WHM: Absolutely. We just did a two-hour session on that at Advertising Week. That is very much a part of a contemporary marketing strategy.

The Makegood: You and your business partner Michael Kassan, MediaLink chief executive and founder, have a dynamic partnership. What’s your favorite part about working with him?

WHM: We laugh all the time.

The Makegood: Thanks, Wenda.