2021 Creative Agency of the Year: Empower

Over the past year, Cincinnati-based agency Empower rolled out a new customer-journey platform called EMerge. It’s a strategic framework for planning, creation and activation that enables the agency to combine and analyze first- and third-party data, primary research, syndicated research, and data from search, social and web analytics.

EMerge is just one of several innovations devised at the agency over the past year that has helped it remap the consumer path to purchase with far greater precision and glean a better understanding of the importance of the middle part of that journey.

With that knowledge the agency has adjusted client plans and activations, often driving double-digit gains in business metrics.

The platform also addresses the mission-critical industry issue of how to market in a world where tracking consumers is becoming far more challenging.

For deploying EMerge and creating other innovative techniques, including a proprietary tool for combating bias in media planning, Empower has been named MediaPost’s 2021 Creative Agency of the Year.

The anti-bias tool, which is integrated into the EMerge platform, scores media-plan outputs as a comparison to market demographics and audience psychographics.

That takes the planning process from a general market approach to an approach inclusive of all consumer journeys and properly accounts for and reaches audiences at optimum times and places with effective messaging.

The tool was utilized as part of a strategic makeover for client Conn’s HomePlus and is credited with helping it achieve record earnings over the past year, in part by helping to define more precisely the Hispanic consumer journey.

The company has also developed a two-pronged plan to help clients deal with the fadeout of unauthorized digital tracking. It includes reprioritizing contextual advertising, “where the context of the user’s media experience serves as the bridge to that consumer’s state-of-mind,” as the agency’s Chief Product Officer Ryan Derrow put it in a recent report.

“It’s a simple concept that feels like a relic of the past,” Derrow says, “but technology is making this easier to do at scale and across formats (text, image, and audio/video).”

The second prong is building up the depth and breadth of first-party assets, specifically gaining consumer consent to tracking and using their data as walled gardens grow and multiply in the post-cookie world.

First-party data from website visitors, app users, and customer lists “will be critical to the future capability of each individual advertiser,” Derrow said. “First-party data will work like a currency, enabling the secure comparison of audiences from the advertiser to other publishers, platforms, panels, or other advertisers. With this first party data currency, the full set of digital capabilities are reborn in new and potentially differentiating ways for the advertiser.”

Empower created another new product, called Culture Tap -- a proprietary platform that uncovers trending content, topics and themes. Unlike social listening tools, it allows brands to react with fresh creative content to real-time moments, instead of creating strategies around moments that have already passed.

The agency leveraged the new tool to help client American Standard intersect with DIY trends and boost engagement rates for social content.

Culture Tap revealed that consumer search queries for “Matte Black” finishes for kitchen and bathroom hardware increased exponentially during the pandemic. The insight led the brand to prioritize trendy product features within Instagram and Facebook content which helped grow organic engagement.

And content that featured black faucets and shower accessories earned engagement rates that were 30% to 110% above average.

Matte black faucet creative was also put into rotation and tested against American Standard’s core product. It earned 2.3% higher engagement, 145% more site visits and 10% lower CPMs.

The tool was also used this year to positive effect by other clients like GNC.

The agency has also leveraged databases and machine learning to automate media-planning algorithms for an offering it calls Media Agent. It provides fast, data-backed media recommendations with a resulting boost in ROI and lower agency fees.

Media Agent is housed within an interactive technology platform. Starting with some basic information provided by the client, Media Agent teams plan and buy advertising across multiple media channels (Television, Radio, Digital Display, Facebook, YouTube, Google, Pandora, and more). The platform utilizes automated intelligence built from decades of media and performance data to calibrate recommended media mix.

It has proven to be a great fit for clients that may at some point migrate to Empower’s full-agency service as their business grows and becomes more complex.

Client Ashley HomeStore has had great success with the service, said Anthony Bakken, director of licensee marketing at Ashley HomeStore Retail. He calls it a “game changing tool for our licensee community,” which he credits in part to the technology and the fact that the Empower team “knows our retail business and dynamics.” 

And with search and social capabilities in rapidly growing demand by clients, Empower has developed centers of excellence (COE) for the Food, Home and Retail/CPG categories that are designed to drive innovation. The COEs deliver competitive landscape analysis, trends and potential opportunities in media and commerce.  

While MediaPost AOY awards focus on innovation, vision and thought leadership, Empower’s work in those areas has also led to significant business growth as well as a record year for industry creative award recognitions across major shows like the Webbys, National Addys and The One Show.

The agency achieved record revenues in 2021 — up more than 30% — driven by an 18% organic growth spurt and new business awards from clients including RoC Skincare and Newell Brands among others.

In fact, the agency has achieved double-digit revenue growth over the past five years — growth that recently led to its opening a new hub in Atlanta where client Newell Brands is headquartered.

Other new offices are also in the planning stages.

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