WorldLink's Toni Knight builds on cross-platform ad effort

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Founded in 1997, WorldLink Ventures Inc., a multiplatform advertising sales firm, is celebrating its 10th anniversary. The Los Angeles-based company employs about 80 people and is one of the largest women-owned businesses in its field. It handles about 200 companies worldwide, including Fox Sports en Espanol and CNN en Espanol, offering cross-platform, targeted direct response advertising opportunities. Billings have grown at WorldLink by an average of 28 percent annually since 1997, it is claimed. The company recorded $145 million in revenue in 2006, a 900 percent increase from 1997.

Founder/CEO Toni Knight, who previously identified the value of direct response advertising sales to media platforms while working at Fox Sports Net, recently discussed WorldLink's business model, its working environment and the importance of embracing fear with DM News' Daniel McMahon.

What challenges has WorldLink had to overcome in its 10 years?

I think the biggest challenge over the past 10 years has been with the difficulties in the economy and the landscape of the media evolving and changing, so the biggest challenge for us as a company has been how to continually adapt our business model so that we could capitalize on opportunities. When there was a challenge in the economy, I think it turned into a great opportunity for the company because many larger media companies were looking for ways to cut costs and increase revenue. And so, by having an opportunity to outsource direct response advertising sales, we were able to help many companies reduce their overhead and their costs. At the same time, because this is obviously a big area of our business of direct response sales, we were able to increase their revenue for them.

So it was a situation where it was a challenge because it was a hard time industry-wise, but overall it gave us opportunities. So we were fortunate to be able to create a lot of new relationships, which turned into really benefiting the company not only through those years but beyond. In addition to the technology and everything that's changing, our mentality has always been to … instead of be afraid of change, embrace it. And so we were really looking at a lot of these media changes as ways for us to adapt our business model and find new opportunities for our marketers to expand their reach, and ultimately get a better ROI on their investment.

Could you give an example of how WorldLink embraced change?

When the industry was looking at product placement and product integration because the fear of people skipping commercials … we went to a lot of our syndicators we were working with that did a lot of regional program production, and we were able to work with producers to create integration for direct response marketers. It was a unique opportunity for the marketers - great for the producers and programmers they used ­­ - because it gave them incremental revenue and, at the same time, for the direct response clients, it was a great opportunity to do something creative and to help them stand out from the competition.

Another way we embraced change is that we recently created a lot of relationships in the online space. Obviously, with that marketplace growing, a lot of ad dollars are being spent in the online space. We felt it would be a tremendous opportunity for our company to get involved because online is a perfect fit for direct response advertisers because of its interactivity, e-commerce component and accountability that's built into the ads, which is all exactly what direct response is.

What or whom would you credit for helping the company grow so successfully?

I definitely think it's all about the people you surround yourself with. We have a tremendous staff, starting with my executive team. They've been just fabulous. I created the executive team back in 1999 and it really gave me the ability to delegate and let people lead their divisions effectively and allow me to focus on the strategic end of the business. In addition to that, we've just been very fortunate over the years that we've hired top-notch people who are really experts in this area of business, and so it's worked out very well.

Ultimately, our performance is what has been able to continue our relationships with all of our media clients. On the same side, we've been very fortunate to have both ad agencies and media clients that we've worked with over the years [who have] been very supportive, very loyal, and ultimately we've created some successful relationships that go both ways. I think that's what's allowed us to move forward and continue to grow the business year after year.

You mentioned "expertise." Are there other qualities you look for in people, either personally or professionally speaking, for building up teams to work autonomously but also to be accountable?

Yes. The key for us is we really need people who embrace change and are willing to adapt and hop on new opportunities because we are a dynamic company and we're continually evolving. It's been really important for us that when we hire people … you know, it's a unique environment. There are a lot of traditional media companies that do the same thing day after day, which is obviously where their talent is, but [WorldLink] is always looking at ways to grow the business and finding new platforms to represent, and so it takes a certain kind of person that really gets excited and challenged in that kind of environment.

I think ultimately it's the kind of culture we've created in the company. I think we've been really successful having that entrepreneurial spirit, but at the same time I think we've done a good job creating a strong corporate foundation so that we do have structure. That's obviously important for the scalability of the business.

Let's say I asked one of your employees, "What's it like to work at WorldLink?" What do you think they'd say?

It's a dynamic company that's always changing and growing. We definitely have a spirit of promotion within, mentoring people so they can grow, not only personally but professionally, through a lot of internal promotion. I think it's a great opportunity for employees because they not only get a good education on different aspects of the media business, but it also gives them a great sense that if they do succeed they can go to another level, so we really try to cultivate the talent that we have internally and create loyalty so that they will grow and prosper within the company.

Are there any specific challenges WorldLink is trying to address at this time?

It goes back to just looking at where the business is going and how do we fit in. There are so many opportunities technologically and I think that what we've really felt is that, in all of these new areas, whether it's video on demand, DVR technology, online opportunities, wireless ­­ - we really believe that direct response is just the perfect vehicle and platform, so we're preparing to have representation in all these various platforms so that we can go to our advertisers and give them a lot of creative choice and, at the end of the day, it's great for them. It gives them more opportunities to reach out to the consumer across those various platforms and will ultimately help them achieve a better ROI. That's really been kind of the challenge, just looking at the future, looking at the new technology and figuring out how will we fit in and ultimately how will we adapt our business model so that it makes sense in the platform.

Where do you see WorldLink going from here? Are there any new markets or technologies that you're looking at?

The key is, first, to continue to grow in our basic foundation areas, which is linear television, looking at the Spanish marketplace and the broadcast/cable marketplace, looking internationally - there are still tremendous growth opportunities in the various regions around the world. I think beyond sort of our "traditional" business we started in the online space about six months ago and we've already grown rather dramatically in terms of Web site representation, so we're going to continue our focus on ways not only in terms of the number of Web sites we represent, but also in kind of new business strategies so that we can offer unique opportunities to DR marketers in the online space.

From there, all of that ties into video on demand, the opportunities out there, DVR technology opportunities - and although it's still in its infancy - there's going to be great opportunity in the wireless space, advertising in that space, understanding what a model is that makes sense in that space. So, for us as a company, we're now doing a lot of research, we're talking to a lot of different companies and we're working with these companies strategically to figure out what format makes sense for that specific medium, what length of ad, how will the creative look, and really just coming up with a model that ultimately, as we move forward with representation, we put together effective media campaigns that make sense, both for the advertiser and the specific medium.

Who do you see as your competitors? And how would you describe the difference between what you offer and what you're doing and what they're doing?

I think the main competitor we have … there's not really a company out there like us exactly. I think we've only run up against competition in specific spaces, so there may be a representation firm in syndication, or a representation firm in broadcasting, for example. But most of the time rep companies are focused in on one specific platform, and so oftentimes we may compete with them in a cable opportunity but we wouldn't compete against them in a Spanish opportunity or international opportunity.

So that's where we kind of set ourselves apart from a lot of the competition in that we do have integrated opportunities - nationally, regionally, locally, Spanish, syndication, international opportunities, broadcast, radio, online - [that are] unique for a representation firm. I think, again, that has made us unique … from the competition. I also think it's been very beneficial over the years because it's allowed us to expand our relationships with major media clients because as they grow cross-platform we can grow with them.

Your company is one of the largest women-owned businesses of its kind. As such, describe how things have progressed in the corporate culture in the 10 years since you started WorldLink.

I really looked at this as, "How can we create a professional, strong company and at the same time a nurturing environment so that we can really get talented people on board that can not only thrive in their current job but can also look at potential growth internally, whether through promotion or different divisions?" And I think that's really important to me. Most of the employees would feel that we have a unique culture. It is a very dynamic environment but at the same time very nurturing.

Obviously we are very firm because we have goals to keep and we're a sales organization, but we try to do it in a way that still gives people viable choices in their career and ultimately gives them the tools they need to succeed. I would define our culture as active, dynamic, changing and definitely for people who can embrace that because change oftentimes creates fear for people. What we've tried to do is teach people not to fear it but to embrace it.

I read a recent news piece in which you were quoted as saying fear is a great motivator.

Yes, because in the end I think it's really what sets people apart because sometimes fear can create paralysis. People don't know what to do. Or they often look back instead of look forward and say, "We've always done it this way." And I'm really trying to teach all our executives and employees that, that should never be the case, that "We've always done it this way" shouldn't be an answer because there are new opportunities, there are always ways to improve your performance, and I think that really goes back to when I was an athlete … in high school. That was one thing I learned when I was in gymnastics from my coach is, it's important to strive for excellence individually and at the same time be a part of a team, and that's really the mentality that I've tried to create internally at WorldLink, that every individual strive for excellence but, at the end of the day, everyone is a part of a very important team.

Ten years from today, where do you hope to see WorldLink?

Ten years from today? Obviously I'd love to see our growth further. As I said, the industry is well poised to tap into all these technologies. I think our company is perfectly positioned to grow with these new areas of business, so I'm really excited. I think our history has been fantastic, but I actually think our growth is going to … go further in the next 10 years because of all these new opportunities. … We've diversified across various platforms, not only domestically but globally, and I really believe as we move forward there are only going to be a lot of opportunities for our company. And we're really excited about it.

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