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Ensemble cast: can new management make sense of the agency’s eclectic talents?

The sudden axing of Ensemble's founders in February sent ructions through the industry. Alex Hayes sat down with new bosses Melissa Fein and Michael Stanford to find out what their plans are for what has been one of the most respected agencies in the country.

Fein

Fein

When I ask Ensemble’s Melissa Fein what her hopes are for the agency it’s clear she’s not shooting low – it is to “globalise the Ensemble brand”.

That’s an ambitious ask for an agency which is seen, from the outside at least, as being in something of a state of flux since the sudden axing of its founders, CEO Justin Ricketts and managing director Tim Hodgson, in one of the first acts by newly-minted minted IPG Mediabrands CEO Danny Bass.

At the same time Bass named his former GroupM colleague, Fein, as the new agency boss. Fein, who had been running Network Ten’s successful branded content division Generate since leaving Mindshare in 2014, in turn raided her former employer to take Generate’s creative director Michael Stanford as her managing director. More senior appointments are expected to be announced soon.

For me the decision to come to an agency like Ensemble was interesting,” Fein admits. “I’ve spent time at media agencies [Mindshare, Ignite] and a network [Ten] which has gone through a lot of change.

“We’ve been dealing with creative and media agencies and at a senior level at networks you are given access to senior clients. I think we always had some form of discussion with Ensemble through that period, but I think what was most interesting was that proposition around integrated thinking and ideation, and Ensemble sits in that centrepiece between a media and creative agency.”

Defining the brand

In recent years it has seemed that IPG Mediabrands had struggled to define what Ensemble’s position should be. Traditionally a sponsorship and activation agency it increasingly found itself playing in the field of content, with forays such as Target’s branded TV show with Gok Wan, Style the Nation.

gok wan style the nation

At around that time Mediabrands also made the decision to merge creative agency Airborne into Ensemble in a move it hoped would allow it to take on the “full service” creative challenges of clients. Indeed the agency’s specialities cover a broad church, from design and digital to content and old fashioned events and activation know-how.

While Fein admits she is still a couple of weeks off from nailing down a new go-to-market proposition for the agency, it’s clear she is comfortable with being the ‘other agency’, the one clients call in to plug skills gaps and challenge conventional thinking.

Asked why clients would look outside of their retained agencies for help Fein said:

In traditional retainer-based deals the agencies have certain people and skills and they re-sell stuff on certain accounts – so you’d be getting either the same stuff back as a marketer or just one thing from them in terms of ideas.”

She adds: “I was talking to a client the other day who’s just appointed a new media and creative agency, but the way she’s structured those deals allows them to be flexible to work with agencies like us on a project-by-project basis, and bring in that different skill set and have different thinking along the way.

“They’re trying to change that structure and it’s costly to spend $2m in agency fees to have a retainer, so is there a way to be more flexible and move away from that?”

Content is king

Ultimately, though, Fein admits content will be “at the centre of the business”.

“That comes from every marketer I speak with who wants to know what their content plan and mix is going to be, and that means something different to every client we’re speaking to at the moment,” she explains.

So what does a content proposition look like for Ensemble?

Fein talks about “tailored solutions” for individual clients, adding: “We’re not saying let’s just create some video content with a big celebrity and that’s how you get shareable content. We look at how media is going and definitely for us it’s around how we really own that earned and owned space. It’s how we help clients solve their problems through a unified solution.”

New MD Stanford, whose early career saw him rise through creative agencies to be executive creative director at GPY&R, points to their recent experience at Network Ten as a differentiator for the agency.

I think content, when it started, it was a misnomer, people forgot about the audiences, there was an attitude of build it see what happens,” he says.

“The discipline of looking at a broadcast network and seeing what they require and how they approach audiences and how important the audience is gave us a better understanding of the kind of content we want to produce.”

Fein points to the content pyramid construct, saying Ensemble’s role would be creating “hero” and “hub” content for clients, leaving the “hygiene” part to an agency like Mediabrands-owned social agency, Society.

The content pyramid. Source: LinkedIn

The content pyramid. Source: LinkedIn

With the content space becoming increasingly competitive with specialist shops like Emotive and Bring enjoying some recent success, Fein admits Ensemble’s shot at success will come down to its people.

“We’ve had no resignations since I’ve been here, and for me it’s working with those people we do have to develop them to come in-line with where we want to take the business,” she says.

In doing that she acknowledges culture will be an integral element for the business if it is to attract and retain top talent.

But it’s also about clients, with Fein keen to convert marketers she and Stanford have worked with in the past to Ensemble customers.

“We’ve got some great, top level client relationships that haven’t had historics with Ensemble but we’ll have conversations now,” she says.

“That comes on trust on what we’ve delivered for them in the past, and that goes a long way in this industry. There’s a lot of people saying the same things, and it does get a little bit overwhelming and clients can get a bit lost.

“Every time we talk to clients we truly want to understand their business better and build that deeper relationship with the clients, and it’s not a one-way relationship.”

Stanford

Stanford: “You can’t underestimate the importance of experience”

Stanford adds: “With the people, too, it’s about putting the client first and saying how do we make this work? It sounds trite but it really is about putting the interests of the client first and saying how do we make this work?

“You can’t underestimate the importance of experience and the integrity of that in the working environment and how you bring that culture to life. That’s something we’re excited by.

“If you add those things together with a lot of hard work you find yourselves in a good position.”

Ensemble has traditionally not looked to its sister agencies for work, but that’s clearly something Fein will be changing, telling me she has been “super impressed” with what she has seen of them so far.

Beyond UM and Initiative, Mediabrands boasts agencies such as mobile agency Mnet and data shop Anomoly.

When I’m talking to external Mediabrands clients and say ‘I’ve got a solution for you’ and bring in all of these guys and tap into those resources with one person at the front is a pretty phenomenal Mediabrands offering,” she says.

I’ve spent time with Ross [Raeburn, CEO of UM] and Lee [Leggett, CEO of Initiative] on how we can all have a fresh start. That’s exciting. It’s about how we can support them better and how we can support each of them in a different way to the other.”

Given that closer connection how can the little sister maintain its own identity?

Fein says: “Our value proposition is imperative in that – it’s not adding another line into client’s work. I really feel like I’ve got to add some key value propositions back to the client teams as well. We’ve got a background in networks, we know the media side very well, and there’s complementary skill sets.”

And so to the blue sky question: if we sit here in a year and look back on what’s happened what do you hope to have achieved?

“For me working with a great set of clients doing some amazing work we’re proud of,” Fein starts, before conceding her real ambition.

“Ultimately there’s a big opportunity with Mediabrands on top of where Ensemble sits – they’re all global agencies and Ensemble are only in a few countries – so how do we globalise the Ensemble brand and take it through to other regions? That will come off the back of 12 or 18 months of great client work before we look at that.”

With ambitions like that, the agency’s positioning is going to be vital.

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