Beau Jackson
Apr 16, 2024

EssenceMediacom's UK boss on why media should sit at the top table with creative

Kate Rowlinson explains how, one year after the merger of Essence and MediaCom, the GroupM agency is ready to break through.

EssenceMediacom's UK boss on why media should sit at the top table with creative

The stage was set at Leicester Square Vue cinema in March of this year, with EssenceMediacom UK chief executive officer Kate Rowlinson and her EssenceMediacom X counterpart Clare Chapman facing a room packed with clients, colleagues and press.

It’s two years since the merger between hot-shot digital agency Essence and planning powerhouse MediaCom (complete with pre-merger uppercase “C”) was announced, and Rowlinson and Chapman are in the spotlight to celebrate the agencies’ first anniversary, reinforce the “breakthrough” proposition, and ultimately answer one looming question: how do these two agencies work together yet also manage to compete?

Globally, there is no difference. The agency operates as EssenceMediacom. But in the UK, they are divided—1,100 people at EssenceMediacom and 740 to EssenceMediacom X.

By billings, EssenceMediacom was already the UK’s biggest media agency by some distance, with $1.9 billion (£1.56 billion) and EssenceMediacom X was ranked number nine with $525 million (£422 million), according to Nielsen estimates for the most recent Campaign School Reports.

While it’s no secret that EssenceMediacom X was borne out of clashes between big-ticket clients including Sky and BT and Sainsbury’s and Tesco, the split has confused the market in the UK as some find it hard to see the benefits of two agencies with such similar names and remit. 

Centre stage at the One Year On event in Leicester Square, one client asked Rowlinson and Chapman the obvious: is it possible that EssenceMediacom X will eventually cease to exist? Characteristically direct, Rowlinson’s response was: “No.” 

She added: “There are no plans to end up as one, because we've got to manage some amazingly large and wonderful clients in competing categories.”

Speaking about it further to Campaign in her glass-box office at 124 Theobalds Road, London, she says: “The reality is, ‘breakthrough’ is the unifier. Ultimately we're all part of the same family, but businesses inevitably have their own slightly nuanced culture and identity within that.”

“Breakthrough” is the launch proposition of EssenceMediacom, X included, which aims to take creative risks to put better-than-best practice in its work for clients, a sentiment Rowlinson saw reflected in Richard Huntingdon’s speech against marketing dogma at Campaign’s 2024 Year Ahead Breakfast Briefing.

“I think if everyone's doing the same thing that's not good for clients,” she says. “And we think that innovation and bringing innovation to client challenges is our sole purpose—we call those ‘breakthroughs’.”

124 Theobalds Road has been the heart of MediaCom since 2006 and it’s fitting that Rowlinson should be speaking here ahead of EssenceMediacom’s move across the river to Southwark to be closer to other WPP agencies later this year. As identities go, she is Mediacom through and through. 

Unlike many others in the industry, Rowlinson’s decision to go into media was intentional. “I’m interested in what someone’s media consumption says about them,” she says. “It speaks to the kind of person you are, the interests and beliefs you have, the communities you belong to. If brands tap into this in the right way it can be very powerful.”

Rowlinson, who is chair of judges for the Campaign Media Awards 2024, taking place at the Royal Lancaster Hotel this coming Thursday (18 April), started out in media with a brief stint as a runner on a CBBC show. She was introduced to the industry by a friend who was an account planner at a creative agency. She then started as a planner/buyer for MediaCom in the early 1990s. 

“Media planning is also a science and a huge responsibility when you think about the level of investments we are involved in at EssenceMediacom,” she says. “I don’t take that lightly.”

After leaving for a couple of competitors and to have her children, Rowlinson returned to MediaCom in 2011, first as new business lead across EMEA, then managing director for the region. Before becoming CEO, pre-merger in 2019, she took up the worldwide hubs role instilling Nick Lawson’s “One MediaCom” strategy in all Mediacom offices around the globe.

“One MediaCom” Rowlinson says, has now been “completely reinvented” due to the merger, but the same principle of unity is at the core of how she is bringing together two different cultures under EssenceMediacom. In an agency first, part of this plan was to bring all people, from every office, together under one roof to understand how to leverage “breakthrough."

“The focus for last year was about taking people on this journey to EssenceMediacom,” she says. “We doubled down on education around the new products and tools and services that we were introducing as part of the EssenceMediacom merger.” 

In a wider context, WPP is striving for agency consolidation and within GroupM global CEO Christian Juhl has introduced the “Synergy” strategy to centralise functions and processes. “Synergy, as Christian Juhl has talked about in the press, is about standardisation and client centricity—so standardise where you can,” she says. “But really the agency brands are still front and centre in the Synergy plan.”

As part of Synergy, Juhl has moved GroupM agencies to a country-level profit and loss model. Though this raises the question about agencies’ and their leaders’ autonomy within the structure, Rowlinson is adamant that the restructure still allows for individuality. She adds: “So yes, we're moving to a market P&L, but this agency is still about ‘breakthrough’. It’s still about a very clear and differentiated proposition in the market, and also within GroupM and it’s about bringing that proposition and that promise to our clients and new clients.”

In its annual results for 2023, WPP reported losses in organic revenue for its creative agencies bolstered by the strong performance of GroupM’s media agencies. This is indicative of a wider industry trend for media outperforming creative, which Rowlinson believes is being driven by marketers’ awareness of the value of media.

“The reality is that the media investment is the biggest investment on a marketing plan,” she says. “Over time, the realisation of that and what it takes to maximise that budget, and to get the best return on that investment, has just become more and more prominent.”

As a clear planner, and Mediacommer, at heart, though, does it ever get frustrating when creative steals the limelight from high-performing media?  “It's unhelpful to me, conversations about what's more important creative or media. They are equally important,” she says. “Creative, and the strength of your creative work is a massive indicator of effectiveness – so is media. And I think media at the top table alongside creative is the best possible way of doing it.”

As well as a new identity, Rowlinson has a legacy to uphold at EssenceMediacom. As CEO she follows in the footsteps of Josh Krichefski, now CEO EMEA and UK at GroupM, and the formidable Karen Blackett, stepping down as UK president of WPP this year. Rowlinson describes Blackett a “hard act to follow” due to her pioneering work in diversity and inclusion.

Those who have worked with Rowlinson revere her as an advocate for equity in her own right, particularly in her advocacy of female leaders. Kate Anthony, who worked with Rowlinson at both MediaCom and EssenceMediacom before joining Spark Foundry last year, says she was the first leader to encourage her to “take notice of privileges and bias” and empower others to take an “active role in how we navigated the world and each other."

“That kind of allyship has stayed with me and I’m grateful to Kate for her leadership in this,” she adds. Similarly, Chapman describes being taken under Rowlinson’s wing since she became CEO of EssenceMediacom X. “Kate is incredible. Wise, direct, empathetic. A great laugh,” she says. “She has really put her arm around me and I’m so grateful for her support and friendship.”

Though not preoccupied with what her legacy will be, Rowlinson says if she is able to continue Blackett’s work on inclusion and “maintain the brilliance of this agency” she’ll be content.

Focusing on the year ahead, one immediate test of Rowlinson’s mettle will be how the agency fares facing the Sky media review. With an appetite for the high-stakes pace of pitching, Rowlinson calls the review an opportunity, one that will “showcase the full strength of our EssenceMediacom and WPP capability and demonstrate how this can be harnessed to drive growth. We’re going into this with exactly the right mindset. It’s exciting.”

A legacy account from MediaCom, Sky’s European media account is expected to be worth $423 million (£250 million) in UK billings alone. Incidentally, it is also one of the conflicting clients that made EssenceMediacom X, which holds competitor BT, a necessity in the UK.

Though the question of conflict may continue to hound EssenceMediacom, Rowlinson’s first year leading the agency through unprecedented change has hit a resounding note with industry partners. Channel 4 chief revenue officer Veriça Djurdjevic says: “The creation of EssenceMediacom under Kate’s management has been a huge success. It’s clear that one year on, the breakthrough proposition is embraced by the whole EssenceMediacom team.”

2023 may have been the year for unity, but a new stage has now been set for Rowlinson and her capacity to keep on breaking through into 2024.

Campaign UK

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