Emerging Platforms

The Role of the Agency in Data Management

Posted by Chris O'Hara on December 12th, 2012 at 12:01 am

A Conversation with David Spitz

When it comes to the role of the agency in data-driven digital media, few holding companies have put their money where their mouth is to the extent that WPP Digital has. After setting the tone with a bold acquisition of 24/7 Real Media, the holding company has gone on to place strategic bets on a variety of sectors within the Kawaja map. The question for marketers is whether or not they should be relying upon their agencies when it comes to technology and data. Many argue that the agency model cannot support the type of deep domain expertise needed for the complicated integrations, data science, and modeling that has become an everyday issue in modern marketing. So, should data management be the sole province of the Adobes and IBMs of the world, or is there room for agencies to play? I recently reached out to EVP of Strategy and Corporate Development David Spitz to ask about how he sees agencies working with large brands to define their data strategy.

WPP is working with some of the world’s largest brands. I suspect that many have siloed pockets of valuable data across their enterprises. What are the data challenges and, more importantly, opportunities for global brands?

David Spitz (DS): You are right; there are many data challenges across large enterprises. They range from organizational issues (what group or department should even be running these programs?), to legal and commercial issues (do we have the right to the data we want to use?), to skill set gaps, to challenges posed by legacy technologies, to lack of data standards across channels, brands, regions, or even campaigns. In my experience, though, one thing is clear: it is rarely lack of data that is the problem.

The most common single question we hear from the world’s largest brands is “Where do I start?” It helps to have a clear understanding of the opportunities and choose one or two to focus on to build confidence and momentum while keeping in mind what could come next. “Think big, start small” is one of my favorite phrases when it comes to data programs.

In terms of what those opportunities are, it really boils down to what I’ll call the 4 R’s – Reach, Relevance, Resonance and ROI.

Most companies that label themselves as “DMPs” are focused on Reach (e.g., targeting) or sometimes ROI (e.g., campaign evaluation, attribution), and mostly only in a digital sense. That might be a good place to start. However, I have also seen relevance (personalization) and resonance (social amplification) as the jumping off point for some brands. Either way, because these tools exist and can be deployed at relatively low cost, it is often best to start with digital-only applications before expanding the data program into multichannel territory.

Whether you are thinking digital or not, these four areas–Reach, Relevance, Resonance and ROI–probably represent 80% of the data opportunity for big brands, and between them you can usually identify at least one solid quick win.

When it comes to marketing, are these brands looking to their agencies for answers, or are they looking to the IBMs of the world? It seems like the agency’s ability to make an impact ends with the marketing team. Can you extend the agency’s value through to IT teams, and get everyone working together?

DS: When it comes to marketing, brands are absolutely looking to their agencies for answers. It is one thing to come up with an “enterprise architecture” and quite another to have it implemented. In many marketing functions, agencies are on the front lines of where the dollars get expressed, customer engagement happens, and [you are able to] understand what it takes to get data into a place where value can be realized.

Still, do agencies need to do a better job of partnering with CIO’s? Without a doubt. Various WPP companies have in place major partnerships with IBM, Adobe and Infosys to do just that, and at WPP Digital we recently invested in a company called Fabric and acquired a company called Acceleration, both of which specialize in marketing technology systems and, essentially, gap bridging between the CIO and the CMO.

You are working on putting many of WPP’s global data resources together (the “Data Alliance”). Tell us about the project. Is this a global data exchange? Are there unique types of data within the Alliance that are unavailable elsewhere?

DS: Data is at the heart of a lot of what WPP does. You have to realize, WPP is not only the world’s largest communications services group, but if you looked at some of its operating companies as standalone you’d find inside WPP the world’s largest media buying company (GroupM), the second largest market research company (Kantar), and, with $4.7b in revenues coming from digital, including the likes of 24/7 Media, OgilvyOne, Wunderman, AKQA, VML, and Possible, WPP is the seventh largest digital company in the world – behind Google and Apple, but ahead of Facebook right now. So you can imagine, WPP as a whole is dealing with a lot of data.

What we are trying to do with The Data Alliance is analogous to the airline industry, where independently operated carriers have come together to create these inter-company frequent flyer programs (as in the Star Alliance) and coordinated route maps. The whole idea is to provide a more seamless customer experience while at the same time providing efficiencies for the member organizations. Without going into too many details, The Data Alliance is focused on three things: Creating greater interoperability across its members’ platforms and data sets, streamlining how we as a group engage with third-party partners (to make it easier on an Acxiom or Exelate, for example, to work with us broadly), and creating a more seamless experience for clients who are working with us more than one discipline (e.g., media, market research, CRM, and digital).

How we do this will involve many different tactics over time, for example, pooling of certain technology development efforts and greater standardization around certain things like policies, data structures, commercial terms, and API’s. You can speculate about some of the new products and business models that would result out of a program like this, but right now the primary focus is simply on creating the best solutions we possibly can for the top 30 clients who are our “frequent fliers” if you will.

Unlike some other holding companies, WPP has taken an active role in investing in, and acquiring, digital media technology. The “stack” that you are assembling at 24/7 Media, and some of the social media technology investments you have made suggest a commitment to being more than just a typical agency. The Data Alliance initiative is also instructive. Tell us what you look for in differentiated technologies.

DS: WPP comes at it very much from a client-side perspective and has partnered with technologies like Omniture and Buddy Media that share that view. In the cases of those two businesses in particular, both of which WPP invested in, there was beyond the obvious criteria also a strong cultural fit with the management team and a good amount of overlap between WPP’s customer base and theirs, so it just made a lot of sense.

In the case of 24/7, while they were known as a publisher-side technology before WPP acquired them in 2007, the intent was always to leverage their audience reach and technical know-how to build what people would now call a DMP/DSP – the tools that now power Xaxis. There were not any established players doing this at the time, so the 24/7 acquisition enabled GroupM to build these capabilities much faster than they could have otherwise. The acquisition of iBehavior, which operates a DMP of a different sort (mostly offline transactions), is also consistent with this strategy and is similar in that it’s accelerating Wunderman’s route to market with several new initiatives.

To your broader point about being not just a typical agency, I don’t believe agencies need to control all of the underlying technologies, but I do think that the techniques involved in connecting and analyzing diverse data streams – and doing so in a scalable, efficient and privacy-safe way – are too important a skill set for a company like WPP to outsource entirely. When digital is the direction most marketing channels are headed, and the ability to measure everything and act on data is a large part of what makes digital so exciting, not having a data integration and data sciences function (granted, it may be called something else) inside an agency holding company in ten years will seem as unusual as not having a media group would today.

This interview, among many others, appears in EConsultancy's recently published Best Practices in Data Management by Chris O’Hara. Chris is an ad technology executive, the author of Best Practices in Digital Display Media, a frequent contributor to a number of trade publications, and a blogger. He can be reached through his personal blog at www.chrisohara.com

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