Not much has been written or said about Acxiom, the data marketing company that Interpublic Group bought last year for $2.3bn (£1.74bn) – its biggest acquisition in years.
This is despite Acxiom having 2,100 employees worldwide, including 1,600 "data specialists" that handle a wide range of services including data management, strategy, analytics and its audience creation and modelling tools.
But the acquisition may have helped UM win the global American Express account last year. The finance giant had already worked with Acxiom for targeted marketing messages and Amex's chief marketing officer Elizabeth Rutledge made a point of saying UM was chosen for its expertise in media, technology, data and insights.
Rachel Forde, UM's chief executive, told Campaign that UM can now point to a track record of optimising hard purchases across a range of audience for clients such as Amex and Just Eat, in which the brand is connected to UM’s performance team.
However, her colleague Claire Spencer, audience and insight managing partner, admitted that FMCG clients like Johnson & Johnson and Coke – which are not as rich in first-party data – have a bigger challenge in being audience-centric and enhancing the customer journey.
For those clients, Spencer said "we need to be the ones bringing the data to the party – to start building audiences".
At the coalface within UM, this has meant frank conversations internally about changing the agency’s operational model and looking for different types of talent when recruiting. Spencer was clear that UM needed people who can have a detailed chat about data and convert it into creative advertising messaging, or, as she put it, "data strategists with an audience-first mindset".
She added: "As an agency, we are now moving much beyond the world of paid media and really into a form of data consultancy. And coming at it from an audience perspective is one of UM’s unique ways of working, because we always start and go back to basics with all the people that we’re trying to communicate with: what has been their experience and how can we enhance it."
An alternative view of Acxiom is that it may be less effective for helping drive performance because its dataset is more grounded in direct marketing and household-based information, which can become outmoded.
A rival media agency boss told Campaign: "Acxiom is more static – you don't change house all the time. Household composition is a bit harder to leverage as an offline data set in a world that is increasingly turning digital."
But Spencer insisted that Acxiom enables UM to "understand the entire customer journey to really understand how we make the most frictionless and seamless audience experience". This, she said, applies "whether you’re travelling through a client’s own building or whether you’re going to their own website or their own social channels…. It’s really about that connection into the broader ecosystem."
The agency also sees a big opportunity to leverage its "unique" position with Channel 4 within performance-led campaigns on video on demand, for example. Last summer Channel 4 criticised the UK ad industry for being "behind the curve" when it came to investing in this space.
Because the broadcaster already had a connection with Acxiom, UM is able to take its audience data into Channel 4’s platform "all the way into an audio-visual format… they’ve not been able to do that with any other partner," Forde added.
This could perhaps enable brands to emulate what Argos did with Sky in 2016, for example, where customers were matched with the Sky Media Viewing Panel to measure and compare sales against spot lengths and ad frequency.
This is just the kind of problem that Interpublic Group chief executive Michael Roth indicated would be solved with the acquisition of Acxiom.
Roth said at the time: "Working with Acxiom in the past, we did have additional expertise that we brought to the table, but candidly, we were turning business away because we couldn't provide the in-depth data opportunities that an Acxiom brings, and we couldn't really bring that to the table... in terms of the level of sophistication they were looking for. We were basically turning that over to third parties."
Forde explained how UM now being an "owner" of data as opposed to merely being a "renter" has been a turning point for the agency, despite Interpublic agencies having already worked with Acxiom via a "global data partnership" in 14 key markets.
"It’s allowed us to invest a lot more into the work that we do," Forde said. "There are 2.6 billion census data panels globally, which translates into 39 million IDs in the UK. It just meant that we can now take that to our clients and embed it into our approach."
For Spencer, going from "renting to owning" allows the agency to fast-track a lot of the development work within its planning systems and within client-based projects.
"Number one – there’s a big shift whenever you go from renting a company's systems to actually owning it. It really is a story of acceleration.
"One of the key differences is scale – a lot of those companies that are being acquired by other holding companies have some great strengths in a couple of key markets like maybe the UK and the US if you’re lucky, but generally the footprint doesn’t extend much further in terms of depth and scale. With Acxiom we’ve got 61 markets with a really robust sound product and those 2.6 billion data points."
While comparisons are made with Publicis Groupe’s acquisition of US data broker Epsilon last year, Forde and Spencer are clear that it is the quality of the data that Acxiom owns that sets it apart as a tool for better data-driven marketing. Acxiom is the only data marketing company that received a five-star rating from Forrester Consulting for data privacy and security.
These brand-safety credentials enable UM to use audience data "at a really granular level in a safe and compliant fashion", Spencer added.
Having Acxiom in-house is also enabling UM to become "more than just a media agency", which is being reflected in a broadening of conversations with clients beyond a chief marketing officer: "we’re also talking to chief technology officers, chief information officers…"
Spencer added: "It’s really all about how we enhance the entire audience, ecosystem and the entire consumer journey – even looking beyond the life of traditional paid media channels, because we can certainly now fast-track that without fear."