Continuing our series Life in Commercial Finance, I sat down with Alistair Jebb, Commercial Director, Global Clients at Dentsu Aegis Network. Alistair has over 15 years commercial finance experience within global media groups and has worked with clients including Jaguar Land Rover, Mondelez, Sony, GSK, Mars and Colgate Palmolive
Can you tell me a little bit about your current role?
I work within the Global Clients Commercial Team, which sits within the Media and Performance line of business at Dentsu Aegis. The commercial team is approaching a headcount of 25 now, which gives you an idea of the scale and importance of the commercial function for Dentsu Aegis.
My job is essentially to help us win business; to work out what the right operating models are; work out what the right remuneration models are; to agree the terms and conditions we put in place with clients during pitches; to manage relationships with procurement during the terms of the contract and to make sure that the reporting and compliance issues that come up are properly managed. And to hopefully re-negotiate the terms at the end of the contract, so that the cycle can start again.
I don’t have any direct reports in my current role which means I can very much focus on the best models for each client, how we can best make money and on strengthening relationships with procurement.
How did you become involved in commercial finance?
Like many people, I started working in a media agency finance team. Back in 2003, I worked in the MEC EMEA regional finance team. Two years later GroupM created a regional finance structure, removing the need for agency regional teams. I was given the opportunity to work for GroupM EMEA, or to set up a commercial finance team within MEC, working for a gentleman called Scott Smith. I took the latter option as it sounded much more exciting! It was probably one of the earliest commercial teams set up within a media agency, along with Mindshare who had something similar at the time.
Our job at the time was to try to get a grip on what contracts were in place within the agency, if we were complying with them and negotiating at pitches. Which is not that different to what we still do to this day.
How has the sector changed during your time?
When I compare what I’m doing now in 2019 to what I was doing in 2005, the fundamentals of the role are exactly the same. What’s changed is the understanding within the agency of the commercial team and how it’s at the core of decision making, and how it can support the client teams, account teams and new business team. We are there from day one in a client relationship. No-one was managing negotiations, contracts, reporting, compliance, and partnering client procurement previously.
How has your role evolved?
Again, I don’t think the fundamentals have changed. The importance of the Commercial functions is just more widely acknowledged within the agencies, hence their increasing scale.
When I was starting in the early 2000’s, I was negotiating contracts (and it seems unthinkable now) without lawyers involved and very little experience but for the great tutelage from the guy I was working for at the time. So what has changed is that I’ve gone from negotiating small pitches, small contracts, and small client relationships to clients spending hundreds of millions on media, managing that commercial relationship, setting the terms at the beginning of the relationship, and acting as a point of contact throughout the relationship for the client procurement contacts. Procurement is a very important stakeholder now, and they need a point of contact, and that’s the role I fill.
Coming back to your question, it’s the scale and the importance to the organisation that has changed.
How do you predict the industry will change/ evolve in the future?
Automation, increased programmatic buys, AI, Blockchain technology will all play ever increasing roles. This is happening already and will continue to impact our industry. We’ve got to be very adaptive to the circumstances we’ve found ourselves in. Media agencies have adapted well, better than creative agencies I think, which is why media agencies exist at the scale they do today. There are though new competitors moving into the same space and I think we’ll need to continue to adapt. The need for good old-fashioned human business decision making will not decrease though.
What do you see as the main challenges for the future?
Media agencies have developed greatly over the past 15 years, to move from simple third party transactors to becoming many marketeers closest business partners. There are significant disrupting factors at play in the market that seek to challenge and replace this role. Primarily the major tech companies (Google, Facebook, Amazon, etc), but also consultancies. The tech companies want to bypass the agencies, whilst the consultants want to disrupt, as it is in their interests to do so. The greatest value-add the media agency brings to the table is its unique skill in advising the marketeer how to best achieve its business goals through the utilisation of its complete media budget. Neither of the disrupting parties can replace this.
Remaining, or in some instances becoming, the trusted advisor and staying in that position will be crucial to the continued success of the media agency in its current format.
What sort of skills/ personality is most suited to the role? Will this be any different in the future?
For me, personality is the most vital ingredient. You need a thick skin, determination to fight for what you believe to be correct and the strength of character to stand up in a room of clients or senior agency staff and air what may not be the message the audience wants to hear. Underpinning this, common sense and a rationalising business brain. Of course, there are other skills that get you through the interview door in the first place, but what I have outlined are for me the differentiators when hiring.
Media agency commercial finance experience helps, especially for a senior role, but I understand that’s difficult to find. Things like having a Law degree or having studied a few law modules as part of your degree is also very useful in the commercial team.
In the future, a working knowledge of the many component functions of the media agency, such as ad operations, data and tech, and performance media teams, will become equally as important as the traditional understanding of investment management and planning and buying. That’s probably a skill that perhaps commercial teams traditionally didn’t have, but they’ve had to develop.
You have to have an understanding of how all the pieces fit together. I think a great example of that is my current boss, Anthony Groves, who has just been promoted from our Group Commercial Director to our Chief Operating Officer. I can see exactly why, as he is the person who manages to put all those pieces together so well.
Finally, what advice would you give to someone who wants to get into commercial accounting within media?
If you’re applying for a commercial role, and perhaps don’t have experience in a media agency, then what will impress me is if you can come in and display an appreciation of why marketing decisions are so vital to the success of any business. For most companies that are selling a product it is their largest P&L line item for a very good reason. The media agency has a role as the marketeers’ key advisor, to manage this cost and help achieve their business goals. The Commercial team in turn helps win the client in the first place, sets the terms on which the agency will work with the marketeer, and helps manage the relationship throughout its term. No matter what your previous experience, think of examples where you have helped your current employer make sound business decisions that have led to improved business results. Also note that commercial accounting/finance is a very broad church of roles. Make sure you can express clearly where your interest lies.
Dentsu Aegis Network (https://www.dentsuaegisnetwork.com) innovates the way brands are built. Made up of ten global network brands – Carat, Dentsu, dentsu X, iProspect, Isobar, mcgarrybowen, Merkle, MKTG, Posterscope and Vizeum and supported by its specialist/multi-market brands. Dentsu Aegis Network is headquartered in London and operates in 145 countries worldwide with more than 50,000 dedicated specialists.