Media Buying Giant Measures Results Through Profits
Imagine being in Inc Magazine as one of the nation’s Top 26 Most Fascinating Entrepreneurs, alongside household names like Richard Branson and Martha Stewart. Michelle Cardinal ’89, CEO and founder of Cmedia, doesn’t have to imagine. She and her husband Tim O’Leary, CEO of Respond2 Communications, were selected for that slot in 2005 and dubbed “power couple” for their rapid rise in the marketplace.
Cmedia, which has experienced explosive growth since 1998, specializes in Direct Response Television Marketing (DRTV): planning, buying and managing direct response campaigns for television, radio, print, direct mail and the Web. Cardinal’s clients include corporations like America Online, Procter & Gamble, and Home Depot, as well as inventors and entrepreneurs. Based in Portland, Oregon, Cmedia is the state’s largest woman-owned business and one of Oregon’s largest privately held companies. “And perhaps most important,” adds Cardinal, “Cmedia is consistently ranked among the ‘100 Best Companies to Work For,’” according to Oregon Business Magazine.
Cardinal’s story is the stuff of dreams. Raised in a working-class town near Boston, she is one of nine children. Finances were tight. She worked all through school to pay her way. Her degree in Communication from the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences was her first big accomplishment. “UMass Amherst gave me confidence,” she says. “I made great friends and had life-altering experiences.”
When Cardinal’s fiancé landed a job in Santa Barbara, California, she moved too. “I pounded the pavement and became an entry-level sales assistant at TV station KADY. I wanted to work my way into the production department—which is pretty funny, since KADY’s production department had been shut down because of poor return on investment (ROI). Cable news channels like CNN were starting to dominate and steal much-needed market share.” Cardinal learned a lot about TV advertising though. “KADY, like many other TV stations, didn’t have big ‘ratings’ to brag about and therefore had to sell air time at much reduced rates, often to direct response advertisers with 800 numbers—like Time Life Music and infomercials selling widgets. The idea of ‘direct response television’ fascinated me. KADY often shot infomercials for LA producers. I got to know the marketing companies buying air time and the producers staging these strange 2-minute and half-hour commercials.”
Within a year, a client offered Cardinal a job in Santa Monica. Her relationship with her fiancé had ended, so moving was not an issue. “A dynamic young woman, Katie Williams, wanted young, aggressive assistants to train as DRTV media buyers,” Cardinal recalls. “Unlike traditional media time buying, based on Nielsen data, DRTV buying is dependent on product sales through 800 numbers. Some time slots can generate thousands of dollars in sales in a single airing.” Assigned to work for the agency’s most senior media buyers, Cardinal says, “It was crazy, like working on Wall Street—millions of dollars spent in seconds and at high stakes. I loved it!”
Soon, Cardinal was named cable media buyer, building relationships with all the emerging cable networks. She excelled and eventually became the CEO’s right hand. “Katie was an inspiring mentor. She expected top-notch performance and rewarded it handsomely; I honed my sales and pitching techniques. By 1994 we had engaged many major corporations. At age 27, I was a vice president earning well into six figures and traveling all over the world. It was intoxicating.”
In 1998 Williams sold her company, and Cardinal seized the opportunity to start her own. “I wanted to be in Portland with my new husband, Tim,” Cardinal says. So, with $60,000 and one employee, Cmedia was launched. “I was focused and ran a lean operation, investing only in the most essential things—computers and a reliable phone system.” Within months Cmedia was profitable. “I then set my sights on building a kickass, state-of-the-art computer tracking system. (‘Kickass’ is actually in our mission statement!) I kissed a few frogs, but eventually found a team of programmers to help build our robust and versatile Cmedia Tracker. Today it’s the most sophisticated media tracking system in the business.”
The results are telling. Cardinal’s company grossed over $200 million in 2005. “I believe I’m a great example of how success can happen if you open your mind to alternative ideas. I’ve spent much of my career exploring a marketing approach that questions pre-existing ideas about advertising and how consumers respond to it. We measure advertising effectiveness by profits, not by the number of eyeballs it attracts!”
December 1, 2005