Essence ushers in a new age in Australia: can it replicate the global success?

Following the agency's merger coming into effect a month ago, Mumbrella's Calum Jaspan looks at Essence's prospects in Australia as a new leading agency in GroupM, following global success.

GroupM agency Essence is now in operation in its new iteration and national offering in Australia, following the merger with AQKA Media on1 January

These plans were revealed after the latter came together with Ikon just eight months prior in a strategic move, providing a rocky and confusing year for its employees. While the dust settles on the changes at GroupM, focus turns to whether Essence can build out its footprint in Australia, appropriate to its staff size and client list, and replicate the success the agency has experienced in other global markets to date.

The elevation means the agency now stands alongside Wavemaker, MediaCom, and Mindshare in terms of size, taking GroupM back to four agencies on equal footing. 

Today, Essence – with Pat Crowley officially at the helm – is adding to its firepower with three appointments to its national leadership team.

The first is Simon Pugh, bringing the current global client leader at Publicis Groupe back to Australia following 12 years States-side. Pugh comes in as managing director of Essence in Brisbane, with the agency saying he will ensure the Brisbane team continues to “innovate and evolve their offering across data, analytics, media strategy and creative”.

Pugh: Back in Australia after an impressive stint abroad

He joins Jeremy McNamara in Melbourne and Andrew Burger in Sydney as MDs of each office, with Chris Hitchcock also remaining national MD. 

During his time overseas he held prominent roles including president of OMG agency PHD’s West Coast operations and SVP, managing director, and client president – The Coca-Cola Company at Carat USA.

Prior to leaving for the United States, he held roles at Publicis Worldwide, DDB, Mindshare and Carat in Australia.

Coming back to Australia, Pugh says comes at a “transformational time” for the agency, with the opportunity to work with Pat and “the broader Essence and GroupM teams” in developing the local proposition “too good to pass up”. 

“I’m excited to be back in Australia to bring clients our world-class capabilities, rooted in data and technology to drive creativity, innovation and marketing transformation,” he continues.

‘Specialist’ Crowley is the agency’s first Australian CEO.

Essence globally says “we’re pioneers in the use of analytics and technology to create valuable, relevant, and trustworthy advertising”, and the agency tells Mumbrella that its new appointments will add “local bench strength” to advancing its mission of making brands more valuable to the world.

These “world-class” capabilities, Pugh says, rooted in data and technology, will drive creativity, innovation and a marketing transformation.

For an agency with over 2000 employees globally and according to the agency, over USD$4 billion in annual billings, it is established in its own right.

Even Sir Martin Sorrell, founder of WPP Plc, told trade publication Mi-3 that he would “gladly” buy the agency from his former company, now S4 Capital. 

The man that has been largely responsible for Essence’s rise, and acquisition into GroupM in 2015, Christian Juhl, now global CEO of the WPP investment arm, again speaking to Mi-3, believes that the way forward is putting “specialists” into leading group roles, and “driving change semi-organically”.

Zisoglou, Wright and Pugh join the national leadership team

That is exactly what Essence is doing locally, by bringing its specialists already within the group structure into leading roles, none evidenced more accurately than new CEO Pat Crowley, who has spent the past 16 years of his career as the Commonwealth Bank of Australia account lead. 

Crowley has proven himself to be an effective operator and has successful experience running Ikon in the past. However, now running one of Australia’s largest media agencies will bring into question how Juhl’s theory applies into the current market.

How will he fare now going from running one of the biggest accounts in the country to running one of the country’s biggest agencies?

The agency has very quickly gone from being a 25 to a 250 person agency. Crowley tells Mumbrella that Essence in Australia “has always been a unique offering, founded in game-changing technology and data”, including its proprietary tech built in collaboration with its partnership with Google.

Expanding to ten times its size, and implementing this unique offering across all its new clients would be a challenge for whoever is at the helm, and as one industry source noted, it might appear to be more akin to “rebadging a car” than the full-scale agency absorption by Essence.

Though Crowley seems unphased, saying “what we have now is greater scale to deliver next generation media in Australia”, after the agency they have built “has been on a journey”. 

“Each stage of the journey has added complementary capability, skillsets and unique culture to get us to this point. Now, we’re scaling Essence in Australia which gives us greater local bench strength to deliver the global mission to make brands more valuable to the world.”

He admits it is a bold vision, but one that the team and its clients are excited to be part of.

Global GroupM CEO, Juhl was instrumental in bringing Essence into the group fold

Implementing and steering the ship

Now, Essence has clients on its books ranging across a number of different categories, including Airbnb, Commonwealth Bank, Google, Isuzu, Ladbrokes, Lindt, Myer, Neds, NIB, Snack Brands, Tourism and Events Queensland. 

Local GroupM CEO, Aimee Buchanan told Mumbrella at the close of 2021 that one of the things she is most excited about in her new role is the opportunity this merger provides the group.

“I think the AKQA Media merger into Essence opens up a really interesting opportunity for that brand,” said Buchanan. “A full media offering at scale in Essence, which has got incredibly sophisticated digital capability, is really exciting.”

And while the agency does sport a strong list now, the first three, and arguably the strongest in that list, were already on the Essence books before the merger.

A month before said merger came into effect, AQKA Media lost one of its biggest clients in Subway, which was also the founding client when Ikon opened in Brisbane in 2011. This was no small account to lose, confirmed later by Nielsen Ad Intel to have an ad spend of $24 million across the 12 months preceding December 2021. 

Subway told Mumbrella that the move across to Publicis’ Zenith came without a pitch, ending the 11-year relationship between agency and brand

The day after, Mumbrella reported that Google had retained OMG’s PHD as its offline buying agency in Australia, two weeks after it was reported that the tech giant had aligned all of its global media buying and planning with Essence, previously only handling digital and programmatic. 

It also lost the Star Entertainment Group the month prior, which moved within the group to MediaCom, though this happened before the announcement of the merger as Mumbrella understands.

While this is no direct indictment of the proposition Essence is offering its clients, two clients out the door on the eve of the merger, and another blue-chipper going against the global grain in retaining PHD’s services does potentially suggest initial hesitance. There will likely always be one or two that get cold feet with a major move like this, however.

Outside of the aforementioned, Essence tells Mumbrella that every single client that was on Ikon and AKQA Media’s roster is on board with the new proposition and capabilities now on offer.

“The priority in the year ahead is our people & current clients.”

Crowley also tells Mumbrella that so far, the client response “has been immense, and it’s all positive”. 

“There’s a genuine excitement and curiosity about the Essence approach and how it layers on additional global data and tech expertise.”

So how will it play out?

By all accounts, the success story of Essence will continue to grow, regardless of whether this was cooked up as part of a global alignment or not. If they can maintain the current client list, and seamlessly implement its tech across all of its newly combined clients, it will in no time be following suit and winning locally, following the global trajectory of Essence.

The other two appointments made by Essence today include elevating Theo Zisoglou from executive director of the Brisbane agency to national chief media officer. In his role he will head up planning and investment across each of the Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney markets. Essence says this is Zisoglou “returning to his passion”, to deliver a progressive planning and investment approach that adds value for clients”.

Finally, Celia Wright joins as chief growth officer from Spark Foundry, where she was general manager, media, working directly on Westpac. Essence says that Wright will work with the national teams “to match agency people and skills with client needs, ensuring that the right capabilities, tools and products are deployed to deliver results for clients”, while also leading initiatives that “support personal and professional growth for Essence people”.  

This also sees Wright reuniting with Crowley, who she worked with initially during her lengthy spell working at CommBank, and later leading media planning and buying for CommBank, Colonial First State, Aussie and CommSec alongside Crowley at Ikon between 2017 and 2020. 

Having Wright within his leadership setup will surely ease the transition for Crowley, with him now having to focus on more than just his largest client in CommBank.

Wright says on joining Essence: “I’m delighted to be joining Essence and to be working with Pat once again, alongside the new leadership team. The opportunity to guide the growth of Essence’s people, operations and product is a thrilling one, and I look forward to helping the team to not only service our excellent range of keystone clients, but also ensuring this agency is equipped for continued success and operates in alignment with our bold vision.” 

Each of the three will join the national leadership team.

Crowley continues: “These three appointments are critical as we shape the new, expanded Essence in Australia, amplify the agency’s pioneering spirit and help clients win in the new economy. We have an absolute focus on digital transformation and the creation of products that enable us to create the next generation of media practice. Simon and Celia bring an injection of exceptional new talent that will complement the skillsets that already sit within the agency. Theo’s passion for the craft of investment makes him perfectly placed to take on this newly created role and play a bigger role in shaping this fundamental discipline in our agency.” 

Questions will no doubt linger for some time whether the newly merged agency will be able to replicate the Essence success story it has been in other markets, or an amalgamation of what was three WPP agencies, less than one year ago. 


Get the latest media and marketing industry news (and views) direct to your inbox.

Sign up to the free Mumbrella newsletter now.



Sign up to our free daily update to get the latest in media and marketing.