Essence has rapidly grown in APAC from a four-person Singapore team in 2013, to nine offices in six markets. Campaign Asia-Pacific spoke to APAC CEO Kyoko Matsushita about her plans to provide the much sought after integrated solutions clients are calling for.
Essence had a very busy 2018 in APAC, what were some of the biggest changes?
We’ve grown so much. We’ve hired about 120 people just this year organically, but also we integrated another 110 people. Whenever I got to each office, obviously there are new faces, but its just the vibe is different, it’s growing. But it’s not just the numbers, it’s organic growth of existing clients, and it was also a year of integration, on-boarding the businesses in partnership with GroupM. It’s been so much that we have always been selective in the kind of business we onboard, so we’re in a good place. We’ve been saying no.
What’s the thinking behind being so selective?
We want to do justice to our existing and new clients. There are times when you win business but then the onboarding experience is terrible. If you start off on the wrong foot with a new client, it’s then hard to get on the correct path. It can be wasted effort on both ends. For us it’s not the number of clients we have, it’s the type and quality of the relationship we can have, how transparent and honest we can be.
We focus on longer-term goals with clients. While of course there are things that move around in the immediate vicinity, we don’t lose sight of where we want to go with them. That’s a way of retaining a longer-term relationship and trust. It’s not always rosy, but that’s the aspiration we have to have, to build that kind of relationship with clients.
Even though we’ve grown to 400-plus people now, my message is always: numbers are one thing, but it’s you who impacts the client in the room. It’s one to one. Don’t forget, you’re dealing with people. Be curious about the business and the product, then naturally you’ll start to engage with the client and any client will be really happy if you show interest in their business.
Does that curiosity help build trust?
I tell my people–I was on the client side for about 10 years–I say ‘clients are keen to get agency expertise involved. You may think that clients only order agencies about and tell them what to do, but it’s actually the opposite. Clients really want your intelligence and expertise’. But for you to help them, you need to know what they’re suffering. They’re not just going to open up and talk about it right away.
It’s like a relationship, it’s all about transparency, the good, the bad and the ugly. It’s sometimes about admitting defeat and starting anew, but showing the willingness to learn and try again. Ok, you can’t continue to make mistakes, then you’re out, but any client at the end of the day appreciates that honesty and being vulnerable about some things that we may not be good at today, but we’ll improve. That kind of mentality is what I want my leadership to share with the wider group as well. That’s our culture.
Data is the foundation of the digital marketing business now. How can agencies help clients work out how to get the best out of it?
A lot of data isn’t clean. I had a client say: ‘you can access all our data, but we don’t even know which parts you need’. That’s a common challenge. There are so many different data, so how do we help clients organise it, and use it to inform us with insights and recommendations. That’s an increasing need of marketing and more so in the future. It’s nothing new, but it’s more urgent.
On the agency side, I think everybody wants to claim they can solve that problem, but it’s not easy, even for us. There’s certain due diligence you need to do, and still certain clients aren’t willing to share those data. It’s an area where true partnership will be required and trust between agencies and clients. You need data specialists and you need to have clear objective around what you’re trying to solve. Then once the data has been pulled out, you need a business analyst skill set to use the data to find insights and predictions. Then you need media and market experts to really think about business planning.
You need a whole new type of specialists, with data being so vastly available. So it’s a longer engagement with the client, compared to the traditional media agency model, and Essence is investing in this talent, with technology as the backbone.
Hand in hand with data is technology. How do agencies help clients work out what technology they need, with all the different options available?
Clients want an oiled engine, but they look for efficiency too. So at Essence we’re very much investing in automation towards 2020 and beyond. It can turn manual work into just a few minutes. But even if the technology is there, if people don’t have the smarts to use it, it’s useless. So we invest a lot in training people in these hard skill sets, but also in defining what the business objectives and media goals are. Because if we set those KPIs wrong, these are machines, if we get that data wrong, the rest is useless.
With technology, everything will become more transparent as to how marketing impacts the bottom line. Marketers are going to be challenged and more exposed about what they need to deliver. So this trend and the expectations of marketing leadership is going to evolve, and with that the question will become how can agencies support them? From my point of view, I really want to be in a position where I can be their adviser and partner, even beyond media as well.
You can be proud of your technology, but if it’s not workable for clients and the business, it’s a failure. A lot companies claim ‘my tool or platform can solve your problem’, but because we can say a lot of things, it can be smoke and mirrors. We can potentially win business that way, but you’ll also be quick in losing that business. I’d rather start small and build; build trust, build a relationship and so build the business. That quality time with the client and that trusting relationship with transparency is critical, when machines can, and will, takeover the manual work. A person’s ability to engage with clients and be forward thinking is really going to define an agency’s strength in the future.