UM Australia CEO on humans, robots, data and industry simplicity

Leading media agency chief shares with CMO her efforts to bring human thinking into digital and data and why simplicity is key to helping the organisation earn the trust of clients

Whether your brand is responsive and entrepreneurial in market, engages in strategic brand building or invests in digital or traditional media channels, consumers are going to increasingly want to “talk at you”, UM’s CEO, Fiona Johnston, believes.

“Consumers are going to have a point of view of us as brands, so we need to be really clear on how we want to behave in that social environment,” Johnston told CMO during a recent catch up at the media agency’s Sydney offices. “Not everyone is clear on that yet.

“Brands are existing in very random spaces… and we don’t know how we want to behave in those spaces. There’s a lot of social commentary going on around that activity too.”

This societal impact of brands is one theme to emerge through UM’s recent conversation circle series with clients. These sessions are broadly aimed at better understanding and supporting the human element in the face of a digital and data explosion, growing automation, media fragmentation and emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI).

Johnston said UM’s conversation series was partly born from a passion for what media agencies do, but also the industry’s societal role. “We see so much of this change at pace and it’s affecting us every single day,” she said. “As that’s become a reality as human beings, everything, through to how we work, is transforming.”

By way of example, Johnston pointed to a study by LexisNexis, which found Australians were ingesting 52 per cent more data, second only to China, driven by messaging apps such as WhatsApp, Viber and Facebook Messenger.

“We’re spending so much time managing the data of the data, it’s just overwhelming. And it’s overwhelming for everyone through to the consumer, who just doesn’t know what to watch or listen to,” she said. “As a result, engagement becomes a challenge.  

“That’s a big deal in a marketing sense as to where you put your money and why to talk to people. But it’s also a big deal in a societal sense. And we should take some level of responsibility for that.

“Our work on humans and robots was about how we want to behave, what we want to do and what we can do as automation, AI and humans converge.”

Johnston said UM conversations also explored how organisations are expecting more than ever from humans “with less of ourselves than ever before”. “We need to make sure we’re using ourselves in the best way,” she said.

“We’re now creating a manifesto that shows how we choose to operate as marketers, humans, friends – whatever our role is. That could be a simple as making sure there is a conscious stream of ethics across every data point we get sent from clients.

“Because the rate of change is so fast, there is a panic and urgency to it. We don’t even know what ‘it’ is at its nth degree, and that could evolve in the next year or two. Right now, all we think we can potentially do is choose how we want to consciously operate in that now. Being the best human beings we can be in mind, and absolutely harnessing all tech and data, because it’s a really exciting time.”

What’s more, brands are being asked by consumer to better articulate their societal purpose, something Johnston also saw as endemic of the technology revolution.

“Bridging that gap of finding purpose for brands and a purpose in the future does tend to talk to where we are all as humans, which is trying to find purpose in constant change,” she said.  

Staking the media agency claim

Johnston took up the CEO’s post at UM Australia 12 months ago. Her professional career has included a number of roles across the industry, from managing partner at Publicis Mojo, to partner at Mate Coaching, chief business development and marketing officer at MediaCom Australia, and executive business consultant locally and in the UK.

Alongside her emphasis on the human element, Johnston said she’s striving to build a culture that delivers trust and simplicity in an increasingly complex media operating environment.

It’s a response to concerns plaguing the industry around brand safety and agency transparency thanks to programmatic advertising, as well complexity arising from the proliferation of agencies, consulting partners, adtech players and other kinds of middlemen all now involved in the media buying process. These, in turn, have led to non-transparent practices around pricing and cash rebates between several agencies, publishers and tech vendors, as cited in this year’s McKinsey and Company report, and led many CMOs to lose trust in their media agency partners.

“It’s not new, but I still haven’t found any of us simplifying without dumbing down,” Johnston said. “We need to make it simpler for us as a business and for clients, that we can retain the job of providing a communications piece to consumers who want or need to know about a product, service or function.”

To this end, one of the steps she’s taken is to ban PowerPoint presentations to clients.

Meanwhile, to address the data-driven, optimisation model required in media planning today, UM has been building its business analytics engine. One of Johnston’s first appointments was also to hire a chief data technologist to head up an expanding business analytics engine team encompasses data insights, research and analytics, modelling and technology.

At a wider level, UM Australia’s parent company, Interpublic Group (IPG), has been bolstering its data and tech capabilities, acquiring Axiom in July for US$2.3 billion.

Yet even as data becomes a key ingredient in client relationships, the human element must still be front and centre, Johnston said.

“Data has to be as good as the person using it, ingesting it and coming up with the insight, and then how it gets applied or not, as appropriate to brand or tactic. So this will always be housed in the heart of our business, not a data brief in isolation,” she said. “We have humans running the tech part, and tech running some of the human stuff as well, so it’s a good mix of people.”

In the face of the investments and changes, UM Australia remains a dominant media agency player, winning big deals from American Express to Tourism Australia and a $150 million Federal Government master media contract.

Johnston added relationships with clients are feeling even more human in the face of technology. “With the onslaught of AI, robots, it all encourages us to be the best humans we can be, as we’ll need to be quite frankly. Just look at who is programming the robots,” she said.  

Follow CMO on Twitter: @CMOAustralia, take part in the CMO conversation on LinkedIn: CMO ANZ, join us on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/CMOAustralia, or check us out on Google+:google.com/+CmoAu   

 

 

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