The New CEO of the World’s Biggest Ad-Buying Firm Explains Why Agencies Should Never Own Customer Data

GroupM's Christian Juhl talks Google and impartiality

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WPP's data strategy is at odds with rivals IPG and Publicis.
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Can an agency buying ads for some of the world’s biggest advertisers simultaneously own a firm that specializes in gathering consumer data to help target those clients’ ads via assorted platforms and publishers?

It’s a question that has divided the global ad industry on a holding company-wide level.

For IPG and Publicis, the answer is an unqualified yes. Both companies have weighed in via multi-billion dollar acquisitions, with the former spending $2.3 billion on Acxiom last year and the latter scooping up Epsilon for more than $4 billion this spring.

"When you own a particular data provider, you're definitely going to be recommending the data from said provider."
Christian Juhl, global CEO, GroupM

Yet Omnicom CEO John Wren stated in his company’s earnings call last week that he sees no real advantage in buying first or third-party data, saying he believes ad firms need to stay away to avoid potential conflicts of interest.

In principle, GroupM’s new CEO Christian Juhl agrees.

“In the world of holding companies snapping up data companies, clients increasingly will see that as partiality that doesn’t necessarily work in their favor,” said Juhl, former CEO of agency Essence who was chosen by WPP CEO Mark Read to run the world’s largest ad buying network this week. “We would very much prefer to use our clients’ technologies and help them master those technologies, but we want to be the provider of impartial advice. And I think when you own something, I would call that [impartiality] into question.”

In other words, a media agency network like GroupM, which Juhl said is responsible for managing $50 billion in investments that constitute “a third of the worldwide market,” has an inherent interest in driving clients toward its own services. For the same reason, Wren said Omnicom is more than content to “rent” data.

“When you own a particular data provider, you’re definitely going to be recommending the data from said provider,” said Juhl. “And when I talk to clients right now, they want to make sure that our advice is completely unbiased.”

That approach also applies to his former agency’s foundational client, Google.

While Juhl described the relationship between Google and Essence, which handles digital planning and buying for the world’s biggest digital ad platform, as “very unique and symbiotic,” he said his primary goal as GroupM’s new leader is to apply the lessons learned over Essence’s 14-year history to other platforms like Facebook, Amazon, Comcast, and AT&T’s Xandr—even when those companies compete directly with the network’s largest single partner.

I don’t think Google would ever tell you they will be 100% of the media mix for major global brands,” Juhl told Adweek. “And as we figure out more about how the relationships between these media properties work, that will become more and more the role of the agency.”

Despite the inherent challenges of this increasing fragmentation, he added, “the holding companies are struggling, and I see opportunity everywhere.”

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