Essence CEO Christian Juhl Brings A Programmatic Mindset To Traditional Media

  • While most agencies are still trying to wrap their heads around programmatic, digital agency Essence is expanding into the linear world.

    When it launched as a digital agency in 2005, Essence didn’t bother investing in traditional media, said Global CEO Christian Juhl. Instead, it would wait until traditional media became digitized and the market naturally caught up to where the agency was operating.

    “But while we were waiting, we were missing opportunities to service clients,” Juhl said.

    When GroupM consolidated media-buying agencies MEC and Maxus last year, it funneled the savings into Essence so it could expand its services for clients. The shift led to several GroupM clients, including NBCU in North America, Target and British Telecom in the UK, moving under Essence’s purview, along with about 550 employees servicing those accounts.

    “Not many clients are willing to have a digital-only and a traditional-only agency,” Juhl said. “If a GroupM agency wants to partner with us, they have to cede the digital ground. That’s hard for them because that’s their growth path as well.”

    Now, Essence employs close to 1,000 people and manages roughly $3 billion in linear and digital media. The agency is investing in new areas like personalized creative while pushing the traditional media space into a data-driven future.

    Meanwhile, Essence is still trying to educate clients on the programmatic landscape.

    “I am shocked by how many clients are still asking, ‘Isn’t that just remnant stuff that no one else wants to buy?’” Juhl said.

    He spoke with AdExchanger about Essence’s transition and some of the gaps agencies and clients still face in mastering programmatic.

    AdExchanger: What have been the challenges in bringing new talent and services to Essence? 

    CHRISTIAN JUHL: Culture. It’s always a problem. People we’ve brought in have built their careers at WPP and others have built their careers at Essence. They have to figure out how to work together.

    [Also] pushing traditional media businesses for better measurement so we can run cross-comparative media.

    How will you apply digital and programmatic expertise to traditional media?

    In my perfect world, all media we buy would represent the entire ecosystem. We would extract log-level data from every impression, whether that’s TV, OOH, print or digital. We’re not there, but everything we’ve been building in the last 13 years applies to traditional.

    We’ll also continue to invest in creative. If we understand where someone is, why they’re there and their behavior, then I should customize creative to them.

    That’s been challenging for people to get their heads around. The creative brief starts differently. To find creatives that can translate data signals to an experience is challenging.

    A lot of times you see those agencies turn away from direct-response creative. Even digital creative, a lot of the time, is outsourced. But that piece that’s been so overlooked for so long is one of the most important linkages in total performance for an agency.

    The spotlight is on Essence as the “agency of the future” for GroupM. That’s a lot of pressure. How do you keep the momentum going? 

    We have great clients. Google, NBC and Target are all trying to lead their spaces and they all believe that digital is there, which gives us opportunity to make investments, test hypotheses and fail. Without that kind of backing, you pull back into a safe spot.

    We have to be careful about the types of clients we go after. Not everybody shares our aspirations.

    How is programmatic changing at Essence? What’s changing most about how clients want to buy? 

    We forget how few clients still understand programmatic. Most clients are still struggling with the fundamental question of, “Why should I switch from the way I’ve been buying media for years? Can you prove that I can get the same value?”

    Does that come down to a lack of education at agencies? 

    Agencies have yet to build the skill set in a lot of cases. Publishers haven’t provided enough data around their inventory. Ad fraud has played a role. We’re not pushing for hard enough statements of results and clear goal-setting at the beginning of campaigns.

    To do that, you need mastery of multiple DSPs and DMPs. You need people to set up campaigns like scientific experiments. And you need to sift through results and control the campaign in flight to get the improvements you want. I don’t know many agencies that have that skill set.

    Essence does have that skill set. Does that make your role more consultative to clients or other agencies at GroupM? 

    Buying is not the value-add that an agency should provide. It’s setting goals, strategy and communication, building technology, and helping clients understand it. It’s data mastery.

    Compensation is something we really need to address. When you're providing those services and looking for the people to manage it in a procurement-driven organization, that’s a challenge we still need to resolve.

    How do you get around that? There’s such a legacy of clients viewing agencies as a cost. 

    You don't go to Accenture or Deloitte say, “We want the smartest minds in the industry and we’re going to pay nothing.” More sophisticated clients are trying to gain competitive advantage and they need smart marketers to help them do that. That doesn’t lead you down the path of buying the cheapest media you can possibly get.

    Good procurement says, “We want the best service at the best value that you can provide.” I don't mind talking about what value looks like, but most procurement people aren’t there yet.

    This interview has been edited

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