It took outsiders to drive digital buying revolution
A view from Gideon Spanier

It took outsiders to drive digital buying revolution

Essence just might be London's best-kept secret in media buying.

A global independent digital agency that manages more than £400 million in annual billings, with a client list that includes the cream of US tech giants such as Google, eBay and Expedia. Turnover at the ten-year-old company jumped 50 per cent last year.

No wonder WPP’s Group M, the world’s biggest media buyer, is acquiring Essence. Its success ought to make everyone in the business take notice.

First, Essence’s co-founders, Matt Isaacs, Andy Bonsall and Andrew Shebbeare, aren’t media veterans. Isaacs is a former management consultant, while Bonsall and Shebbeare used to work in financial services. None of them worked in advertising before setting up Essence.

It took outsiders to realise how disruptive digital was going to be for media buying. These Maths Men understood automation and programmatic trading long before most Mad Men had heard of it. They could see that annual trading deals, based on share and volume, looked antiquated in a world where clients want real-time bidding, personalised advertising at scale and measurability. 

There’s a second reason why the Essence sale is worth noting. That’s because it’s a British digital success story.

It wasn’t a coincidence that Isaacs, Bonsall and Shebbeare built their business in London. They leveraged the capital’s growing role as Europe’s tech and cultural hub – a magnet for international talent, perfectly placed in the time zones between the US and Asia, with high levels of smartphone adoption and a sophisticated media market.

This global access helped win Google as a client, which turbocharged Essence’s growth in the US. The founders also deserve credit for recognising their limitations by recruiting experienced agency figures, including Christian Juhl, the chief executive, to develop Essence further. 

The company now has six offices, including in the US and Asia, but selling to Group M will open up more than 100 countries.

For WPP, the attraction is clear. The deal should give Group M a much better understanding of the Google "stack" of technologies and add 500 digital experts.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Essence is the founders’ view that media should work more closely with creative at the point of execution, because ads and content are being increasingly targeted on a personalised basis and bought in the moment.

Too often, media still seems divorced from creative, and that is the essence of one of the ad industry’s greatest, enduring challenges.