CEO of Modern Impact, Michael Priem, is one of the most innovative leaders in digital media and advertising, taking businesses to the next level. From getting into the e-commerce space in the mid-late 90’s, Priem has an abundance of experience and knowledge by being at the forefront of adaptation in the ever-evolving space. I spoke with the Modern Impact founder to learn more about his business model, consumer behavior and what it takes for a business to stand out today.

How did Covid-19 affect Modern Impact?

My past has been very travel-related, and as a result, I’ve had a lot of clients in the travel industry. Throughout the month of March – as WHO identified the coronavirus as a global pandemic – we watched the search volume, search interest, and ad units begin to disappear day by day. By March 20, we were not even waiting, we were telling our clients we’ve got to stop spending money, so it was really significant to our business. However, there were several clients that had been having dialogues with us that have made us so unbelievably blessed. We have won a significant three-year contract.

Have you noticed things starting to get back to normal? 

Everything is still really dynamic. We have a pet care product and pet care has completely surged. We have a spirits beverage and they’re up 40% – which historically in recessions, spirits all surge – so from that standpoint yeah, we’ve got folks in these market conditions that sort of feel the surge effect. Overall though, there are a lot of things that are not even close to normal. It’s the anthropological behaviours of everybody’s customers that have changed, so the only thing that’s helping folks survive is if they have been more direct-to-consumer and e-commerce fulfillment, and we’re watching all of our clients just have to adapt.

What inspired you to start Modern Impact?

I’ve been a serial entrepreneur. I started in e-commerce in the mid-late ’90s and that was kind of the prehistoric, “dinosaur” days of e-comm. I worked my way into leadership roles through several publicly traded companies and then wound up being on my own, and I sold out of my last enterprise in 2018. I wanted to re-do it in a new way, and I feel that the idea of the old “Mad Men” from TV has really migrated toward being “math men”, and everything is so data-centric. You see NBC pushing Peacock, their new streaming service, you have Disney with Disney Plus, and you see everything converging over IP and it’s not going to slow down. This means that the utilization of data and the intelligence around it is actually informing creatives. So, if you look at the major ad holding companies, I feel that they’re going to be challenged significantly in the next decade because they have always kept their media buying separate from their creative agencies… and they’ve kept everything under ad holding type structures, whether it be by Omnicom, IPG, WPP. That model (ad holding type structures) is probably going to experience a lot of stress in my humble opinion, because the idea that the creative must be informed by data can’t work with these barriers. These old structures are set up more for economic benefit than for structural or client benefit. So, Modern Impact is kind of the antithesis of the ad holdings, because we combine the data and media technology to inform really good creative – and that’s the metamorphosis of who we are.

What is the most interesting thing that you have been able to identify just from consumer patterns through the data? 

We’re in such an unusual time right now, so I think the thing I find the most crazy is that we are seeing so many people experience implicit and explicit bias. I would say the most anthropological shift is the ageism around technology. The reason I say this is because we have several clients who are targeting the Boomer generation and people still tend to stereotype them as though they are not as technologically gifted. I think there’s an idea that technology has this bias towards age genres and I feel like that is just not right. If you watch adoption – and of course, we all interact differently – but you’re seeing people starting to move past the prejudice. These days, I’m a lot more defensive when it comes to the age boundaries that people try to put around the use of technology.

How do businesses benefit from working with Modern Impact? 

The healthcare clients we are helping right now – one of the fastest-growing companies in the history of the U.S. – are transforming healthcare by vertically integrating the provider managed care organization all the way into being the payer. So that’s a technical heat that no one has ever actually tried to fully take on. Modern Impact’s technical gift is marrying that tech with the creative use. In a few weeks, we’re launching some amazing animation and we have Pixar animators telling a really deep story. We’re also using “Sunday Best” by Surfaces (a song that only three companies, including ourselves have the license rights to) and it’s going to be a really fun campaign while also being tied and coupled towards one of the world’s most sophisticated data marts – and that’s just exciting. So for us with our clients, we wind up really verging the chasm between understanding how you unlock a business model and actually going through digital transformation – and at the same time, understanding how edify the model in a relatable and engaging way for consumers. This is something that a lot of people talk about, but it’s a lot harder to bring that to life. A lot of people want to talk about a pretty photoshoot or ad, and how it might lay out on a graphic web page and translate to print, and then they call that “omnichannel”, but that really doesn’t drive waves for human interaction and engagement.

What do you think are the most important elements to actually reach and engage a consumer? 

There’s a lot of belief around experience design and there are theories of genius design as well. When Apple is designing a phone, they’re not going to ask what we need, they’re going to invent what we need. As they think of things that we don’t even know we should have to enrich our life, they adhere to genius design. Helping clients understand where their journey is around design and then leveraging design patterning is one thing that is really critical to helping customers understand where they are in their path. There are a lot of theories, like the “Jobs-to-be-Done” theory, which can be explained by using Apple as an analogy; when Apple makes a phone with a better camera, the customer is not just buying it for the camera, they are buying it because the job they want to do is actually to have a better and richer experience by using the device. So, we’re helping our clients by maturing their processes and structures, and helping bring that to life so they can help reduce friction for their customer through enabling and empowering.

What did you find were the most important steps to get you where you are today?

The reality is I have just worked hard, I’ve been able to leverage past experiences, and the people that are with me are way better than me. There isn’t a secret, it’s hard work and having good people around you. I don’t subscribe to the conformity of business and I don’t care about fitting an economic model that the market understands. I’ve looked at aligning Modern Impact towards what the market needs and what our clients need to solve their business problems, not around what the rest of the financial industry world really understands. When I first started Modern Impact it was somewhat by accident, not by design, and I had so many people ask, “why are you going back into that industry,” but I feel like the industries that are the most tired and field-challenged are the ones that are the most ripe for innovation. The advertising space has had a huge change that is super exciting, and we are only beginning to touch what is coming at us.

Do you as a company try to do anything to create equal opportunities and include diversity? 

That’s endemic to who we are. There is a client we have right now, and I am an acting officer for migrating the equal opportunity laws and helping figure out how we continue it to grow. We are in a time where your statements need to be backed up by actions, and I’ll be forthright that we are not as diverse as we need to be…and I think when you are a high-growth and young organization it always presents challenges. Is this reflective of our identity? No not at all, but I think we’re going through an awakening. I don’t think anything can change around diversity until we stop and actually have the courage to admit our implicit biases. I have really tried to focus our organization at Modern Impact around how do we make sure we don’t have those implicit biases…how do we make sure those don’t show up in our work, and I would say that it is a very active dialogue that’s going on now more so than ever in my career.

Are there words that you live by as an entrepreneur that you have kind of always come back to? 

It is very hard to separate our personal happiness from our professional wellbeing, and we have – as managers and as colleagues – a responsibility to others just like we do with our family members. If we are happy professionally, we are a lot more likely to be happy personally and so I always think about where and what lies in the secret to happiness. I guess for me, I’ve always kind of thought about happiness as the ability to let go. Whether that is to let go from a bad day, or from a mistake, I find that if we can’t let go, we are constantly revisiting the past. So, if we can let go, while also learning from it, I find that we are able to be happier both professionally and personally.

Learn more about Modern Impact here.