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Adland has a tendency to fixate on creativity at the expense of those planning, buying and executing campaigns. But no longer. In The Drum’s newest series, Meet the Media Minds, we dig into the creative ways the world’s biggest media agencies are navigating the digital waves. In the hot seat is Clare Chapman, executive vice-president and head of media at Essence (who wrote a really good gaming explainer for us earlier this year).

What would be your first lesson for a newbie buyer?

Accept that while you may become an expert you will never master media. The landscape and the tech underpinning it is in constant and ever-accelerating evolution. You’ll have to learn something new almost every day. You’ll never get bored but you can never be complacent either.

What are the biggest challenges facing the business?

The media industry tends to attract people who like certainty: planners, analysts, folk with strong attention to detail who like to be able to predict the outcomes of their decisions. Operating in the context of never-ending flux can feel stressful; add a day-to-day requirement to be agile and responsive, and mental health suffers. The industry has only just started to get to grips with the need to care for our people in that way.

What platform or channel excites you the most?

Watching the world of social media emerge and grow into the complex, polarizing, awesome beast it is today has been fascinating; for better or for worse, it has transformed our societies and our industry. It’s exciting to see platforms evolving and consumer behavior shifting.

What’s the most clever or innovative use of media you can think of?

I work at one of the most inventive agencies in what is a supremely innovative industry, so there’s an embarrassment of riches to choose from.

One of the initiatives I’m most excited about is Pegaus, the codename for our intelligent creative tool we developed in collaboration with Google. Pegasus maximizes creative relevance and improves performance without using any personal data and promises to be enormously valuable in the forthcoming cookieless world.

I also love the work we have done to invent a new algorithmic bidding tool, which allows us to optimize against customer lifetime value resulting in significant revenue gains versus standard optimisations.

How is your agency evolving and how’s that differentiated from the competition?

Essence was born of the digital age and our early clients tended to be our peers – other businesses that were born of the ‘new economy’, with platforms at their core and a mutual love of data, tech and analytics.

We still proudly work with many such clients – including Google, Airbnb and Peloton – but as we’ve grown and developed a broader offering, we’ve started to attract a very different type of client too. Established brands have recognized the opportunity to leverage our digital nous to support their transformation, and we’re now working with the likes of BT Group, L’Oréal and Sainsbury’s Argos to help them win in the new economy.

In brand relationships, how’s the power dynamic, pay and the payment changing?

The dynamic has never been more equitable from our perspective – the events of 2020 served to bring us closer than ever to our clients. The agility, resilience and commitment shown by our people was nothing short of extraordinary and the client appreciation received was testament to this.

The range of expertise within Essence is incredibly diverse, as are the needs of the brands we work with, so there’s no set model of remuneration. Creative production, data strategy, feed management, tech stack consultancy and performance-related income are all part of the mix.

Is tech making your job easier or complicating matters?

Both. Tech allows us to create and deliver smarter solutions but requires even smarter people to get the best out of it. So in many ways, it adds complexity but it also forces us to be better.

Better rarely means easier, but sometimes it does. Essence is full of smart people who can whip up their own script-based solutions to solve challenges like the repetitive nature of in-platform campaign setup. So we build more tech to make the complexity of existing tech easier – it’s all terribly meta.

Where’s the money going? What’s the shift over the years?

Spend on digital media continues to increase as consumers migrate towards digital methods of consumption across all channels. TV spend has proven remarkably resilient in the face of downward trends in linear viewing, but everything else has been feeling a little squeezed.

Right now, the drive towards the inclusion of often under-served audiences aligned with a more nuanced approach to brand suitability means things are shifting in favor of smaller publishers and content that would otherwise have been ignored or excluded. It’s cheering to see media investment being more equitably distributed along with audience focus; both are good for our clients’ businesses and the overall health of our industry.

Make a big prediction about the sector

We’ll grapple with the desire – and urgent need – to be more sustainable, while trying to resolve the tension that the very nature of our industry is anti-sustainable. Our sector works to grow our clients’ businesses by driving consumer demand for their products and services, most often on the basis of volume and penetration – getting more people to buy more stuff, more often. Yes, we can make our offices carbon neutral, and help our clients understand and offset the carbon generated by their media plans and creative production. But to become truly sustainable we’ll need to think bigger and discover how to grow brands on the basis of different models, such as higher value and longer-term relationships.

You can subscribe to our Future of Media briefing here for more insights and analysis. Last week Simon Bevan, chief investment officer at Havas Media Group got the series off to a strong start.