PDMI Spotlight: Lessons Learned, Reflections Earned
Frank Cannella looks back, shares wisdom, and prepares to leave Cannella Media DTC ready for its next 40 years.
By Thomas Haire
"A lot of times, businesspeople forget how interconnected everybody is," says Frank Cannella, founder of Burlington, Wis.-based Cannella Media DTC. "One campaign can feed thousands of families. What happens in our industry should not be taken for granted. I know that, often, we’ve been considered the Rodney Dangerfield of advertising. But for those of us who’ve been in it — for me, 40 years plus — it’s something to be proud of. The smart entrepreneurs of our industry — our clients — have figured that out. And on the media vendor side, they’ve also been able to adapt and endure."
As his agency pushes on toward its 40th anniversary, three years hence, Cannella is stepping into retirement in October. At age 65, he says it’s time. "I’ve gone from the father of the infomercial to the grandfather of the infomercial," he adds with a laugh.
Cannella’s path leads back directly to the beginning of the infomercial era, around the time that then-President Ronald Reagan’s administration deregulated TV advertising. When asked about his most memorable moments, he starts there.
"Obviously, the most important one was being young and naïve and challenging the media industry to accept program-length commercials back in 1982," he says. "The second was meeting a young, smart guy with great ideas and energy and a do-anything attitude, named Rob Medved. We’ve been together since 1995."
Cannella also credits a pair of key clients with transforming the agency’s business. "We went from being a consultancy into being a cable media broker — which turned us into the kings of cable for a long period of time," he says. "But then we got involved with our client and partner Tristar, with a product called the Banjo Minnow. That really expanded our media buying capabilities. And then, coming right off of that, was Tae Bo. We were the primary agency behind Tae Bo’s media buying because of our cable inventory."
The agency’s creation of a per-inquiry (PI) media platform in the mid-2000s — which Cannella and Medved led — "obviously transformed the business dramatically," Cannella says, as did adding short-form buying in more recent years. "We’re a company that’s evolved over time."
He also points to the creation of the trademark-pending Direct Response Listing (DRL), for which he gives much credit to Medved, as a key point in Cannella Media’s success. "That changed the media world again," Cannella says. "Now, all of a sudden, instead of a listing showing ‘Paid Programming,’ it actually had information like "Drop 3 Dress Sizes" and "Buy Real Estate With No Money Down." We could turn that ‘Paid Programming’ listing into actual direct response ad copy."
Cannella speaks often of an entrepreneurial spirit in the direct response and direct-to-consumer marketing world. And he believes that Cannella Media’s ability to continue to transform itself to fit the times starts there.
"I have always described us as media entrepreneurs. We’ve learned to adapt, grow, evolve, and succeed where others have failed in this industry," he says. "And our industry has always been dominated by marketing entrepreneurs. So being an adaptive, evolving media company came very naturally to us in order to serve our clients properly and for them to succeed. Working with entrepreneurs is totally unpredictable and motivating. They keep you on your toes, and that’s what’s made this business so much fun. Working with entrepreneurs has taught us to be really good entrepreneurs ourselves."
Cannella also credits the agency’s tight partnerships with media outlets. "Our strong relationships with media vendors over the years have been equally important. So many have listened to our concerns, industry challenges, and given us underlying support in so many ways that, inevitably, it has made both Cannella Media and our clients successful," he says. "One of our company mantras is to create a true win-win-win for all the players in the game. And I think a lot of that’s been done by having that great three-way relationship with our clients and the media vendors."
Another key moment in Cannella Media’s development was the 2005 acquisition of Bill Raymond’s Los Angeles-based agency Media for the Masses. That led to the opening of a West Coast office headed by Raymond, who remains executive vice president and managing partner of the L.A. location.
Raymond remembers being awed, initially, by Cannella.
"I was introduced to Frank through a mutual client. At the time, all I knew was that Frank Cannella and his team were the ‘Kings of Cable.’ They controlled the media," he says. "When Frank and I first met, I was young — around 30 years old — and I would be lying if I told you I was not nervous around Frank. I also was quite the arrogant, know-it-all kid, so Frank and I butted heads quite a bit in the early days. But I learned a lot. In fact, I nicknamed him Papa Frank. So, thank you, Frank, for putting up with me."
If you’re noticing a theme of long-term internal partnerships and aloyal team, that’s not a coincidence. Cannella often speaks of the agency as a family.
"Perhaps, it’s my Italian heritage," he says. "We grew up with strong family ties. It formed, for me, a management style that spoke to being loyal to our Cannella staff and therefore, as necessary, to their families during times of crisis and times of celebration. I like to think of myself as being a leader, but I have been successful surrounding myself with great people and therefore, I still say I’ve never worked a day in my life. If you hire great people and let them do their job, then you only have to weigh in when necessary or asked."
Because of this, Cannella feels comfortable handing off the reins. "At this point, the foundation has been laid, and the team knows what to do. And they’ll continue with our ‘Golden Rule’ philosophy of treating others as you wish them to treat you," Cannella says. "With Rob and Bill, we’ve built a heck of a company, and it will continue for many years to come because of the foundation and internal mentoring. That’s one reason I would like to see us all back working together in an office environment: for that mentoring — both among peers and also sharing the Cannella philosophy with newer members of our team."
When asked what he hopes is next for his namesake agency, he adds, "The simple answer is another 40 years — that they can continue this great machine that we’ve started. I hope it continues the philosophies, the mantras, and the family going in that spirit for years to come."
Raymond echoes the founder when asked what Cannella Media’s next steps might be. "Knowing that we will continue to run the company with the principles Frank taught us is more important than where the business is headed following Frank’s retirement," he says. "The core of the business will not change. We will continue to be an entrepreneurial and results-focused organization that treats our clients, media vendors, and staff the way we want to be treated. We will continue to skillfully navigate the market, whether that is expanding further into digital or exploring shorter lengths on new platforms. Our focus will always be on addressing the problem/solution with strong creatives supported by data driving all decisions. We will continue to enhance our resources in these areas to deliver positive client results."
What’s next for Cannella himself? "It seems like everybody answers this question with, ‘Sleeping late and golf.’ But I’m an early riser, and every morning I share my coffee with The Wall Street Journal. Everybody in my circle knows that. That won’t change. And I don’t golf," he says with a smile.
Cannella adds that he and his wife Susan — who split their time in Napa, Calif., and St. Petersburg, Fla. — will "spend more time planning our travels, seeing the kids and grandkids, and entertaining friends. Life has been good to me. Sharing it with those close to me makes it even more rewarding. And I hope I continue to be invited to the Cannella Media parties."
As he readies to take those final steps out the door, Cannella is striding with gratitude. "A sincere thank you to our clients who have trusted us and put their dollars with us over the years," he says. "To the vendors who have listened to us — not only in the good times when we’ve celebrated, but also the bad times when trends changed, and we needed help. They’ve been there."
Cannella continues, "And, of course, thank you to the staff. We’ve got Cannella family members who’ve been with us for years. Turnover is a more recent phenomenon for us. For many years, we had very little turnover, and I think that speaks volumes for what we do. We must be doing something right in creating an environment."
Cannella Media DTC LLC
848 Liberty Drive, Burlington, WI 53105
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