Interview: Ali Reed on the future of Essence
By craving change, the MD tells Michaela Jefferson how she is opening up a whole new chapter for the data-driven agency
"Essence is a really strong flavour of agency," says Ali Reed, the media agency's newly promoted managing director.
We're chatting in a small, red-walled meeting room tucked away in Essence's Oxford Circus offices, where the rest of the floor is furnished in dark grey and pine surfaces, quirky wall art, and a coffee bar posing as a three-wheeler van.
Reed joined Essence in April 2018 as head of client services, with close to 15 years' experience working across media agencies, creative agencies and client-side - not including the three years she took out to give birth to her three children. After returning to the industry in 2014 as business director at media agency OMD, she worked her way up the ranks to reach client partner, leading the agency's Disney business in the UK.
Where OMD is a more "traditional" media agency, Essence's legacy is in digital, analytics and technology... And the agency is most famous for being Google's search agency of record.
But Reed - whose father worked for Shell - grew up as an expat kid, moving through countries including America, Brunei, the Netherlands and Cambodia. As an adult the travel continued, as she and her family moved with her husband, a foreign diplomat, to Sudan, Kenya and, most recently, Rome.
So far from fearing change, Reed says it's something she craves.
"I loved my time at OMD - there are some amazing, brilliant people there," she says. "But I think I'd stopped learning. I wanted to come and throw myself in the deep end a little bit. For me, coming somewhere which was much more product-led, much more global, much more innovation and data-driven felt like it would be another string to my bow."
But Reed admits that the transition was a challenge, and estimates that it took her around six months to find her feet at Essence. Not only did she have to learn how to speak a different agency language, but also how to best utilise her skill set and strengths (which she says are in "finding the humanity in the data" and translating complex ideas for clients).
"I definitely found it exciting, but also a little bit intimidating. There are so many incredibly smart people here [and there were] all these new functions that didn't really exist in the world that I'd been in so far, with the Mindshares or OMDs of the world.
We're never really satisfied unless we feel like we've completely done something fresh."
"It's one of those things where if you feel like you're the dumbest person in the room, you know that you're probably doing the right thing, because you're always learning and you're always taking on new stuff."
Less than two years later, in January 2020, Reed was promoted into the newly created role of UK managing director - though she continues to also cover her previous responsibilities until a replacement is hired.
However, having built its reputation in digital and its long-standing relationship with Google, Reed says Essence now hopes to "change the narrative" as it diversifies its client set.
Certainly, the agency has expanded over the last five years. Following the sale of a majority stake to WPP in 2015, Essence became part of media investment wing GroupM, which since 2017 has invested in transforming it from a digital agency into a full service media agency.
Now Essence's roster of clients includes the likes of Peloton, Nando's, the Financial Times, Argos and, since 2019, L'Oreal - a partnership which led to the creation of a new client-agency team, Beauty Tech Labs. L'Oreal described Essence as "a model fit for 2023".
And according to the agency, it has experienced 30% growth year-on-year for the last four years.
Reed, who studied behavioural psychology at university, attributes Essence's recent success to its "centralised way of working.... allowing all of our left brain thinkers to be a bit more right brain." (Left brain = linear and analytical thought, right brain = creative thought).
"So every client that comes to us with a completely different challenge will get a different, bespoke answer from these people who traditionally you might have thought are the more left brain, digital people - whether they work in analytics or data strategy. But I think we give [left brain thinkers] the opportunity at Essence to play and reinvent and innovate," Reed says.
"We're never really satisfied unless we feel like we've completely done something fresh. And that's probably I think where we've won quite a lot of stuff."
Discovering what is important
Reed faced her toughest battle six years ago. Aged 33, living with three young children and her husband in Rome while still working at OMD, she found out she had breast cancer.
Surprised, my face involuntarily pulls into a sympathetic frown... Which Reed immediately calls out.
"Everyone always does that!" she laughs. "I'm fine. I got great boobs out of it!"
At the time, however, she had to return to the UK - where OMD were "incredible", she says, adding that the biggest challenge of the whole ordeal was having to carry not just her own worry, but everybody else's worry too.
Later, after receiving the all clear, Reed went on a solo break to Lake Constance in Germany. Looking out over the lake, she decided that she needed to get better at appreciating stillness. "But at the same time I was thinking, how do I also make sure that I ring every single last drop out of life? What's important to me?"
"I think it really gave me a better perspective on what I wanted to do in terms of my career. It made me more ambitious, not less," she says.
Now, five years clear and with a new job, Reed has big plans for the culture of Essence.
Since her promotion, she has taken an increased role in leading internal initiatives to improve the working culture at Essence - with one recently launched initiative, Return on Women, a particular passion project.
Essence has a "pretty robust" gender pay gap number, Reed says. In 2018-2019 (the agency's first year reporting gender pay gap figures), the agency had a median gap of 16.7%. Reed expects that to have been halved in the last year.
"But there's still more work to do. You only have to look around certain rooms to know that there still aren't enough women or other minorities that we need to elevate." Return on Women therefore organises a calendar of events that support a longer term ambition to create bespoke training to make sure women are being pushed up into VP and above roles, she says.
There's always a different point of view and diversity of thought is key to what is going to help us grow as a business."
And Essence has also hosted listening sessions with women in the agency to hear their thoughts and concerns directly. "We didn't want to do a lift and shift off the shelf," Reed says. "What's true for Essence, and what are Essence women feeling?"
Having sat in on one of the focus groups, Reed says it was "extraordinary" and "fascinating" to listen to other women in the company talk about their past and present challenges. "We got all this fantastic insight around things that we need to change from a company point of view as well. So it's not about fixing the women, it's almost about fixing the agency and breaking down those barriers to success."
Asked what specific challenges women at Essence reported experiencing, Reed says the agency needs to make sure that women are being attached to projects that have a real commercial imperative as well as those projects which have a more cultural value.
"Obviously we're all given targets from GroupM and from Essence's global leadership team and from WPP. So [we need to make] sure that women are front and centre [and] make sure that we're attached to those KPIs, because that's partly a route to success and progression as well, when you can demonstrate your value at the business level."
She plans to launch a new programme based off the feedback from those listening sessions, Accelerate, later this year.
Reed is also looking towards Essence Village, the agency's inclusion group specifically focused on ethnic diversity. Her next concern is to make sure that when ethnic minorities join the agency, they feel supported in the same way women are supported with the Return on Women programme.
"There's always a different point of view and diversity of thought I think is key to what is going to help us grow as a business. We need to do better and more as an industry I think," Reed adds.
"But it's become something for me to champion now as part of this MD role."
Meanwhile, with new global CEO Kyoko Matsushita at the helm, Reed says Essence is on "a journey" to take its core mission - "making advertising more valuable to the world" - one step further.
One part of that journey is to rethink how the agency approaches sustainability and the climate crisis, above and beyond simple measures like reducing business travel, offsetting the agency's own carbon emissions and ensuring a plastic free office.
"What can we do that's more than that?" Reed asks, adding that Essence is considering a way to put carbon cost on media plans, and offer clients a choice between the best plan for efficiency and effectiveness, and the best plan for the environment. Pick the more harmful plan and the client would have to pay a levy to offset the damage.
At the same time, Reed says that Essence is working towards "technology democratisation", where repetitive tasks like setting a search campaign live, or reporting, are automated - freeing up time for employees to work on tasks that are more "nourishing".
"I think the way we are [going to be] able to differentiate ourselves is going to be in doing more of the upstream thinking," Reed says. "We've got so much tenure and legacy in tools and technology and data. How can we make sure that we're applying that to creativity?"
"At the end of the day, you can be as targeted as you like... if the creative isn't resonating or hasn't really picked up on the insights that you can find from that rich data, then you're not going to be as effective."
"So in terms of future plans, it's thinking around how we can do more of that automation...so we can think on the higher areas around creativity, but also consultancy more generally."
We can take all that fantastic digital rigour and data science driven thinking, but now apply it to offline."
According to Reed, more and more clients are coming to her and Essence asking for non-traditional commercial models or operating models, often consultancy-led - which is allowing for "interesting" conversations.
In June 2019, for example, Sainsbury's-owned Argos moved its digital media account to Essence - but they have "huge ambitions" to do the planning and buying work themselves. "In-housing isn't a trend anymore, it's happening," Reed says. "I think we are potentially set up with stronger foundations to be able to manage that process for them [and] help them on that journey. And then once they've got to the point where they're doing it on their own, consulting with them to make sure it's as optimal as it can be."
Reed says that there is a prevalent theme in conversations she is currently having, where clients are unsure how to connect the dots with their data - especially between brand and performance. She sees this as the perfect opportunity to prove that Essence can move away from its performance legacy.
"We can take all that fantastic digital rigour and data science driven thinking, but now apply it to offline... bridging that analogue and digital worlds so that you really are getting that full analytics driven answer to how you should best spend [your] media across different channels.
"It's really exciting for me personally to be on that journey because... I came from broadcast and worked on Disney and very TV-content based brands. And now I'm down in the weeds doing some amazing programmatic centralisation projects across 28 markets."
The future of advertising is going only one way, Reed warns, adding that the "winners" will be those agencies and advertisers that can harness data and technology across the whole funnel and all of their channels.
"And that's what we are on a journey to do," she says. "This is the Essence difference."