This media agency, for lack of a better term, has neither the word ‘media’ nor ‘agency’ in its name.
Instead, it is a “data-driven marketing company,” says its MENA general manager Fadi Maktabi. We’re talking about Omnicom’s Hearts & Science that was first launched in North America in 2016 to handle the P&G business. A few months later, it set up shop in Dubai with the then head of strategy at OMD, Maktabi, taking over as general manager. Although Omnicom does not manage P&G regionally, Hearts & Science today has five clients, 39 employees, and four offices in the MENA region.
How did that happen? “It has been a wonderful roller -coaster ride, to say the least,” says Maktabi.
The biggest differentiator for Hearts & Science – not only from other media agencies outside the group, but also within Omnicom – is the data piece. Its USP is also a big challenge in the region.
“Imagine walking into any client [meeting] and saying, ‘We cannot work together unless you give us access to your data.’ That automatically sometimes intimidates clients,” says Maktabi.
Is that level of intimidation the same across global and regional clients considering Hearts & Science works with du, Mai Dubai, KFC, Barclay’s Private Bank and California Garden? It mostly depends on the talent on the client side, says Maktabi, but perhaps the more important question is if clients truly realize the power of the data they have. “Clients are starting to understand the power of sharing data, but at the same time, it is also about understanding the power of that data they sit on,” says Maktabi.
And so, the volume or quantity of data that clients own is sometimes less important. “The problem that we have – and this is something, no matter how strong we are as a media agency or a marketing company – is that if the owners of the data don’t understand the power of that data, the very first problem is, ‘Are they connecting it the right way?’” asserts Maktabi. “A simple Excel sheet doesn’t work. Literally, make one mistake on one column somewhere and it’ll take you forever to clean up.”
The issue isn’t about a lack of knowledge or understanding specifically among regional clients. It is about digital data transformation, which in any company, in any part of the world, has to start internally but with the right partners, adds Maktabi.
Identifying the issue is one thing, tackling it is another. “And the way we do it is baby steps,” says Maktabi. Is building trust one of those steps? “I wouldn’t say it [building trust] is only about data. I think any client is worried about sharing any information with anyone – especially if you consider the history of advertising and media agencies operating on a rates-oriented system.”
And so, “We say, “How about you give us access to a little bit of this data here, and we will promise you this?” explains Maktabi. What he’s referring to is essentially performance-based remuneration. That means that the agency would present a data-driven plan, which would help clients achieve their business objectives. Once the basics are covered, the agency can then start talking about accountability thanks to data. “When you do that, clients are willing to listen,” says Maktabi.
One such example is KFC. Hearts & Science’s relationship with KFC started with building the company’s digital architecture. The second step was about data connectivity, which then moved into what the agency calls “accountable marketing”. “Because once you have the architecture set up, the data’s connected, you can then go to your client and say, ‘Now I am ready to be accountable,’” says Maktabi.
A different remuneration model requires a different internal structure. It’s why Hearts & Science’s team consists of three key types of roles. Forty percent of its employees are brand strategists or what one would call planners. “These are talent that are recruited based on being good analysts, understanding what we call a post-media world, and being able to develop brand strategies with KPIs for the next team, which is operations and negotiations,” explains Maktabi.
The brand strategists come up with the plan but don’t necessarily put the final touches. Enter the operations and negotiations team, which forms another 30 percent of the staff. Brand strategists would go to a negotiator (historically read: buyer) and ask for a set of KPIs, such as cost per order. It’s then the negotiator’s job to get that from the client and for the operations team to implement it.
The third type of role is marketing science, which accounts for 30 percent of the agency’s employees. Their focus? “I don’t want to say ‘digital transformation’ but that’s the easiest way to explain it,” says Maktabi. “Think of them as client transformation partners.”
A common requirement across all these roles is curiosity, says Maktabi. This is a challenge even with clients. “There hasn’t been a single client that we’ve started working with that hasn’t gone through at least three or four months of relationship anxiety,” he adds. The anxiety mostly comes from fear of change. The usual client response is “But I never used to do it this way.” To which, Maktabi says, “Perfect. We don’t want to do things the same way.
Speaking of doing things differently, how far has digital really come? And how much of business transformation is the same as data or digital transformation? “It’s easier to put digital and data together because of how fast the data coming from digital is,” admits Maktabi, but he adds that there is a lot more to data than digital especially when you consider plugging in offline data – such as that coming out of the cash register in a brick and mortar store – with e-commerce data, for example. These data sets can then be used not only for advertising on digital but also in-store, TV, and so on.
Imagine having a map that would show a brand’s stores and who walked into each store, which competitor store they visited and what their mobile activity is. Now imagine that being linked to which road they travel by and placing outdoor ads on it accordingly. Obviously, you start with some assumptions but end up making it more accountable and tangible, explains Maktabi.
It sounds like sci-fi but it’s closer to reality than one would imagine.
If there’s one thing sci-fi misses, probably for the best, is law and order. In the real world, however, the heads of the biggest digital corporations, Facebook, Twitter and Google have been asked to show up in front of the US Senate and justify their (mis)use of data. And although Google didn’t turn up, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg, as well as Twitter’s Jack Dorsey, did in the last year alone. Additionally, Europe famously launched GDPR further tightening the strings on companies’ use of consumer data.
Although Maktabi declines to comment on government intervention in the region, he does say, “Globally, there will continue to be more regulation on data as consumers became more aware about data collection and we will eventually get to a point where consumers are incentivized to share data [with advertisers]. Personally, I am more than happy to give my data to a specific company if I get something in return. And that’s where I think the model would eventually move to as long as it remains private, in a secure location.”
With agencies utilizing more and more consumer data to craft better marketing solutions, does that make a marketer’s life harder? “I think a marketer’s life is always more difficult,” quips Maktabi. “Advertising started off as being intrusive, so you’re literally trying to find people and tell them about something. You are going to continue to try to do that because that’s the job,” he says.
But, does it have to be? “With data and the right technology, we’re able to do advertise a lot more seamlessly,” he says. And although Maktabi still comes across ads that make him wonder which agency is behind them, he adds, “With data collection and the way we activate on audiences, we are – and should be – able to give consumers either what they are interested in, or what they could be interested in.”
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