The interview: Robert Horler, CEO (Northern Europe), Dentsu Aegis Network

23 Jul 2014

Robert Horler, CEO for Northern Europe, Dentsu Aegis Network

He is one of the most powerful ad executives in the world, heading the Northern European arm of ad agency Dentsu Aegis. Robert Horler explains how digital and big data will transform advertising and why content is king.

It’s a beautiful sunny afternoon in Dublin and outside the Marker Hotel in the so-called Silicon Docks area executives attempt to look cool and collected while they swelter in wool suits and chat earnestly over coffee in the shade.

Inside, where it is much cooler, Robert Horler is in a thoughtful mode and no doubt pleased to be in a calmer setting than London, one of the media co-ordination capitals of the world, where he is permanently based.

He heads up the Northern European operations of Dentsu Aegis Network, the global advertising powerhouse that reaps a net income of stg£8.1bn a year and employs 23,000 people within its subsidiaries Carat, Dentsu Media, Vizeum, iProspect, Isobar and Posterscope.

Horler is in Dublin to preside over the festivities surrounding the rebranding of Lucidity Digital to Isobar after Dentsu Aegis acquired Lucidity last year.

Horler began his media career with Times Newspapers, EMAP and

In 2004, he created one of the largest standalone online planning and buying companies in the UK, Diffiniti, where he worked with clients such as Sky and Apple.

In 2012, Japanese advertising giant Dentsu acquired Aegis Group for US$4.9bn. Last year, Horler was named CEO of Aegis Media Northern Europe and in recent months joined the Dentsu Aegis executive management team.

Leveraging digital

As Horler sees it, Dentsu Aegis is one of the most scaled digital players amongst the traditional ad giants, with more than 30pc of its revenues coming from digital.

“If you look closely you’ll see that iProspect is the biggest customer of Google worldwide in terms of search marketing. Overall, in terms of our digital and legacy business, we have thrived because we have adapted and evolved in terms of the changing media landscape.”

He said the shifting sands of digital presents opportunities and threats. It’s his job to get a sense of the bigger picture and manage accordingly.

“Our job is to help advertisers understand in a much more complex world that is global and increasingly convergent, how everything works together and how to get the best out of it.”

One of those classic conundrums is Twitter, where with just 140 characters, how do advertisers work with that real estate?

“I don’t think there’s too much mileage in just building your brand on Twitter, but I think there’s lots of mileage in building your brand in partnership with Twitter, how Twitter can drive responsive engagement to a broad cross-section of customers.

“A number of our biggest clients, interestingly, use Twitter to manage their customer service and see Twitter as fundamentally a customer-engagement tool than a marketing tool. That’s not to say I don’t think it’s an important marketing tool.”


So is it time for marketers to tear up the old rulebook, if ever there was one?

“On the face of it, branded communications thanks to social media, looks easy to control, but I think it is actually very difficult to control.

“I say this to my company and clients: ‘you have to live your brand’. It is far more important than ever how you behave and your business reflects more of what you say than ever before.

“I think because of the new technologies and devices the way in which you deliver messages as marketers and engage with customers is much, much more complicated.

“But the same rules apply and I think Google, at its purist – I’m talking about its search business – is one of the best direct marketing inventions ever.

“If you want to be quite simplistic about it, Google is the Yellow Pages on steroids!

“Who would have thought that the two most scalable businesses on the internet would turn out to be a Yellow Pages with knobs on (Google) and a giant notice board where you post up dull information about yourself (Facebook). Facebook is a yearbook on steroids where you talk to people who perhaps in the not-too-distant past you would have spent the rest of your life trying to avoid.”

Mobile is growing at break-neck speed

Horler said that since the late Nineties he had constantly been told “next year is going to be the year of mobile” and now mobile has already happened. In fact, it hasn’t just happened, it has exploded.

“Look at Facebook post-IPO, everybody was saying ‘oh dear this isn’t going to end pretty’ and then one year later Facebook’s fortunes were transformed because it had thousands of engineers at its disposal and rebuilt the company in superfast time to be mobile-first. Just look at the numbers.

“Google will tell you that 60pc of organic searches happen on mobile phones.

“Mobile is a lot of things. It is e-commerce. It is transactional. But can you do brand ads on mobile? Not yet and I don’t necessarily believe that will be its forte, but blimey if you haven’t got a strategy for mobile, especially if you are selling stuff, you are in trouble.

“I think mobile is going at break-neck speed.”

Content is king again, long live the king

While Horler’s personal view is that mobile is the game changer of our times and the acceleration is frightening to witness, the future of advertising will depend heavily on content.

“Every algorithm change that Google has made in recent years, it is all about content. Content actually matters more than anything.

“If you haven’t got a content strategy whether you are a beer brand, a retailer or a technology business and everything in between, you are dead.

“There’s the what you have to say and how you are going to say it and how you say it in a way that will generate the content, render it and make it appealing for Google because if you are not on Google you are invisible.

“Content 2.0, it is incredibly important but it’s not content as we know it.

“Instead of just producing content and asking if people want to buy an ad with it, it will be about producing professional content around themed subjects in real-time, digitised and professional-looking to effectively build a brand around and which can then be leveraged and optimised on Google.

“Mark my words, content is going to get interesting and exciting again.”

Big data – avoid the heavy lifting

There is data everywhere, and more data than humanity has ever seen before. But Horler said that while everybody is talking about big data, it doesn’t mean they are using it … yet!

“Do you need real-time reports on every element of your marketing and advertising to scrutinise every hour of every day? Probably not. What you need to do is get a single version of the truth from all the different datasets.

“I was talking with one of our guys at iProspect who is working with Diageo and analysing data over a period of time around events like the World Cup or an England versus Ireland rugby match or a really hot day to compare, contrast and isolate the factors that may or not drive demand for Guinness. It is really exciting and can be harnessed to great effect.

“What is less exciting is people running all sorts of different reports, spending money on all sorts of bespoke software solutions and basically drowning in data.

“One of our chaps in Denmark summed it up perfectly: ‘big data is like teenage sex: everywhere you go people are talking about it and everybody thinks everybody else is doing it. But it turns out nobody is doing it because they don’t know how.’

“While I don’t think the situation is quite that bad, I think it’s fair to say the advertising industry is still slightly behind Google and companies like that which are more comfortable in that heavy-lifting data environment.

“The thing we’ve got to do in terms of the businesses in our group is come to terms with what is our IP in this space and I would argue that it is not the heavy lifting or the storage. Our IP is the interpretation and analysis of that data as marketers who are comfortable in a connected world.

“It is about bringing useful insights from that data in a meaningful way to our clients’ business in a way that they can’t do without.

“We’re not Google, we are not an engineering company, but we can be a company that can intuitively understand what all the data means and come up with meaningful solutions that make a difference.”

Ireland at the digital crossroads

Guy Fagan, director, Isobar; Liam McDonnell, CEO, Dentsu Aegis Network Ireland; Jim Cassidy, managing director of Isobar Ireland; Robert Horler, CEO, Northern Europe, Dentsu Aegis Network

With Lucidity Digital rebranded to Isobar, the firm is planning an aggressive new business drive that will see staff numbers double to 60 in the next two years. The company’s clients include Eircom, RTÉ,, HSE and Britvic.

“Our view is that particularly as the economy of Ireland is beginning to recover there is a big opportunity to grow our Irish group,” Horler said. “Ireland overall is continuing to attract investment and is building out its digital credentials. It seems like a good place for me to have an Isobar, it’s a logical place to be.

“Ireland is the nexus point for digital talent in Europe right now and I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that Facebook, Twitter and Google are in Dublin. There’s a lot of engineering talent here.

“The two biggest-scale businesses we have in Isobar are China and Brazil. Borderless thinking comes into it. No idea is limited to a country and that is true about digital – digital ideas and digital businesses easily scale.

“Ideally, I hope that an award-winning campaign will emerge from the Irish business that four or five of our other businesses will nick for a global campaign.

“I genuinely don’t see any reason why that shouldn’t be the case.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years