Shifting strategy over dinner: Jason Tonelli on how Zenith predicts the future

Ashley Regan
By Ashley Regan | 11 December 2023
Jason Tonelli

Publicis media agency Zenith’s most unique offering is its Imagine Panel which can forecasts consumer behaviour to help CMOs navigate inflation and first-party data, says CEO Jason Tonelli.

The tool was created under Tonelli, who officially became CEO of Zenith in January and immediately shifted the ROI agency’s trajectory by updating its proposition, making "we do media bloody well" the catch cry and setting a goal of "knowing Australians better than anyone else".

Today Tonelli, who has developed his leadership craft over many years of study, is very proud of his "resistant, intelligent and kind" Zenith team. 

“Leadership is service - I am in service to my team and that’s a lot of my approach to this position. I've done a lot of work on myself to be able to lead these wonderful Zenith people and I will continue to study leadership,” Tonelli told AdNews. 

The proof is in the pud

Zenith topped Comvergence’s rankings of Australian media agencies in H1 2023 and the agency is doing so well that its only areas of improvement are "one percenters," says Tonelli.

Such as procuring weekly reports for conflict ad breaks and immediately communicating with TV networks to troubleshoot each one. 

“This is what makes us the ROI3 agency (the three I’s being investment, imagination and insight) because we go really deep, we have robust agency-wide conversations to make sure our clients are absolutely capitalising and getting the best value they can,” Tonelli says.

In a year with redundancies across adland, Zenith has managed to increase talent by 31% to 243 people across its three offices.

In that growth, is the cornerstone of Zenith’s offering the bespoke research and insights panel built by the research team, now at six staff and headed by Kim Xavier.

Zenith’s crystal ball

The Imagine Panel is a monthly survey of more than 2,750 Australians and 500 in NZ representative of age, gender and region.

“No one else has this and we now have over 12 months of data,” Tonelli says.

“This allows us to give staff - particularly the strategy heads Sarah Heitkamp and Simon Schoen - and clients really deep insights on what’s happening in the market, the strength of consumers and how they are feeling.

“We've always been known for our investment product, but it's not just about trading or the size of your buy anymore - it's about the intelligence, the tools and the people you bring around.”

While the panel is usually used to explore consumer sentiment and current buying behaviours it can also be used to ask ‘fun’ questions, such as ‘what conspiracy theories do you believe in’, as well as more serious topics such as the referendum. 

“Five months out from the referendum vote, we saw a 60/40 skew for no in our panel,”  Tonelli says.

“Three days prior to the vote we tested each state and we were within one percentage point in every single area.

“So we know we’re bang on and it's proving that we know Aussies really well when it comes to a client's category, consumers and the way we’re using media.”

Shifting media strategy over dinner

Every Zenith client benefits from the monthly results of the research panel, particularly as many Australians are struggling with inflation and lean towards cautionary spending.

For example, the research helps Aldi understand the proportion of Australians who are struggling with food prices and the consumer sentiment of its brand in contrast to competitors in real time.

ALDI Christmas campaign 2023

Aldi Christmas campaign 2023.

The cost of living research also helps Cashrewards’ approach to discounts and Lite n’ Easy with audience understanding.

Cashrewards campaign

Cashrewards campaign.

And all this information is at the touch of a button, allowing Tonelli and the team to share data instantly.

“I was at a client dinner and they wanted to start targeting an older demographic because the market tells them that baby boomers are ‘cashed up’,” Tonelli says.

“But I knew that wasn’t right - so I pulled out my phone and looked at the panel data which showed that current consumer sentiment is negative 15 but with 55-64 year olds the sentiment is lower at -23.

“So the older demographic is not optimistic about their financial future, which is the opposite of what we hear in the market.”

As a result, this tool is a solution to navigating the cookieless future as Zenith knows "Aussies best".

“I applaud the people - including us - who are doing sandbox solutions, but we need to push the bar,” Tonelli says.

“We’ve spent a lot of time figuring out how we can now trade those audiences, and we're really proud of some of the indicative - which I can't share yet - outcomes we're starting to see for clients.”

And the panel’s growth is not slowing. In 2024 Tonelli wants it to become Australia’s most robust consumer sentiment data.

Such data will be crucial especially as Tonelli predicts advertising spend will not bounce back, but will be flat to moderately up next year.

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