GroupM digital agency Essence on Thursday launched a data strategy unit, its latest shift in an ongoing reorg around audience-based planning and buying.
To lead the new unit, Essence has tapped Jon Taylor, previously VP of operations and audience insights at Dun & Bradstreet.
The data strategy team will guide clients through platform selection and deployment, determine who in the organization gets access to which insights and help clients navigate data partnerships and deals. It will also help clients plug gaps in their data stacks by building custom tools for additional reporting and advanced analytics.
Data strategy is not to be confused with Essence’s analytics team, which provides reporting and insights throughout a campaign’s life cycle. Implementing data strategy at the outset of each engagement allows Essence to set a playbook for how data should be deployed and operationalized for a given client.
It also will make it easier for teams to integrate and operate more nimbly around clients’ business goals, said Andrew Shebbeare, co-founder and chief product officer at Essence.
“We were good at responding to client needs inside a cycle of campaigns, but typically that cycle is too short for data strategy to be established really soundly,” he said. “If you do that ahead of time, you get better insights about people. If you wait until the campaign brief arrives, it’s already too late.”
The data strategy unit will be “a little more consulting-like than a traditional ad agency model,” Shebbeare said. It will launch with roughly a dozen people culled from areas such as analytics, ad ops, programmatic and strategy.
As it grows, the group will look for talent with business backgrounds who can think strategically about client portfolios. It’s already brought on a former equity researcher and investment banker, for example.
“Over time, data strategy is going to be a really big piece of our business,” Shebbeare said. “We’re helping clients set up their internal organizations so they can get the most out of digital assets.”
Marketers need guidance on how to implement and leverage their data, and agencies like Essence want to be the partners to provide that. Capitalizing on the opportunity, however, is difficult for agencies as clients want specialization but face pressure from procurement to keep marketing costs low.
“You’ve got this desperate desire on the client side to have expertise, but also a conflicting desire to have simplicity and cost efficiency,” Shebbeare said. “That has created this absolute challenge for agencies to evolve their models.”
Essence embarked on this evolution when it was acquired by GroupM in 2015.
In May, Essence dissolved its mobile practice into the broader agency to democratize what was previously a specialist skill set. It’s broadened the scope of its strategy team and brought together its brand and performance media practices as clients became less interested in channel allocation and more focused on tying media spend back to business results.
“Compartmentalization of talent gets inefficient and expensive, and clients don’t like expensive,” Shebbeare said. “Navigating all the different departments makes it very difficult to get a campaign done.”
Essence’s evolution around audience and insights mirrors that of its parent company, GroupM. In November, GroupM launched mPlatform, an umbrella that expands access to tech and data expertise and assets across the group. Essence’s 700-person team is nimbler than GroupM’s 27,000, offering the parent company a test case for how to pursue its own evolution.
“We share a vision of the world with GroupM,” Shebbeare said. “In many ways we’re on a similar trajectory. I suspect we can turn on a dime a little more.”
The shift from channel- to audience-based buying is a major change for GroupM and other holding companies that have traditionally leveraged scale to “beat people up to get the CPM down,” Shebbeare said.
“Value isn’t just about better prices. It’s about better data, positions, viewability and opportunities to integrate,” he said. “The old-school investment idea of beating up your publishers to get lower rates is kind of dead.”
Essence, of course, will tap into mPlatform’s data assets, including Xaxis’ data management platform, Turbine, to help clients set their data strategies.
“We’re going through training and figuring out how our systems will integrate,” Shebbeare said. “[MPlatform is] one excellent vendor among many. We’d be fools not to tap into that.”