Tim Irwin has been CEO of Essence EMEA, the award-winning, industry-innovating data and analytics agency, since 2018 and was previously COO.
Tim, winner of Campaign’s Media Agency Head of the Year 2020, has piloted Essence throughout the global pandemic with achievements that include five new business wins, 100% client retention across the EMEA, some of the agency’s highest employee satisfaction results and even more awards.
CG: Is there a place for creativity within data analytics? 25 years ago, advertising was an awareness tool. Now it’s a sales tool.
TI: Data analysis is the DNA of our business. We use data to inform where clients should be spending their advertising budget and spend a lot of time measuring the experiments around ‘What if we did this … what change would that make?’ What we do is very scientific and very certain whereas creativity is often linked with uncertainty, trial by error and originality. We would see a lot of risk in that.
25 years ago, advertising was an awareness tool. Now it’s a sales tool.
Thanks to the level of detail we have, we can experiment with very low level experiments for ad campaigns and media buys with very little risk to the advertiser to find the most effective solutions. The guts of our business lies in behaving like a data science business and applying our skills to buy media campaigns that often target two thirds of the population.
So creativity can be about how you combine personalisation with scale. How do you create campaign targeting strategies that are very relevant but reach significant numbers of people at the same time?
CG: Does relying on data analytics have a downside?
TI: Data analytics can lead to very literal interpretations …. there’s a lack of serendipity. So the challenge is to make sure we’re not just measuring things that we’re already aware of.
I’ll give you an example. Before the pandemic began, one of our clients decided to launch in the UK. We did all the normal things that a media agency would do in considering who would be the primary buyer. Our desk research in the conventional way led to a belief that the target audience would be a stereotypical city type with a high level disposable income, probably living in London, no kids – the BMW target audience.
But because we didn’t entirely trust that data, which was based on past history rather than on future trends and behaviours, we ended up testing advertising that was much broader in order to discover the sweet spots of demand. Ironically, although the initial audience was still one of the segments to target, it wasn’t the most important – the main one was far broader: female, probably not working, spending a lot of time at home and very interested in fitness.
Humans are not entirely predictable and there’s always a small danger that we miss out on that unpredictability, but the upside is far more positive than any downside.
CG: What challenges does the digital landscape present?
TI: On the one hand, keeping up with consumers and, on the other, understanding that they are at very different stages. For example, there’s a hell of a difference between my 15-year-old son in terms of demand and abilities and those of my 85-year-old mother. So, we have to respect and acknowledge that varied landscape of consumer understanding and demand.
There are issues around privacy and behaviour – the ecosystem is very easy to disrupt in a bad way: look at the US elections, the Brexit vote, Cambridge Analytica. The opposite of that is a libertarian view with concerns about regulations with coming out of the EU and even overregulations. The US government may try to break up the big tech companies, which might have the impact of slowing down the advancement of digital tech. It’s a question of getting the balance right between privacy and pace of change.
Consumers lives have been enriched by technology and digital advancements. There are lots of issues to face up to over the coming years, but, overall, it’s very exciting.
CG: If clients focus on what the data shows, and what to do as a result, is there less chance of groundbreaking work? Do clients care about creativity?
TI: Yes I think they do, though it depends how you define creativity in advertising. Creativity can’t just be original for the sake of originality; it has to be effective. It has to have some outcome that’s desirable. I think advertisers still want creativity in that sense.
You can’t hide behind an original idea, like you could 30 years ago, because there are now so many ways of proving its effectiveness. So it’s become more challenging for clients to buy a funny idea simply because it’s an original thought – they want proof that the idea will work.
CG: Where do the opportunities lie for the future?
TI: Consumer expectations are now so enormously high when buying online: it’s so frustrating when something doesn’t work out, so you end up finding the product elsewhere. Consumers are driving technological advancements and my favourite example of that, which is indicative of how I think things will change in the next few years, is the bot customer service. Retailers like Amazon are absolutely amazing at it. It’s all about AI. The ability to talk to your computer and have your problem fixed or question answered is phenomenal.
Although it’s annoying that the same ads keep popping up, this will improve over a period of learning and the advertising and the messages you see will become ever more helpful. I’m very positive about how those companies are going to continue to keep up with consumer needs and demands. The consumer experience will continue to evolve.
CG: Define what creativity means to you.
TI: Creativity is originality blended with an effective outcome. It’s the one thing that sets us apart from one another, our one unique advantage, our one way of being distinct. In my role as CEO, creativity is about being able to develop strategies for Essence, for our clients and for our people that are different and better than those of our competitors.
Do check out my previous interviews with people leading the way in their fields about what creativity means to them. Find all six on my blog page.
Written by Caroline Gibson, freelance copywriter, London.
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