POV: Interview with Richard Mooney, Managing Director at Essence Digital

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Jami Oetting
Jami Oetting



richard-mooney-headshotWelcome to The Agency Post. Tell us about yourself.

I’m Richard Mooney, partner and North American managing director of Essence Digital. I’m British-born and spent most of my life there, but this is my third stint living in the U.S. — the first one in New York City.

I’ve worked at Essence for almost eight years, effectively from its inception. I had worked with the founders in a previous company, and when they set up Essence, I jumped at the chance of joining the team. Since then, I’ve looked to take full advantage of the opportunities that have been given to me in this fast-changing business. I started out in analytics, helping devise the proprietary platforms and techniques that we use to measure our marketing effectiveness, but I have also held roles across media, creative and technology. Prior to Essence, I learned the fundamentals of business and technology as a consultant in a professional services firm.

When I’m not living and breathing digital, I spend as much time as possible walking the streets of New York, soaking up the many experiences it has to offer. What’s the best thing about living in the U.S.? Probably being able to experience the passion and energy of U.S. sports. I’m a huge fan.

Tell us about Essence Digital. What differentiates your agency or your work in the digital marketing space?

Essence is a global digital agency that offers services in strategy, media, social and creative to some of the most digitally sophisticated brands out there, including Google, eBay and Expedia. The types of challenges clients like this give us and the innovation required to keep moving them forward definitely drives us to deliver great work.

One of the key things that we believe sets us apart is our approach to our work. Before Essence was born, the agency’s founding team was all client side, managing big business with millions of customers and complex P&Ls. They’d never worked in an agency before, and so they built our approach from the ground up and from a client vantage point. To this day, the agency remains fueled by client success and motivated to solve real client challenges above all else, which often leads to clients considering us as strategic advisors first, digital agency second. I also believe we’re one of very few independent, digitally native agencies that can say they offer true global scale. We’ve worked in more than 55 markets and have a team that speaks over 30 different languages, making our culture a real melting pot.


Many companies track data and analytics but may never use it to make business decisions. Why should agencies be using data to make more informed and targeted campaigns?

The thought of any company — let alone an agency — not using data to make decisions in this day and age is foreign to me. From trying to understand the behaviors of your target audience to developing truly personalized and contextualized messaging, determining the creative concept and format that invokes the best response and measuring the attitudinal shifts or return on investment that your marketing delivers, data holds the key. I think the question is more about how agencies should ensure they’re using it correctly.

First, present day marketing efforts can produce billions of fragmented data points on a daily basis, which adds up to many terabytes of data. Agencies must continue to invest in the technical infrastructure needed to rapidly tie it all together, to transform it into a meaningful and holistic view and to deliver it in the most appropriate format to the day-to-day decision makers. Of course, this also means that they must recruit and nurture the talented technologists needed to not only maintain the infrastructure but also to evolve it in this ever-changing industry.

Second, if data is placed in the wrong, uneducated hands, it’s very easy to draw the wrong conclusions. Agencies must ensure they hire extremely analytical people and give them the training they need to not only slice and dice the data confidently but also to leverage statistical confidence techniques to ensure the decisions they make are robust.

Finally, it’s very easy to target your marketing at an audience that has a pre-determined propensity to buy your product and get a great result at face value. What’s important is that you measure the true incremental value your marketing delivers through rigorous test design — above and beyond doing nothing at all.

The various devices consumers use to research, purchase and talk about brands has caused fragmentation and confusion for many brands. How can brands and agencies use technology or data management platforms to understand and analyze the vast amount of data that is available?

To date, most technologies that have been used to track user behavior and marketing performance across mobile devices have over relied on the increasingly redundant cookie and have had gaps in coverage.

Mobile publishers have taken on the challenge of delivering meaningful tracking by building publisher-specific SDKs, but such an approach is not sustainable given the level of mistrust brands feel towards such solutions and their limitations in scale. However, over the past year, cross-platform solutions have started to arrive that will successfully work across mobile platforms and operating systems, such as those offered by the likes of AdTruth and Drawbrid.ge. I suspect it’s only a matter of time until the trusted ad-serving players also look to develop unified solutions that give a true picture of user journeys across platforms.

One of the methods we’re exploring at Essence is leveraging IP addresses to tie different devices together. For example, consider a user watching connected TV and converting on a Wi-Fi connected tablet. Sophisticated mining of activity logs would allow us to tie these events together, and the introduction of smartly designed media tests would allow us to accurately measure the impact each has on the other.

How is mobile changing the way you approach a digital project?

Mobile is a very exciting medium right now. It gives brands an opportunity to target audiences with addressable, hyper-localized marketing in environments and situations that they have historically had to rely on more traditional, mass-broadcast techniques. Its rapid adoption in developing countries also gives brands access to a wave of consumers that has historically been “digitally inaccessible.” Because of the opportunities it offers, mobile is being used more prevalently in our campaigns, but it doesn’t make sense for all campaigns. First and foremost, it is critical to get under the skin of the brief and its objectives. Then, if it makes sense to leverage mobile marketing when we’re putting the strategy together, we will. Otherwise, we’ll leave it out.

Essence Digital was founded in the U.K. in 2005 and arrived in the U.S. two years ago. Essence also recently acquired San Francisco-based Black Bag Advertising. What do you attribute this type of high growth of the agency to?

Our success is first and foremost the result of our people. We have worked hard to recruit and empower the best talent out there, and in turn, they have helped us profitably grow the agency every year since launch by establishing a strong and growing client base that truly values us. This has given us a solid foundation to build on. Secondly, our senior management team is incredibly focused on delivering on our vision of becoming the category-defining global digital agency.

Once we had established one of the leading agencies in Europe, the next natural step was to expand into the U.S. Over the course of the last two years, we’ve worked hard to grow our U.S. business and develop the very solid base that we have today. To maintain momentum, we knew we also had to supplement our organic growth with astute acquisitions. Black Bag Advertising was the first step of that mission. It allowed us to gain a West Coast presence, grow our client base and, most importantly, bring on board a group of very talented people whose outlook to marketing is very similar to our own. The team is now successfully operating as Essence Digital, we are well on our way to completing integration, and the acquisition has already paid great dividends. Our acquisition efforts won’t stop there. In early January, we announced the acquisition of Point Reach, a full-service mobile agency based in Seattle, which has allowed us to significantly strengthen our mobile capabilities in the U.S.

Of course, rapid growth like this has its challenges, but we’re aware of the amount of time and effort that will be required to successfully integrate the new businesses, and we’re incredibly determined to get it right.

What types of employees and skills are you looking for in 2013? How does Essence ensure that it hires and retains top talent?

To be honest, we’re always on the lookout for really smart people that over-index in analytical ability, creative thinking and ambition — be that account handlers, planner/buyers, auction-buying specialists, analysts or creative technologists. Of course, to get the best of the best you need a rigorous interview process and to be prepared to lock horns with the most attractive employers out there.

From a recruitment perspective, we’ve spent significant time building and maintaining a network of recruitment partners that really understand what we’re about and the type of people we look for. Once we’ve identified candidates, we use a combination of online aptitude testing, behavioral interviews and business case studies to get under the skin of their ability, experience and personalities. I also think it’s important to view the interview process as a two-way process. It’s just as much about the candidate getting a feel for the agency as it is about us getting a feel for them. So, by the time they’ve completed the interview process, the “sell” has already been made, and all that remains is ensuring we have a best-in-class package to offer them.

We put our new hires through a very structured induction process that gives them a real opportunity to learn about Essence’s history, get comfortable with our vision, explore how our values relate to them and understand how we do business. This process ensures they establish a sense of belonging while also forming their own identity within the organization. In addition, we take career development extremely seriously, offering staff a biannual review process, a mentorship program and training courses specifically designed to support progression in Essence. Add in the ability for us to offer them some of the most challenging client briefs out there, and our attrition rate is well below industry average.

Do you feel that traditional marketing is still relevant? Why or why not?

Yes, I still think that it has a part to play in developing a well-rounded marketing strategy. And in fact, most studies show that traditional and digital activity can supplement each other extremely well. But the approach needs to be integrated to maintain consistency of message and to ensure the overall interaction a brand has with its target audience has been planned out, controlled and measured. We work hand-in-hand with our clients’ other agency partners to ensure just that. Similar to any channel, though, you need to assess fit of traditional media on a case-by-case basis. For example, glossy magazines may still be an important consideration for a fashion brand, but maybe not so much for a dating website.

What trends in advertising do you find most interesting/exciting?

Our industry moves so quickly that I think it’s incredibly hard — and not always prudent — to spent too much time focusing on trends. If I was going to hazard a guess, I think there will be a lot of effort placed into developing more engaging native ad formats in 2013 to help fuel the mobile advertising industry. Companies offering innovative ways to deliver cross-device measurement will also be hot news, and one particular company I’ll be keeping an eye on is this arena is Drawbrid.ge.

One reason you love what you do: Even after almost eight years at Essence, I still don’t think I’ve ever had two days that have been exactly the same. That’s what gets me up every day. The clients we work with mean there’s always a new challenge to tackle, and having an office full of passionate people means that there’s always something new to talk about.

Mentor: Rather than having one go-to mentor, I’m the type of person who always looks to find opportunities to listen to and learn from those around me. But above all, I’d probably say my parents — for showing me how to live life and inspiring me to succeed.

Must-read book: That’s a hard one. To be honest, when I get a chance to read, I spend most of it catching up on what’s being said in the industry or meticulously reading Wired or Fast Company from cover to cover. Notwithstanding, let’s go with Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point.”

Connect with Richard on Twitter @richardmooneyuk.

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