Smart humans key to the data

August 19, 2019 | Share this article

UM Australia chief executive Fiona Johnston claims the turnaround strategy at the company has started to pay dividends, but says the industry is still struggling to come to grips with the data -explosion taking over advertising.

The company, a division of IPG Mediabrands, has secured 10 new clients, including the Australian government, Maserati, Just Eat, Nestle and AGL, over the past 12 months. It also hasn’t lost a ¬client or pitch in 18 months, ¬recently re-signing Kmart and Coca-Cola after 14 and five years respectively working for the brands.

Ms Johnston, approaching her two-year anniversary as CEO in October, attributes the success to her strong and growing team, smart use of mountains of data, and technology.

“Science without art is meaningless, and art without science is wasteful,” Ms Johnston told The Australian in her first media interview this year because “actions speak louder than words”.

“So if you have bunch of stupid humans looking at data, then you’re not gonna get anything from it.

“If you have loads of average data with a human that can understand the insight and intelligence that it’s bringing, then it’s great,” she said, adding it also ¬requires sophisticated technology.

Ms Johnston said IPG’s acquisition of Acxiom for $US2.3 billion ($3.39bn) last year will give it “far more support in the quality of data that we harvest and source”.

“But again, we need a smart human to look at that data. More data can just become more complexity again. A bit like clients shouldn’t just rely on data for their responses and their results,” she said. “They also need to be marketeers and they need a good healthy bit of gut instinct and human experience to produce the best work.”

UM has reversed years of ¬decline, booking a 36 per cent jump in billings over the 12 months to June 30, said Ms Johnston. She declined to provide any other financial figures, citing confidentiality.

“The product wasn’t connected enough, and there wasn’t enough structure around how we were going about our leadership,” she said. Ms Johnston said her predecessor, Ross Raeburn, was a “very smart, great human”, who did a “great job of stabilising the business”.

“It’s just been through commercial change, like every business like ours. How we bring on data, how we bring on analytics, and all those sort of investment needs, and then make sure that we are covering off that investment has been a challenge,” she explained.

Ms Johnston is particularly proud the company retained Wesfarmers’ budget department store chain Kmart and drinks giant Coca-Cola as clients, amid stiff competition during pitching.

“Both of those were incredibly tough fights,” she said. “Polite and professional fights, but we had great competition.”

UM undertakes all client ¬retention pitches in a new approach — “a spring clean for everybody” — noting said “passion and people” secured the Kmart contract.

“Kmart is a very professional, smart, mature business and for it to give us such human feedback was really quite unusual, and it said ‘the way that your people connected and were connected was infectious’,” she said.

UM has hired an extra 100 or so staff since Ms Johnston took over, including a new office in Canberra following its government contract win, the biggest on its books. That takes its total workforce to 252 around the country. The company has also cut staff churn, which has helped keep clients. “Investing in people is critical,” she said. “I’d like to ¬invest more than I do. I invest more than we have in the past but it’s a constant battle because we work in a ¬dynamic business.”

Ms Johnston said she worked very closely with her team, but would like to do more.

“One thing we have done a lot over the past couple of years is ¬really deepen what we stand for and why we’re here.”

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