On the occassion of the 2014 Creativity Festival in Cannes, I caught up with the Global President of iProspect Ben Wood on his perspective of the changing search agency landscape and how his agency is evolving as one of the Dentsu Aegis agency brands…
Bruce Rogers: Tell me about iProspect and your new role as Global President. How is the agency expanding beyond search?
Ben Wood: I think about three simple services: customer insight, content creation and content amplification. It’s reassuring to me that we’ve always been brilliant as a global media company at understanding consumers, really understanding what motivates those consumers and trying to get into the intent as to why those consumers are searching for what they’re searching for. You can’t fill a content pipeline without really understanding how that content is going to resonate, motivate and engage with the receiver. It’s good old-fashioned account planning.
Ben Wood, Global President, iProspect
Then you have content creation which again is a whole new space for us–having the skill sets in house to create at scale digital assets for our clients that will help engage with consumers and therefore drive digital performance. Let’s imagine we have a travel plan, like grappling with wanting fresh content for some hotels that are advertising in Portugal.
For that plan they might want for us to send a video crew over to Portugal to create some unique footage of those hotels. At the other end of the spectrum you might have an e-commerce client who has 25,000 SKUs they’re selling on a web site and every three months they might just need new product descriptions for all of those items because they want to keep them fresh and they want to keep them different from the competition.
In the middle you might have a B2B brand that’s looking to create engaging and exciting white papers to try to bring to life a particular proposition. It’s a fairly broad spectrum of delivery of content. I don’t think for a second I’m talking about the kind of high creativity that you find in R/GA or the major creative agency. I’m talking about a more factory-like production.
Rogers: Is it more akin to what traditionally was called contract publishing?
Wood: Yes. Companies used to be able to create a magazine for their customers and prospects. Now they were going on a journey toward trying to be more digital. So the skill sets that we’re looking for in the origination space is about strategy and insight. But in the creation space it really is about employing journalists. It’s about employing editors, journalists, writers, graphic designers.It’s about having this exciting mix of different talent that can suddenly help us create content at scale.
The third area is content amplification and that’s equally important. Once we’ve built the right content, we need to amplify it and get it out there. What’s interesting for us is we cluster our services around what we call the owned, earned and bought media concept. All of our traditional services and expertise in bought media like search can help amplify content. We’ve paid for distribution of the content through native advertising; plus you’re using your client’s assets, web sites, blogs and apps to distribute that content through their own channels.
And then in the earned arena, we’re leveraging social through blogger outreach, Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter– whatever it might be. We’re helping our clients leverage those channels to push content out in such a way that engage consumers. And if you do those three things together brilliantly, ultimately what you’re starting to see is the delivery of digital performance, which is what’s at the heart of our proposition. What’s different about our approach at iProspect is that everything we do is underpinned by a rigor in terms of what the output is being delivered. I think that’s the biggest challenge for more traditional creative businesses as they move into the space.
Wood: When it comes to how do we build into this content great analytics? How do we optimize content? How do we create a program so that we use data to personalize that content in such a way that it becomes incredibly motivating to a consumer in a particular place in time? Those are the elements that comprise this new content space. Those are the places where that most people struggle with because we’re not talking about static content. We’re talking about content which is fluid and is bespoke for particular individuals knowing what we know about where they are at a particular buying journey.
Rogers: Are you leveraging the network? Is that part of the advantage of being part of the Dentsu Aegis holding company?
Wood: That’s a good question. We have what we think is a pretty unique approach to servicing our clients, which is that rather than our agency brands racking up globally they’re lined-up locally. So a U.S.-based client can work with iProspect, Carat or any other agency brand in the Dentsu Aegis network they all report into the person who ultimately owns the P & L for the U.S. Whereas in other agency holding groups, what you find is that each brand has its own global reporting structure. So as the global president of iProspect, I’m not that obsessed about who does what in any particular country. What I’m obsessed about is the products, the services and the vision for the services iProspect provides. As a result, we can build cross-brand solutions with clients in a way that other agencies can’t.
For iProspect, for example, there’s a lot of very smart tools within Carat that helps with consumer insights. We have a tool called CCS (Consumer Connections Study) which interviews between 10,000 and 20,000 people in 60 markets around the world and helps us understand those consumers’ consumption habits, their motivations, their lifestyles, and their media consumption. It’s a bit like TGI or MRI. It’s a study into how consumers behave, how they consume media.
That’s an amazing place to start when it comes to content origination. And that’s not a bad place to go when you’re thinking about amplifying content and when you thinking about the channels and what you need to amplify content. We can leverage some of Carat’s smartsto help us with content development. Then at the other end of the spectrum we’re talking about one of the world’s biggest global creative agencies in Dentsu. We also have amplifiers through our global trading business.
I’m not sure publishers have quite yet realized the potential revenue in creating content for brands. As brands go on a journey to being storytellers, and realize they need to find new ways or narratives about consumers There is such a huge opportunity for the world’s biggest and best and most personal kind of publishing companies. So in the UK a business like IPC or EMAP are starting to create that content for brands. They’ve got reams of journalists and fantastic libraries of images and video. And they’ve got the talent to create the content. So we can start to leverage the Dentsu Aegis network relationships with those publishers in such a way that then they’re going help us with this content and then distribute that content. I think publishers are going to be incredibly important as we think about how we build out this proposition.
Rogers: I call it the journalist re-employment act. You can’t wake up one day and be a storyteller if you’re creating spreadsheets on advertising performance. So what’s your journey to getting here? What’s your personal vision for where you want to take iProspect?
Wood: I’ve been talking with Aegis for some time. Ten years ago I was with Carat Digital. It was right before Carat realized everything was going digital. I ran Carat Digital business for 12 very happy years back in the early 2000s when there was explosive growth in the category. Having established Carat’s Digital business, I went to establish the digital business for Vizeum and did the same for them. I know the culture and the way that those two companies worked.
I was in the UK and there was a small business in the UK that doesn’t exist anymore a business called Diffiniti, a digital start up that we acquired. They needed a bit of reinvention I think. It was one of those companies that had done well by being a digital specialist and the big agencies weren’t very good at digital. Suddenly it found itself in a place where big agencies got good at digital and they’d probably do it cheaper.
Their clients all had legacy relationships with big media companies. Clearly it wasn’t going to evolve as a continuing proposition. So I joined Diffiniti and very quickly saw that there was an opportunity to take the iProspect brand out of the U.S.
This was about five or six years ago. I re-launched Diffiniti as IProspect and started to trade under a slightly different proposition which was this digital performance proposition, which sufficiently differentiated us and started to get some traction. What was really important is that this is the thing that has created the momentum and the traction for our iProspect globally to grow into one of the biggest search firms in the world. What’s given us the traction is the a while back when we failed to establish the business outside of the U.S., we created an operating model which set up all of the search marketing for Carat and Vizeum clients to be managed by iProspect. So we created an internal marketplace but gave the business immediate scale.
So from day one in the UK we launched iPropsect and upgraded every client that Carat andVizeum had for all of their search.
Rogers: So iProspect became the defacto search agency for every client in the network.
Wood: We become the internal specialist agency and instantly gave us scale everywhere.
Rogers: Are you number one in search?
Wood: Globally yes.
Rogers: That’s what I thought.
Wood: We applied that template globally and that has left a crazy ride for five or six years. At the end of it, I’ve kind of tumbled out as the global face of the brand. I’d say that’s kind the end of chapter one. It’s been really exciting. Everybody likes to work in a fast-growing environment.
I think chapter two though is even more exciting. We now need to change. We’ve got to evolve. I’m really excited about the opportunity from my business to start to create emotive content – content that is emotionally engaged with consumers. We’ve been brilliant at harnessing consumer intent. So really that’s going to be stage two. But the other thing about that second stage of our evolution, which is important, is that we’ve also been a business that has ultimately played at the bottom of the funnel. So it’s not a bad place to play. We need to help out customers become more sophisticated about overall marketing effectiveness.
Rogers: You are referring to having a greater understanding of consumer intent beyond last click activity?
Wood: I think as we drive that stage we will be champions of a more sophisticated approach. What it means is that if you’re optimizing digital advertising to a business outcome you can’t just optimize the bottom of the funnel. You have to optimize throughout the funnel. So we’re going to need to build a much more full funneled proposition as ultimately marketers will become more sophisticated.
Rogers: Partly what I see, and I don’t know if you see the same thing, is that in the beginning clients knew nothing about search. They had to go to folks like iProspect. That’s how the business started. I now see that a lot of those services are being brought in house as clients increasingly want to own their own data. How do you play when those basic services get moved in house?
Wood: First I would say it’s much more up front in the U.S. than elsewhere in the world. That’s not to say that I don’t think it will localize as a trend, but for now it’s specifically U.S. Look at companies like Expedia. It’s all in house. Some of the big travel aggravators have also brought it in house. It’s definitely a trend and I completely agree with your assertion that clients are thinking increasingly about data.
We’ll see clients coming to us and saying “We’re going to win the data. We’re going to win it together to go choose the technology. We’re going to have you guys manage it.” And actually doing it that way it’s pretty transparent. Everybody’s happy. But I do think there are implicit challenges for clients around scale and resources. Then there are challenges around measurement across channels, including mobile.
Rogers: Are you helping folks on that journey?
Wood: Yes. We spend time with the guys that have been here forever like Microsoft. They’re the ones thinking about it. They’re offering Windows free of charge now on mobile devices as they start to distribute their assets across device. Because it’s through those assets that they’re going to be able to create a single view of the consumer. I think Facebook is going to do it well. Facebook is doing smart stuff in terms of how they’re fusing web and offline data. They’re doing a lot of work around fusing customer databases into their back office which is smart. I think it’s going to be fascinating to see how that goes.
But we are completely agnostic about technology. We will simply look at our clients’ business objectives, make some recommendations about the media channels they flag, what content they need, and what technology we utilize to build that out. We think that’s the best place for us to be, especially as things are changing so fast. We need to be the experts in selecting the technology and the data in cases so when they approach you just run through the plan. I don’t think we want to be in a place where we own a DMP, a DSP, or an ad server. We’re a media agency. We’re not very good at investing in stuff.
Rogers: Those who do go down that route will wind up competing against Google
Wood: Yes and then you can’t. Google seems to be quite happy not to compete with us in the agency space.
Rogers: True, now. Might that change?
Wood: They don’t fancy the business. Let’s be honest.
Rogers: Why, because they can’t make enough money?
Wood: I think for them it’s messy and there’s not enough margin in it. Google is a data driven business and they’ll do whatever is right for them.
Rogers: They’ll just live wherever data lives.
Wood: Yes and their decision’s are completely unemotional.
Rogers: They are amazing.
Wood: Then there’s Facebook. For a long time they were obsessed about keeping people in their ecosystem. So it was all about run ads, drive people to the page where you engage them . What they’ve realized actually is that they can just use that data to build this huge performance advertising solution. So we’re leaning in quite heavily to Facebook. We think it could be big.
Rogers: And they’re starting to share that knowledge with you?
Wood: Yes, we love Facebook. I think that they’ve invested significantly in the resource that they place around agency and agency relationships and we have a good relationship with Facebook. And they’re smart enough to know that they need to lead into our organizations in different ways.
Rogers: Thank you for the overview. Good luck with phase two of iProspect’s evolution.
Wood: Thank you.
This article was published by Forbes (online) - http://www.forbes.com/sites/brucerogers/2014/07/06/interview-with-iprospect-global-president-ben-wood/