Dentsu Aegis Network’s Merkle Names New Global CEO

Craig Dempster has been with the performance marketing agency for 14 years

craig dempster
Craig Dempster will begin in his new role on June 1. Dentsu Aegis Network

Key insight:

Dentsu Aegis Network’s Merkle is entering a new era with new leadership.

Data-driven performance marketing agency Merkle is naming Craig Dempster as global CEO, effective June 1. A 14-year Merkle veteran, Dempster ascends to the role after spending three years as president of the Americas, overseeing the agency’s many service offerings including CRM, data and analytics, as well as enterprise technology, performance media and user experience, in the market representing the vast majority of the company’s business.

As global CEO, Dempster will be responsible for an organization of more than 9,600 employees across 14 countries, including recent acquisitions 4Cite, Digital Pi and Media Storm. Dempster noted that Merkle has also added thousands of data scientists with its acquisition global data analytics company Ugam last July. He will also be responsible for leading Dentsu Aegis Network brands within the CRM category, including 360i, Cardinal Path and Gyro.

“Craig has been a crucial leader in the success we’ve seen with Merkle over the past 14 years, and I’m confident in his ability to lead our employees and clients through this time of disruption and into the future,” said David Williams, who has led Merkle as chief executive for over three decades and is transitioning into the role of global head of CRM for Dentsu Aegis Network, in a statement. “I cannot think of a person more qualified and deserving of the position.

“Merkle has amplified its presence across the industry, becoming a leader in innovation, and Craig will continue to meet and surpass our business goals as we set our sights on becoming a multibillion-dollar global leader in data-driven, tech-enabled, people-based customer experiences.”

During Williams’ tenure as CEO, Merkle grew from a $2.5 million revenue company to a global one that earns over $1 billion in annual revenue.

Dempster called Williams “a transformative leader within the industry,” adding that he “can’t be happier that I’ve had the chance to work with him and continue to work with him,” and is “excited about him extending those leadership traits to the broader Dentsu Aegis Network.”

Williams’ transition follows another Merkle vet, Peter Vandre, being named the first chief analytics officer for Dentsu Aegis Network media agency Carat.

“The Merkle leadership team has a proven track record of success,” Dempster said. “It’s not surprising at all that our management team are being asked to grow a broader portfolio, not just Merkle. We’ve spent many years developing our leadership team. We’re very disciplined in developing our people and moving them into leadership positions.”

Dempster explained that the transition had been in the works for about two years, with the timing worked out months in advance. Coincidentally, Dempster will take on the role following Dentsu Aegis Network accelerating its buyout of Merkle, announcing it would acquire 100% of the company. Dentsu first announced it was acquiring a majority stake in Merkle back in 2016.

Of course, he also takes on the leadership role amid the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. Dempster explained that Merkle’s strong performance last year gave it some momentum to weather the storm.

“We were fortunate in the sense that we had a phenomenal, record-breaking year in 2019,” as well as outperforming expectations for Q1, he told Adweek. “That puts us in a better position than a lot of people.”

He added that while Merkle wasn’t “immune to the environment,” its focus on “customer communications” provided some insulation from the impact of brands scaling back on ad spending.

“Brands more than ever before can see that having direct relationships with consumers is paramount to the future success of their business,” he explained.

In terms of internal measures in response to the business impact of the coronavirus pandemic, Dempster explained that the cost-cutting measures Dentsu Aegis Network implemented across the network earlier this month, including widespread salary reductions and a freeze on merit increases, were inclusive of Merkle, the agency has thus far avoided any layoffs or furloughs.

When asked about the future of Merkle and the evolution of its role within Dentsu Aegis Network, Dempster said, “Brands are built today through the customer experience,” explaining that Merkle’s future would revolve around utilizing its data, experience and technology expertise in service of that customer journey.

“We’ve always liked being small fish in a big pond,” he said. “Our sights now are set at Accenture and Deloitte. We see them as the big fish in the pond, and us as the small fish. We’re excited to compete against them.”

“At the same time, our data and tech skills are important to other parts of Dentsu Aegis Network,” he added, and would work to inform other parts of the network on creating better customer experiences through its insights. “As we look at privacy legislation, the death of the third-party cookie, the landscape of the media marketplace is changing. The ability to use identity as currency in creating customer experience is going to be pivotal.”

@ErikDOster Erik Oster is an agencies reporter for Adweek.