Holding Company of the Year: Dentsu

Dentsu’s prescient acquisition of data-management giant Merkle back in 2016 gave the holding company a four-year head start on addressing the numerous marketing challenges faced by brands today including the deprecation of cookies, the confluence of consumer experience and broader marketing programs and the acceleration of commerce activity ignited by the pandemic.

Brands experienced unprecedented challenges in 2020 as the world grappled with health and economic calamities wrought by COVID-19 forcing quick strategy pivots on messaging, products, commerce and other approaches to market.

Having worked with people-based data at scale for years ahead of time gave the holding company a distinct advantage in helping clients quickly shift their marketing efforts and navigate seismic changes in real time throughout the year.

Concurrently, company leaders had to adjust the firm’s own operating model on the fly and plan its future in a sea of constant change. A major restructuring is in the works designed to simplify and streamline the organization (details are expected to be announced in the first quarter).

The restructuring factors in urgent global issues like climate change — the company devised a plan to reduce its carbon footprint by 40% per full-time employee by the end of 2020 (that goal was exceeded) and achieve net zero emissions by 2030 through commitments like using renewable energy sources, limiting business travel and working with clients on additional ways to limit environmental impact.

Those efforts and others have earned Dentsu MediaPost’s 2020 Holding Company Of The Year Award. (The company, the international operation of Japan’s Dentsu Group Inc. rebranded from Dentsu Aegis Network to Dentsu earlier this year.)

With third-party cookies starting to be phased out as the result of new policies by tech giants like Google and Apple, Dentsu devoted a lot of effort this year to creating new ways of identifying consumers to help brands optimize campaigns.

In January Merkle rolled out an identity resolution platform called Merkury that manipulates first-party databases to create customer profiles designed to achieve more effective outcomes when used in targeting, messaging and distribution via publishers and media channels.

The work that’s been developed makes age and geographic demos look quaint by comparison. Merkury, along with Merkle’s MI platform for example, helped client 7-Eleven create six distinct consumer profiles, each reflecting different levels of risk aversion, buying behaviors, in-person shopping propensity, and mindsets as a result of COVID-19. They called these unique personas “COVID identities,” which were placed on a spectrum of least-to-most-likely to re-emerge and adopt old habits and behaviors.

As lockdowns and social distancing required rapid reassessment of 7-Eleven’s customers and their evolving wants and expectations of the brand, Dentsu collaborated to quickly overlay the COVID identities with existing segments, honed the media mix to new behaviors and matched messaging around consumer readiness to rebuild connections and stay top of mind as stores rebounded from the pandemic.

It’s no secret that consumers embraced ecommerce like never before during 2020 and brands had to act quickly to address the increased demand or risk alienating customers and prospects.

Dentsu had several commerce units coming into the year, but to address that demand surge it ramped up quickly to create a more collaborative offering with broader tools that incorporated some of the new identity work into what it calls its “Total Commerce” proposition.

“Commerce should stop being viewed as a mere means to an end,” the firm stated in a recent report. “It should rather be seen as the pivotal customer experience. It’s not just the realization of an opportunity; when done right, it becomes the engine to create an endless number of them, and unlock exponentially greater value for the brand. Commerce is now a priority for absolutely every brand in any industry vertical.” When executed properly, the firm believes, commerce effectively integrates physical and virtual shopping environments.

One example: a virtual showroom designed for General Motors brand Cadillac that offers consumers access to a digital showroom through mobile or desktop devices and provides the opportunity to learn more about the division’s vehicle lineup and also speak with a product specialist. The carmaker converted a 10,000-square-foot Toronto film studio into the showroom where the agents take calls.

In October Kroger partnered with 360i to develop a new digital experience that used visual recognition AI to help people make better use of leftovers in their refrigerators. The partners also created a twitter account called “Chefbot” that identifies ingredients in user-submitted images, scans thousands of recipes in a Kroger database and recommends recipes.

Dentsu didn’t just innovate on the commerce front -- it shared ideas, concepts and case studies with the industry in a white paper called the “Total Commerce Playbook.”

Another illustration of its industry thought leadership is a comprehensive gender study “Perceptions of Progress: The State of Women’s Equality in the U.S.” that was done in collaboration with SeeHer. It also released an important study examining CMO preparedness and tactics for navigating the disruption wrought by the pandemic.

On the diversity front, Dentsu has walked the walk this year, installing women in the most senior positions at the group including Wendy Clark as Global CEO and Jacki Kelley as CEO Americas.

And it was also one of the first to publicly release diversity data for its U.S. workforce with commitments to make it more inclusive. Recently hired Chief Equity Officer Christena Pyle will spearhead the effort to ensure those commitments are met.

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