Merkle’s Craig Dempster On Becoming Global CEO Amid A Global Crisis

Despite COVID-19, Merkle didn’t think twice about promoting longtime executive Craig Dempster to global CEO last week, sticking to a succession plan two years in the making.

“We built a strategy and worked to execute against it,” Dempster said. “We didn’t spend a lot of time debating it.”

Dempster, previously president of Merkle in the Americas, which makes up 80% of the business, will report to longtime Merkle CEO and Chairman David Williams. Williams will stay on as chairman of Merkle and become global chairman for the CRM business at parent company Dentsu Aegis Network.

Dempster will be responsible for guiding Merkle’s 9,000 employees across the United States, Europe and Asia, as well as agencies Cardinal Path, Gyro and 360i, through an unprecedented global health crisis.

But after a solid Q1 and strong performance that led Dentsu to accelerate its purchase of the company’s shares in April, Dempster is confident in Merkle’s position. Its focus on CRM provides a buffer, as even brands that have paused ad spend still need to communicate with existing customers.

“Right now, who doesn’t want to communicate in an effective manner with existing clients?” Dempster said.

He spoke with AdExchanger.

AdExchanger: What's it like taking on the global CEO role right now?

CRAIG DEMPSTER: I’ve had to adapt, like many leaders have, to the current environment. Our priority has been employees first and supporting clients in any way possible.

I do a weekly livestream to employees in the Americas, where we have transparent conversations about what’s happening with our business, clients and people. It’s a challenging time for all of us.

What are your priorities for Merkle in the short and long term?

Really short term is getting through this crisis by preserving our talent and making sure we’re in a strong position to continue expanding partnerships and relationships with our clients. We continue to invest in innovation during this time. When we do come out of this, there will be those that fall by the wayside and those that have been resilient. They will grow faster, achieve more and be brands that more companies and employees want to work with.

Long term, we want to double the size of the company over the next few years through acquisitions and organic growth. We want to compete with the Accentures and Deloittes of the world. I like being the small fish in the big pond. We’ve done that for years, and I like our odds.

Do you run into those companies more often now in pitches?

In our transformation and tech implementation work, we see them often. By combining enablement with our capabilities around identity, it creates differentiation that we can execute on these programs.

Merkle has been building solutions for the cookieless web. Are brands interested in talking about those initiatives right now, or has that fallen by the wayside?

I wouldn’t say we’re seeing a slowdown in those conversations. These are relatively long sales processes. People might pull back media spend, but they’re not going to stop investing in building an identity solution. It’s so core to a future business strategy.

A lot of the identity solutions that exist today are black box. Marketers and publishers want to own their own IP and identity graphs. That desire is coupled with the loss of the third-party cookie, the need for strong data governance and the desire to have direct relationships and personalized dialogues with customers.

Merkle is usually very acquisitive.  What’s on your road map, and has that been disrupted by the crisis?

Acquisitions will continue to be an important part of our strategy. Having said that, it’s super important for us to understand not only the capabilities of a company, but the leadership team, culture and how that would fit with Merkle.

In an environment where I can’t sit down and have dinner with somebody, it’s hard to assess that. So right now, we’re slowing down. But as we come out of this, we will be as aggressive as we’ve always been.

Dentsu Aegis Network has cut salaries and furloughed staff. How will you keep morale high at Merkle?

Twenty percent of our workforce already worked from home. We deliver our services in a distributed model, with a lot of services coming through our India offshoring operations. I would love for us to get more face time with clients. Obviously, that’s not possible right now.

We’re all adapting to some new degree of normal. We’ve done a lot to promote social collaboration between teams, whether those are chat rooms, virtual cocktail parties or my weekly livestream. We’re trying to use video to keep people engaged.

What are your plans for Merkle's international growth?

We will continue to expand globally and invest through acquisitions or organic growth.

Dentsu Aegis Network is a global business, and they want Merkle in all the markets that they service. We have relationships through Dentsu in those markets. And we have a lot of global clients looking for global services. So it’s a requirement that we continue to expand.

How will you measure your success as CEO?

There are three dimensions to a great company: you are a market leader, an incredibly well run and disciplined company and you have a strong culture. Those three things are my measurement of success.

Obviously, there are financial metrics – our net promoter score with clients, the caliber of our team, the attrition rate of employees. But those measurements are the outcome of vision, market leadership and well-run, strong culture.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

 

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