New GroupM boss: there is ‘certainly no plan to turn GroupM into Essence’

Juhl said technological development will be a major focus at GroupM moving forward

GroupM's incoming global chief executive, Christian Juhl, has said he has “no plans” to turn the world’s largest media company into an augmented version of Essence – his former stomping ground. However, WPP boss Mark Read is clearly putting what the agency does best at the center of his turnaround plans.

Since 2014 Juhl has been global chief executive officer at Essence, a technology-focused media agency that’s recently won accounts for L’Oreal and Argos. It’s also counted Google as a client for over a decade.

Juhl said being well-versed in Google’s tech stack has given Essence a competitive advantage as it's allowed the agency to experiment early with new digital tools, like using machine learning to optimize campaigns or develop custom brand surveys to move quickly into mobile markets.

“The backbone of Essence is really a mindset around experimentation and test-and-learn to understand where we can find significant lift gains for our clients, whether that's on the performance-side or brand-side,” said Juhl.

While Juhl said that GroupM’s agencies will continue to provide different offerings for different clients, he noted that the media network understands there’s a need to modernize.

“I think GroupM realizes that the media marketplace is changing and the background in data and technology is helpful in an era where we're trying to move into more addressability,” said Juhl.

“When we look to the future, data and technology [will] become a key player… as media become addressable. Being fluent in those languages becomes really important for all of GroupM as we look to increase our ability to come closer between brands and consumers.”

Read’s quest to bring WPP’s assets into the modern age of advertising has seemingly taken a digital-first approach. Less than a year into his tenure as the boss, Read has combined digital ad agency VML with creative shop Y&R, and has done the same with digital Wunderman and creative J Walter Thompson.

Old school advertisers needed their agencies to find cheaper media and better value. Now, according to ID Comms North America chief executive officer Tom Denford, advertiser needs are evolving.

“Yes [advertisers] need GroupM to be a powerful media buyer to keep their costs low. But they also want GroupM to provide the data and technology to enable better buying decisions, which result in a business outcome and not just cost savings for the advertiser,” said Denford.

“That’s why GroupM needs someone new. That’s why Mark Read sees Christian Juhl as the best person in WPP to lead this next generation of his media companies.”

Part of WPP's consolidation plans involved the holding company selling off 60% of measurement firm Kantar. As for GroupM, Juhl said the company is “always open for more acquisitions” if they fit what the company needs.

“I think Mark’s a big believer in WPP as a company versus a holding company,” said Juhl, who will report to Read. “I think we'll be looking at GroupM in a very similar way. There are certainly synergies as we transform the broader business around people, culture and technology development that I [very much] expect to be able to share with WPP.”

Juhl will step into his new role on 1 October. He replaces Kelly Clark, who served as global boss of GroupM since 2016.

“Kelly has done a great job of making the organization more professional and accessible for advertisers,” said Denford. “Now Christian will make it much more relevant for advertisers.”

Juhl also commended Kelly’s work at GroupM, and he downplayed his move into the global boss role as not being a “dramatic departure” from his predecessor’s vision.

Essence has yet to name a new leader. Juhl said the company is currently running an "internal process" that will likely take about a month.

Juhl added that he’d been talking with WPP for about a month before being given his new role. Read was a board member at WPP when the holding company bought Essence in 2015.

Sir Martin Sorrell was leading WPP when Essence came into the fold. He commended the media agency’s work since.

“Essence has done brilliantly,” Sorrell told The Drum. “Christian's an excellent manager, and now he has a real job."

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