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Taming complexity: Unlimited Group’s Tim Hassett on real human understanding


By Sam Anderson | Network Editor

October 26, 2022 | 7 min read

The Drum sits down with Tim Hassett, group chief exec of conversion agency group Unlimited, to unpick the value of its ‘human understanding lab’: a 120-strong team of behavioral experts.

Unlimited Group CEO, Tim Hassett

Good marketing starts with good insights, and good insights start with deep human understanding says Unlimited’s Tim Hassett / Image courtesy of Unlimited

Genuine expertise in human behavior is now not rare in the marketing industry. Knowing what makes people tick, and how, is a clear competitive advantage in getting people to do what you want them to do. As a result, thousands of behavioral and cognitive scientists, among all sorts of related experts, now call this industry their home.

London-based conversion agency group Unlimited doesn’t claim to have begun this trend, but it does claim to do it better than its competitors. Among a workforce of 650, 120 are assigned to its ‘human understanding lab,’ which contains behavioral scientists, neuroscientists and data scientists alongside others. “I say it without humility and without hyperbole,” group chief exec Tim Hassett tells The Drum. “We have an incomparable set of capabilities.”

Understanding starts with the self

Hassett has been steering the Unlimited ship since 2019, after cutting his teeth brand-side with the likes of Procter & Gamble, Kellogg’s and the Campbell Soup Company.

On Hassett’s telling, the formalization of the agency’s human understanding offering results from something of a clean-up act upon his arrival. “We’re owned by a private equity company, DBay [Advisors, which acquired the group, then known as Creston, back in 2016], which candidly didn’t know a lot about marketing services when they got into this business ... They invited me to come over and help them sort things through.”

“I pleasantly looked at the amazing capabilities that we had,” says Hassett. These capabilities had joined the group through a variety of acquisitions and roll-ups, leaving “no coherence around how they laddered up to something that might actually benefit clients. I saw this amazing array of capabilities that, candidly, just didn’t have clear positioning in the marketplace.”

With a client-side hat on, Hassett says he recognized this as a “golden set of capabilities,” hidden away in a “treasure chest.” Addressing that meant organizational change: a single P&L across the group; agency consolidation; and repositioning. “Marketers hate to use the word ‘selling,’ but what we really did at our core was middle-of-the-funnel work, driving lead generation and product sales and cultivating loyalty ... The first thing we had to do was declare who we were and what we did and be proud of it. We can certainly do creative and content, but the reason why our clients loved us and trusted us is that we fulfill a unique part in their ecosystem: we manage their complexity.”

This didn’t require reinventing the wheel – “brilliant marketing starts with brilliant insights; we just happen to have a breadth and depth of insight capabilities that others do not” – but did require grappling with an array of expertise that was, itself, rather complex. “I thought I had come to run a marketing agency and we had people walking around in white lab coats,” says Hassett. “I was like, ‘I literally don’t understand what these people do.’” The “big pivot,” organizationally, came when these experts were pulled out of an “insights division” and let loose “at the center of all our clients and all our work” as the human understanding lab.

Complexity first

Putting the full power of its human understanding capabilities at the spearhead of the agency’s offering is key to this strategy. While Unlimited has competitors in the data-driven marketing space, few, he argues, can compete with their depth of insight. “What most are doing tends to be demographic, transactional data [from which] they’ll infer insights,” he says. “But our premise is that 90% of consumer decision-making is grounded in the subconscious, so if all you’re using to infer consumer behavior is transactional data, you’re not getting underneath the emotional drivers around how consumers make decisions.”

In contrast, says Hassett, “we start with managing the complexity first. That’s how we build trust with clients; we’re driving a lot of growth with our existing and long-term clients by offering them expanded sets of solutions and capabilities once we’ve taken care of the complexity part.”

That starts with “decomposing audiences at a much more granular level,” runs through the “evaluation of content and creative” and ultimately feeds into products that aim to offer genuine help without the need for deep, expert work on every engagement (“the cost and availability of PhD-level people is extraordinary; that’s why we started to productize and develop platforms”).

Surrounded by complexity, times can feel tough – but it just might, says Hassett, be the perfect time for agency offerings based on deep human insight. “Our world is increasingly complex and fragmented, with multiplying media streams – it feels like there are new streaming services being offered daily – and fragmented customer journeys. All this massive complexity: we [at Unlimited] were wired for that; the market is swinging to agencies like us.”

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Marketing Agency Models Business Leadership

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UNLIMITED is the UK’s leading conversion agency. Our mission is to create genuine business advantage for clients, and we do this by uncovering behaviour-led insights from our Human Understanding Lab.

We are a fully integrated agency group with Human Understanding at the heart. Our four, award-winning divisions; marketing, communications, insight & analytics and digital, drive our creativity and define our solutions.

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