Brand secrets for the digital age: Dentsu Aegis UK CEO Tracy De Groose on agency agility and the industry’s diversity problem
Few in the UK’s advertising industry will have failed to note the aggressive expansion of Dentsu Aegis Network. Since it was formed last year in the largest merger ever seen in the industry, the UK arm has acquired a number of agencies, to disrupt the hegemony of the more established players.
Its most recent addition is content business John Brown Media, but most acquisitions have been digital. “It sounds like a generalisation, but digital people understand business outcomes better,” says Tracy De Groose, chief executive of Dentsu Aegis Network UK. “From a consumer’s digital footprint, they can gain a deeper understanding of consumer behaviour because convergence means the digital world is getting closer to point of purchase.”
Responsible for coordinating 3,000 people across 15 agencies in the UK and Ireland, De Groose, with the team in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, has achieved growth of 12.9 per cent this year. She tells City A.M. about building a horizontal network and how she has learnt to let go.
## What’s the secret to building a brand in the digital economy?
In the old world, the two spheres of advertising were known as “above” and “below the line”. The former encompassed everything which made consumers feel good about your brand, and the latter was everything which drove a purchase. But now, consumers just click on a video ad to make a purchase, so the two have converged. Today, everything which is related to your brand needs to drive sales, and everything which drives sales needs to accentuate your brand. If you want to build a brand in the digital economy, you have to bring these two worlds together.
## How do you go about this?
It’s a tough task, and requires agencies to draw on a lot of expertise and different skill sets. So it is important to create a network structure and organisational design which facilitates agile working between all our agencies. First, you need to get rid of vertical silos within an agency and the network it operates in. At Dentsu Aegis, the reporting line works horizontally. The creative, the digital, the social, and the analytics report to one chief executive, which is me in the UK, and my counterparts in every market around the world. This allows us to blur the lines across different disciplines, across all our agencies, to give clients a bespoke team which can cater to their specific needs.
My role is to create the conditions for all the agencies and their executives to work in a more collaborative way. Millennials prefer working like this, reaching out to other people to get the expertise and knowledge they need. Moving from the head of an agency, Carat, to become head of the network in the UK, I had to relinquish control, which is essential to facilitating collaboration.
## Dentsu Aegis doesn’t invest heavily in advertising creative. Is the industry’s view of creative changing?
We’re at the start of a new era for creativity. We’ve recently seen the retailers put out their beautifully crafted 60-second films, and these spots will remain important. But there is still a rather arrogant, old-world view when it comes to paid media – that advertisers know what consumers want, and if they’re not biting, it’s because you’re not shouting loudly enough. I think our notion of creativity will shift to a greater understanding of context – understanding what people need and when.
This doesn’t mean doing away with human understanding, but advertising needs to be a marriage between the head and the heart. And by using algorithms, we are giving our heads some help, and we can make targeting more personal, serving someone who is stranded at an airport relevant adverts for nearby hotels, for example.
We’re probably one per cent of where we’ll end up in being able to offer consumers what they’re really after. Dentsu Aegis doesn’t have a lot of advertising creative agencies within our group, but we are building capabilities around content, with our acquisition of John Brown Media, e-commerce with eCommera, social media with Tempero, and many others. The future is about creating value for audiences and, in return, fostering a level of engagement or loyalty, and data-powered technology will be increasingly behind that.
## As someone who has called for more diversity in advertising, why is under-representation in the industry such a problem?
Despite being part of the creative industries, we’re incredibly averse to recruiting people who don’t look like us. This has been perpetuated over a long time, and now it is starting to hold us back. We spend a lot of time thinking about other people’s behaviour, and all the while, we don’t see how unbalanced the advertising industry is.
Roughly 70 per cent of purchases are made by women, and yet only three per cent of creative directors are women. It should be worrying to us that the volume of women’s creative voices at an executive level is so low.
The solution isn’t about promoting more women on the condition that they behave like men, but encouraging women to be themselves, supporting the style of leadership which suits them best. We must invite people in from all backgrounds, and allow them to feel comfortable sharing their perspectives, even if their ideas are very different from the status quo.
Not only do diverse businesses perform better, but how can we sell products and services to consumers if we don’t reflect them? So Dentsu Aegis UK has a partnership with the Prince’s Trust whereby disadvantaged young people interested in advertising can come and work for us. London is a real melting pot and the industry needs to embrace that. If it does, we’ll start seeing some truly great ideas.
**This interview was first published in** [**City AM, 30 November 2015**](http://www.cityam.com/229839/brand-secrets-digital-age)