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Haruna McWilliams interviewed by Modern Advertising

This article originally appeared in Modern Advertising.

Q: What are the main business functions of Essence? What is the unique value that Essence brings to clients?

Essence, part of GroupM, is a global data and measurement-driven agency whose mission is to make advertising more valuable to the world. Our agency is more than 1,800 people strong, manages USD 4 billion in annualized media spend and deploys campaigns in 106 markets via our 18 offices worldwide. Our agency’s full service integrated offering includes business planning, communications strategy, data strategy, analytics, media planning, media operations, advertising operations, as well as experience (creative).

Q: Could you please share what your career journey is prior to joining Essence?

With close to 20 years of industry experience, I held roles in Japan, the UK and the US with Ogilvy & Mather, BBDO and JWT. I established the strategy capability for IPG Mediabrands (McCann) in Japan and led key global client accounts including Johnson & Johnson and Coca-Cola; in Singapore, I was Global Planning Director at Leo Burnett in Singapore working on Procter & Gamble brands. In 2017, I joined Essence. I believe my journey thus far was meant to be (I don’t believe in coincidences).

While previously at a creative agency, I always thought of going back to the media side. I saw potential in technology and data-driven organizations, even when it comes to proposing and selling creative ideas. I also wanted to grow as a strategist. While I had worked in four different markets, my jobs were all at established global agencies. Essence, however, provided me the opportunity to start and grow the Strategy practice and elevate the organization with more holistic communications experts. That excited me. 

Currently, as Senior Vice President, Strategy, APAC, I lead a team of eight strategists across APAC - it’s not always common to have a dedicated Strategy team separate from Media Planning in an agency. What we strive to do is to identify key business challenges for our clients, and through a deep understanding of our audiences, work together with our Media Planning team to bring the strategic direction to life. For example, one of our clients was looking for ways to integrate the creative and media process to receive integrated solutions. To that end, we worked together with the client to develop an approach to solve their business challenges. The approach consists of three stages that touch on mid to long-term planning (e.g. annual planning), campaign planning, and in-flight planning.

Q: What do you think has been the most valuable experience in your career so far?

I have worked on local, regional and global businesses in four markets - Japan, the UK, US and now Singapore (for APAC). This has given me insight into the different types of consumers within the same category, for instance. It has also shown me commonalities in terms of how people think and interact with brands. This allows me to come to our clients with globally relevant solutions that incorporate local nuances. My experience at both creative and media agencies also means that I can think holistically - I can develop both the “what” (message) and the “how” (how we activate the message in various relevant channels and product portfolios).

Q: From your perspective, how does an excellent strategy improve ad effectiveness? 

For me, collaboration between specialist teams is key in improving ad effectiveness. At Essence, our Strategy and Analytics teams work very closely in the process end-to-end. When a campaign is briefed in, the first thing we do is to look at our learning from the past. We work regionally, so we gather learnings from relevant markets before we start planning for a campaign. On Google, for instance, Analytics, Media Planning and Strategy work together on a post-campaign analysis together, so we have actionable insights coming out of the learning. 

When the strategy is strong, it gives the team a clear direction to work off on and ensures an aligned measurement plan. The Analytics team would then know exactly what to measure, so they can spend more time thinking about how to measure instead. In a recent campaign we worked on, the Analytics team told their findings in a way that is consistent with how the strategy was aligned. With a clear link between strategy and measurement, findings are therefore more actionable for future campaigns.

Q: What challenges do you think brands and agencies face in the current market situation? 

Firstly, it is critical for media agencies to get a seat at the table more upstream in the business overall. Brands are increasingly bringing certain capabilities in-house and strategy is definitely one of them. Some brands are also working more with consulting firms for upstream strategy. By the time a brief comes to a media agency, some of the key decisions may have already been made. This can make it more challenging for media agencies to make a bigger impact, as they then have to fit tactics into the bigger decisions that were made. As such, agencies need to get involved in upstream business conversations and be ready to share our point of view, beyond media, with our clients.

Secondly, brands’ marketing departments are increasingly faced with pressure on short-term revenue growth. This means that while sales may go up while campaigns are ongoing, brand metrics are sometimes deprioritized, and therefore, in the long run, do not help grow brands. At Essence, we prioritize sustainable growth for our clients and their brands. We not only value short-term sales increase but mid and long-term growth as well. We identify “signals of growth” for our clients, and track them to see if our activities are actually impacting long-term brand goals. As a business partner and agency to our clients, we also need to have open discussions with them to demonstrate the importance of longer-term planning.

Q: What do you think is the special value of the Chinese industry market? What can the international peers learn from it?

According to GroupM’s This Year Next Year December 2018 report on worldwide media forecasts, China remains the largest contributor. Its USD 90 billion ad market is second only to the US, and has doubled since 2010. 

China also has the biggest middle-class population in the world, with a sizeable online population in tier three and four cities. This means that other markets and brands can learn from how to sustain growth in emerging economies that are similar in scale. The same goes for mobile with 98% of the Chinese online population accessing the internet via mobile as of 2018 (Source: China Internet Network Information Center - translated by Forbes). There is a lot to learn from players such as WeChat and Weibo, on building ecosystems that capture and retain consumers on mobile. 

More specifically in terms of media format, we can all learn from the growth of mobile video. As of 2017, 64% of the total video advertising market is from mobile video advertising (Source: As brands shift their digital budget from desktop to mobile, many would be looking at the success of brands such as Airbnb and Harbin Beer in China.

Finally, let’s not forget e-commerce. The explosion of e-commerce in China exemplified by Singles Day, an internationally celebrated day of shopping, has demonstrated the potential growth of e-commerce into new territories such as high-end brands. International players should also take note that 64% of Chinese e-commerce users made cross-border purchases in 2017 (Source: Nielsen).