Steel will be responsible for developing Essence's global operating model. He will be based in London and will be tasked with ensuring continued growth in Essence’s established regions, EMEA and North America, but also with expanding the agency to new areas.
Steel co-founded Virgin Mobile in 1999 and stayed with the company, where he was the deputy managing director, until 2007.
In 2009, Steel founded computer advice service Virgin Digital Help. He was chief executive of the company until 2011 when he moved to print firm Optimalprint as chief commercial officer.
Matt Isaacs, the chief executive of Essence, said: "Joe has a history of working with companies that give brilliant client service and he’ll be helping us to improve this area even more.
"Joe’s appointment marks a milestone in Essence’s history as he will be our first chief operating officer. This shows just how much we have grown in the last few years and his role will be pivotal to the agency as we continue to build our worldwide presence and cement Essence as part of the global media landscape."
Steel added: "Having worked at the Virgin Group for many years, I fully understand how important cultural values are to the success of the business and Essence is in a strong position to make its people the driving force for future growth."
Essence is a digital agency with offices in London, New York, San Francisco and Seattle.