Robin Langford Robin Langford Premium Content Editor, Performance Marketing World

‘We’ve got positive swagger’: a year in the life of a revamped agency

12 months on from iProspect’s relaunch as a ‘performance-driven brand-building’ media agency, is the holistic approach to marketing paying off?

Spanning work in 93 countries, iProspect is one of the world’s biggest performance marketing agencies. So when it relaunched last year to offer branding and outcome-based marketing services for clients, it set itself a huge task to scale that change at speed. 

The overhaul formed part of parent company Dentsu’s bid to boost its flexibility, after the pandemic led the Japanese ad giant to rethink its approach to client work. This resulted in the merger of two stablemates; the data-led iProspect and branding-led Vizeum, to form a new hybrid media agency.

While keeping the iProspect name, the company underwent a visual rebrand and adopted a new tagline, ‘Brands accelerated’, becoming one of six global leadership brands in Dentsu’s updated, streamlined structure.

Sitting down with Performance Marketing World, Amanda Morrissey, Global President at iProspect, looks back at an intense year of transformation, and describes how the reinvigorated agency adapted to an industry turned on its head by the pandemic, privacy and ‘The Great Resignation’.

Keeping the heritage, ramping up the flexibility

The relaunch posed a logistical challenge for Morrissey in her new role, as she was tasked with fusing 8,000 specialists together across 93 markets, while Dentsu itself restructured from 160 brands to just six. 

“It does feel like a monumental year in terms of what we've done,” says Morrissey. “We built a new brand, performance first. We took everything that was brilliant about iProspect in terms of performance capabilities and integrated the brand creative storytelling skills of Vizeum.”

The alignment of the data-driven and branding teams went smoother than anticipated. Morrissey describes the process as “super complimentary, there was hardly any crossover of scales and we managed to integrate the teams. Luckily enough, we were working on lots of common clients anyway, so it gave us the client case studies to work around.”

“Performance builds brands and brands drive performance”

So with such a radical change, why not go the full way and change the agency name, communicating a new ‘hybrid’ marketing proposition to clients? 

“iProspect was very well known and was a market leader in performance,” Morrissey explains. “We didn't want to spend our time reinventing something new and having to communicate that. We wanted to focus on client work, so we spent our time and effort really pushing the message that we are now a full end-to-end media agency, not just a performance agency.“

This one-stop-shop approach meant the revamped agency has spent much of its first year demonstrating to clients how outcome-based marketing can influence brand thinking. Or, as Morrissey puts it: “we believe that performance builds brands and brands drive performance.” 

Taking clients further than before

In the case of some recent client wins, combining the art and the science has proven to be more than the sum of their parts. 

“The brand focus has made us think quite differently about performance. It's much more consultative. It’s about full digital, not just performance,” Morrissey says. “For example, we work with a large-scale hotel company. Historically, the old iProspect had been working with them in one single performance channel. Now, we work with them across all digital channels and recently moved to offline media off the back of that.”

More recently, iProspect became the global agency of record for luxury group Kering (which owns brands including Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent and Balenciaga) in November, which was a particular highlight for Morrissey. The win followed a unique four-month agency review based on innovation principles and a fast-tracked process. Kering sought ‘agility and nimbleness within the response to brief’ to select its future partner.

“Our work with Kering brings together all of our digital specialisms and is a testament to our proposition. Kering is a 75 percent digital brand and 25 percent offline brand (depending on country). They have 11 brands that sit within their portfolio and we had to think about what performance looks like through real brand innovation, a creative lens, and how are they going to transform the work that they do currently to get ahead of 2025.”

Agility in a time of global flux

Not all client needs are equal, and as Morrissey points out, some regions favour a different mix of branding and performance disciplines.

“There's different levels of maturity, especially within performance capabilities within international markets, but we've deliberately built our new brand blueprint to be flexible. We wanted to give our regional markets the headspace to define their own flavour, but create consistency at the same time.”

The pandemic famously accelerated the shift to digital. Within weeks, online grocery shopping changed from a convenience to an essential service for many, forcing marketers to adapt at breakneck speeds to keep up. So how have client demands changed when it comes to agency briefs?

“We've been positioned into this by the pandemic, but the way to deal with this change is through agility,” Morrissey says. “We built what we called ‘scale services’. We can dip into the wider Dentsu family when we need and we have a teaming platform called Radical Collaboration, and that has really helped us in this pivot to agility.”

“A family of 8,000”

This agility is reliant on teams that can skill-up fast, but a growing skills gap across the industry poses a challenge for all agencies, leaving iProspect to compete for new talent like never before.

“We've always talked about Unicorns and T-shaped talents, and we spent a lot of time on talent this year because they need to be bright with broad skills to spot this and to know when to pivot and when to hold firm,” Morrissey explains. “We're a family of 8,000 people who are highly connected. In a time of pandemic, people need to feel a sense of belonging and that goes for work as well as family. That camaraderie has become even more important.

“As we bought these two brands together, we have small communities, all different levels across the organisation, different work streams connected across all the markets, as well as we get together globally, very often, as well as a larger scale organisation.”

Turning a skills crisis into an opportunity

In a time when new recruits are in high demand, Morrissey says the agency had to look inward to grow new skills with an ambitious new training programme.

“We developed an aggressive training and development programme, which is about helping our team upscale. We've done a lot in terms of career mapping too, showing people how they can move around in their careers. Whereas traditionally, they would have moved vertically up through their career stack, now we're showing them there's so much more opportunity about how they can move around the organisation. “

The pandemic was particularly hard on young people, with research showing that young people have found it harder to secure high-quality work since the start of the pandemic. iProspect saw a meeting of needs with its graduate recruitment programme.

“We looked at young people through the pandemic and saw that it's really hard for them. They're coming out of school, they're coming out of university with no traditional career ladder and they’re all having to work from home. So for us it was less about ‘The Great Resignation’ and more about doing something for young people. We work in a digital world and these young people are coming from a digital world.”

“We have a great platform for them to come into as a first step into their career. We've learned some really good lessons by bringing that new talent into our organisation at much greater speeds than we did previously.”

'A positive swagger"

A full year on from iProspect’s radical transformation, Morrissey is far more relaxed about where the agency is now. 

“The speed at which we've moved has really surprised me. I thought the full transformation  would take us much longer. It's had a brilliant side effect in that it’s created a momentum, belief and almost swagger ….a positive swagger, rather than a negative swagger…within the organisation!”

“We’ve been able to keep up that family feel of putting our people first while growing more as a global brand. No-one who can do what we do at the scale we offer. Not only do we operate in 93 markets globally, but we can leverage and scale through Dentsu, allowing clients the flexibility to build bespoke and specialised teams with resources from across the network seamlessly.”

Automation opportunities

So now iProspect has settled into its new proposition for clients, what is the biggest trend awaiting performance marketers in 2022? 

“Number one is a drive to automation,” Morrissey says. “I find that exciting because through automation, we can move forward into a new world of predictive analytics; how we reach and communicate with audiences on a more relevant, privacy-safe and granular level.

“The key question we all face in 2002 is how do you move beyond customer IDs and into more behavioural targeting. Being a digital-first brand we can pick up signals from lots of different places to build data models in a very privacy-friendly way.

“These are all opportunities, but they change the shape of an organisation,” Morrissey concluded. “You have to be attentive, diligent and not be afraid to confront things and change direction. It is worth every ounce of effort, as we now have a united global mission and purpose for the new agency, one built from the markets up with shared values, experience, and skill sets from across the globe.”

Amanda Morrissey is Global President at iProspect, a Dentsu company, is a digital-first end-to-end media agency that offers performance-driven brand building at a global scale.