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Digital advertising pioneer Bob McKay discusses future of the industry • St Pete Catalyst

The world of advertising changes at the speed of technology, and since founding McKay Advertising + Activation, Bob McKay has managed to remain an industry pioneer throughout Tampa Bay.

McKay, a 1987 graduate of the University of South Florida, founded his advertising agency in 2005 after spending several years managing multiple broadcasting stations throughout the Tampa Bay region. McKay Advertising + Activation became one of the first digital marketing agencies in the area back when Google was still in its infancy and before Facebook released to the public.

McKay’s latest endeavor is a proprietary strategy tool he calls “Activation Bridge.” This bridge helps companies transition from soft metric advertising measurements, such as consumer engagement and sentiment, to return on investment (ROI) and other performance and revenue-based metrics.

“So, brands get to see the output of their advertising,” said McKay. “And we do that to be transparent, so the brands we serve can understand the output of the resources they invest in us.”

Another new focus for McKay is “tracking pixels” and following that conversion to the point of sale. Marketing pixels are tiny snippets of embedded code that gather information about a website’s visitors – how they browse, what type of ads they engage with and other pertinent information. Scrolling through social media, and seeing an ad pop up for something you were just researching, is pixel tracking at work.

McKay said his organization is “crazy about” tracking pixels and seeing what leads to sales because it provides a clear picture of what methods are working. He then uses that data to decide how and where to place ads. If something is not producing to his standards, he immediately makes adjustments.

“We’re not loyal to any of these channels,” he said. “We’ll make sure to put a bullet in that and move it to the resources that are working.

“We really push hard on understanding the consumer path and the touches and the truth …”

McKay owes much of his success to keeping up with technology and becoming an early adopter of digital marketing. He called the transitional period following his launch of McKay Advertising + Activation in 2005 both exciting and frustrating.

McKay said the early years were exciting because his team was sure they were on to something. He noticed consumers began using digital resources to research products, gather news and provide entertainment, and he was determined to prove the new technology would change the world of advertising.

However, McKay said those early years were also frustrating due to his team thinking they were “too cool for the room” and the reluctance of corporate executives to change entrenched strategies.

“They basically had a Ph.D. in traditional media,” he said. “When talking to them about this brave new world, they were very comfortable staying in that world in which they had their Ph.D. and didn’t see any reason to change.”

McKay said he and his colleagues did not help matters by walking into a room, spouting off new acronyms and expecting execs to fall in line rather than properly educating them about the benefits.

“It wasn’t very endearing,” he said of his strategy. “I was like, ‘oh my God, we’re selling it like shit.’”

McKay changed his approach, and success followed. His company became a Google All-Star in 2015, ranking among the top 250 agencies in North America. Google did away with the All-Star moniker and now includes McKay Advertising + Activation as a Premier Partner.

McKay said Google classifies his agency among the top 3% in the world, provides his agency with special attention and insight and its representatives are only a phone call away. McKay said he enjoys a similar relationship with Meta, formerly Facebook, and his company was one of the first to receive new advertising certifications following the name change.

“Like Google, like any other advertising channel, it’s a changing environment,” he said. “The algorithms change, and you have to stay on top of them.”

McKay Advertising + Activation heavily invested in the live events industry, and McKay said his company initially lost a lot of business when the pandemic swept over the country. However, he said it was also a good time to acquire new business, as people became even more attached to their computers and electronic devices.

He said the digital revolution became undeniable with the increase in the popularity of online shopping. While a large segment of the younger population was already utilizing Amazon and food delivery services, brands began realizing that everyone was now buying products in that manner.

“Like I said, 92-year-olds were understanding that,” Mckay added. “And they never go back.”

McKay said Tampa Bay is becoming a known brand for young professionals. He believes that as that population increases, it will help the continued growth of the local advertising community.

McKay noted that for the first time in the history of marketing and advertising, agencies could show the output and results of work through media channels in real-time. Previously, he said, the industry focused on research and awareness. When a brand’s chief marketing officer (CMO) went to speak with the CEO regarding allocating advertising resources, McKay said the other C-level executives would ask about ROI, and the CMO could not provide an answer.

“Now the advertising tools do allow for answers,” he said. “It’s really a great time for marketing and advertising.”