Inquisitive, innovative and unapologetically essential: Ryan Storrar embodies the EMX Values
EMX's CEO on the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead for his new agency
06 September 2023
It's fair to say that before the beginning of this year Ryan Storrar was quietly leading a quietly flourishing business called Essence. Since his agency became EssenceMediacom X in January, though, a spotlight has firmly fixed on both Storrar and the reshaped offering he now leads as part of the reconfigured global behemoth Essence Mediacom.
Uniting Essence’s performance, data, analytics, and creative technology DNA with MediaCom’s scaled multichannel audience planning and strategic media expertise has already proved to be a powerful play by parent company WPP. The UK market has its own unique opportunity, though, because the sheer scale of the two legacy businesses has meant the new network retains two distinct brands here, with Storrar heading EssenceMediacom X and Kate Rowlinson taking charge of EssenceMediacom.
So nine months into the launch of the new EssenceMediaCom X business, we talked to Storrar about how the new model is bedding in and the opportunities ahead.
Creative Salon: It’s nine months since the launch of EssenceMediacom X; what have been the real positives that you've experienced so far?
Ryan Storrar: The real positive from my perspective is how everyone's embraced the launch and really leaned forward into it. I think it would have been easy for people to put barriers up but I love the fact that people have really approached it just assuming positive intent, and actively seeking out ways that they can contribute. And that's in every sense: it's socially in some of the events that have been organised, it’s in rolling their sleeves up and volunteering to be part of the work streams for making the new agency model a reality, and it’s also in putting their hands up for a number of the areas driving the integration such as client work, pitches, adapting our vision for the agency. These are all areas I've really loved seeing people lean into actively.
And what about the positives that you've seen from clients and from the market in general - how have people externally responded?
There’s probably multiple answers to that question depending on the stakeholder group. In terms of clients, I've been encouraged by the immediate reaction to Essence and Mediacom coming together and saying ‘yeah, that makes a tonne of sense, I can see why’. So that really edifies the direction of travel and instantly gives you confidence. Which is lovely. And then for clients, the conversation very quickly focuses on a very - for me - positive topic, which is how are we going to be elevating the calibre of work that we do with our clients. And that's really what everything hinges upon. Clients are very excited to see what the incremental capabilities coming into the agency are as a result, and we really focus on that. So that for me is a very constructive way of looking at things.
The flip side of that question is of course what have been the challenges that you’ve had to overcome through the launch phase?
When you merge two agencies of this scale, there's always going to be challenges. And one of most important things we really have to focus on is over-communicating. And in hindsight, maybe we didn't even over-communicate enough, that’s something that kind of plays on my mind. Our people are often the most important asset, right? And they're what makes the agency as successful as it is. So how we've been bringing our people on the journey is incredibly important. And it's challenging to get that perfect, right. So that was one of the things that I was very, very focused on - how do we make sure everyone knows that they've got a bright future in our agency?
Are there any lessons you’ve learned so far, that that might be useful to other companies going through similar structural changes?
That's a great question and I reserve the right to change my mind in six to 12 months, because undoubtedly I’ll know more then than I do now. But a couple of things really jumped out to me. First, involve people early and openly. We did a pretty good job of that. But we potentially could have gone further. Because, you know, as you're talking about changes it's natural to assume that people may be apprehensive around it. And I learned through this that people were incredibly positive, incredibly open, and really, genuinely appreciated being involved. If you ask them the big question around how we are building the agency, and the future, they are really excited to contribute to that and kind of left their egos at the door. So that's one thing I've learned and that I thought was incredibly encouraging.
And then the other point is around keeping the message simple and over communicate too often. It's really, really important because the number of questions you get is just incredible. And people are really looking for clarity. I can’t over-state the importance of giving people clarity. The message needs to be really, really clear and repeated very, very often.
So tell us how you see the differences now between EssenceMediacom and EssenceMediacom X.
EssenceMediacom and EssenceMediacom X have a lot in common, right. There's common capabilities, common vision, proposition and direction of travel. We also need to maintain two agencies based in the UK as an acknowledgement of how successful both have been and for future growth in this market. The UK is our home market, both for EM and EMX, and we actually want to maintain the leadership position that we've respectively built. In terms of points of difference, there is one in how both agencies operate: EM here is purely UK focused whereas EMX tends to operate also as a multi-market hub for regionalised or globalised clients. So when I look at the billings profile, EM is 100% buildings in the UK, whereas EMX, the majority of billings are actually outside of the UK. So, there's a difference in the operating model. And then the other area is in perspective. Historically, EMX has always come at things through a digital-first approach and mindset. And that absolutely continues and there are certain areas of innovation that have always been pioneered by the EMX office and that will absolutely continue to be the case.
Do you think it’s clear to clients which agency is most right for them, EM or EMX? Or is that not even a question clients would need to ask themselves?
It's not a question a client should ask. That's something that we would work through. Our commitment is to create breakthroughs for brands, as that’s incredibly important in what we describe as the new communications economy. The question clients should be asking is how do we create those breakthroughs together. And that's something that bringing the best of EM and EMX capabilities together achieves.
How is your job and the business you’re running really different from the Essence of 18 months ago?
So I'll give you a couple of examples. The launch of EssenceMediacom has given what was Essence a real catalyst to grow. If I look at our growth opportunities historically, we previously just wouldn't have been invited to be a part of some things due to our limited footprint. So being part of that global scale of the EM network just opens up new growth opportunities for us. Okay, so that's great. And then we also have increasingly elevated capabilities now, being part of the broader network. Of course, we've contributed a lot of innovative solutions and capabilities to EssenceMediacom and we also have received some as well, for example, a more integrated way that we AV plan. That's an area that legacy Mediacom was very, very strong in and we've been able to learn from. So there's a good flow of capability sharing across the network as well.
Let’s talk about the word programmatic, which historically Essence was associated with. Is that still an accurate description of a core part of your business? Or is that too limiting a word now and even perhaps outdated?
I suppose it depends partly on your definition of the word programmatic. I suppose in one respect it's the wrong word. I think what has always characterised Essence historically and now EM and EMX, is to take a very data- and measurement-first approach to media and always look to deliver advertising that’s most effective. That doesn't change. Historically, it just so happens that that's often most enabled through programmatic buying. But that's not to say that those principles cannot apply to other areas of media, because they can and they do. So I think it's less around programmatic as a specific area of media and more around the principles of being data-enabled, scaled, and automated with technology, and then backed up with measurement rigour applied to all advertising. Those are the things that really create breakthroughs in advertising for brands.
When you look at where EssenceMediacom X is developing over the next three years, what excites you most about that direction of travel?
I think that there are a number of areas in the industry that we can drive tremendous convergence around, okay. Our North Star is how do we create break-throughs through more effective advertising?; that's really what it boils down to for me. If I look five years into the future, things that the industry has traditionally compartmentalised have to collide. I mean, things like media and creative have to come together; brand and performance, increasingly that’s got to come together to be much more of a full-funnel approach; how we look at the use of customer data and enabling technology - that shouldn't be adjacent to media, that has to be fully integrated with media. So I see media, data, tech, creative, all of that really converging in the interest of creating customer value through advertising. And that for me is really, really exciting.
Okay, let’s talk a little bit about the culture of EMX. How would you describe your culture and is it different to EssenceMediacom’s?
I’d describe the EMX culture as inquisitive and innovative. That's something that we've always been, in the past we used to call it unapologetically essential - it meant to constantly be challenging the norms and finding new ways to tackle challenges. And that's something that we're really proud to maintain.
Now culturally across EM and EMX we have a common set of cultural principles that we all sign up to. So there's a lot in common. And the application at EMX I like to think really boils down to everyone, first of all, turning up and being their authentic selves at work. And really being given the licence to go out and challenge the norm every day. And you know, innovation must come from everywhere, we want to see that from our people.
How do you translate that into your particular leadership style? How do you describe yourself as a leader?
I think to some extent 'leader' is a title that needs to be earned. So do I want to self-proclaim that? No, not really. Okay. Leadership is a privilege. It's a real privilege to lead EMX. I do try to ensure we maintain a level of horizontality in the agency and I'll give you a couple of examples. So one is, on fortnightly basis I host an open session that we typically have hundreds of people join. There's a number of questions that are pre-submitted anonymously and you know, nothing's off limits. And then I'm encouraged by when we do staff surveys, a lot of the comments come back where they talk about that session, how important it is to have a degree of openness and leadership. A second example is, each month I host a breakfast for any new joiner that month, because it's important that when someone's just joined the agency we sit down and say hello, I introduce myself and talk about what I'm about and what EMX is about. And also I want everyone to feel that they've got a direct line into the leadership of the agency as well. That's very, very important. It’s been a challenge to maintain that level of openness as we've grown to nearly 800 people now. But it's incredibly important that we create that dynamic and I want people to know that they have a voice.
Finally, a couple of questions about you Ryan. Apparently your passions are sport and barbecues. So, what sort of sport? What's your favourite barbecue menu? And do you find ways to combine the two?
Yes, I do love both those things. When I was growing up I played absolutely everything. But I was most competitive at golf. I had a scholarship to play golf through uni and played competitively as well afterwards. I do still try – though not always successfully - to keep up. Barbecue wise, that's a tough question. So I've actually got a couple of barbecues in the garden one is a Texan offset smoker, that’s a proper Texas style brisket. But that's a weekend commitment.
OK, so now we need to know what your golf handicap is.
My handicap is two.
That’s quite impressive isn’t it?
I have mixed feelings about it. Because on one hand, yes, it's low, it is good. But on the other hand, I think it should be better.
Gosh, has it been better?
Oh, yes. Yeah, I've been plus two, plus three in the past. I’m a bit of a perfectionist and competitive. So I don't like being told two is good.
So, you’re a competitive perfectionist. Tell us then, if we're looking back on this conversation in a few years' time, what are the hard and soft metrics you'll be using to judge your success at EMX?
Great question. So the hard metrics are really straightforward. We have a number of metrics that we measure and some of these are commercial: have we grown the business and have we done so profitably. We also have five metrics around our people: what is our employee satisfaction score, we can also look at things like attrition rates, and then more specifically break that down by gender and ethnicity groups as well, because we do have targets set around ensuring that we have representation in the agency as well to make sure we're really living up to our commitments on the diversity and inclusion side of things.
So those are all areas that we have hard metrics that we focus on. They're very measurable. So the softer items are slightly more difficult to quantify. But we do get a read on this. We do staff surveys multiple times a year. And I often find the most enlightening aspects of that are less the numerical scores, and more the written verbatim comments that people provide. The last one we did, I received about 850 comments from across the agency. I read through them all, and they are incredibly enlightening, you really get the sentiment, the aim is to make sure people feel that they can bring their authentic selves to the office. And I really want people to feel they are set up to do the most innovative work of their careers, that they’re given the licence to go forth and do that. So those are the softer items I'm really looking into.
And what about you, do you have any unfulfilled professional ambitions Ryan?
I suppose when I was a kid, I wanted to be an astronaut and go to the moon. That's unlikely to happen now. But that's fine. But more seriously, look right now it's around delivering on the promise of EssenceMediacom and EssenceMediacom X. We’ve done a lot of great things to launch the agency. But if I’m honest I think it will be another six, 12, 18 months for us to really genuinely say that we are delivering this with meaningful impact for our clients. And that's a commitment that we need to live up to.