A shift in focus: Mat Baxter on life in media on the global stage

Australian Mat Baxter was recently appointed global CEO of the media agency network, Initiative. In an interview with Mumbrella in New York, shortly before his promotion, one of Australia's most iconoclastic figures talks about the role of global media networks, the evolution of media buying and why dynamic creative is the new media battleground. 

Within the Australian media landscape Mat Baxter remains one of our most polarising figures.

Love him or hate him there are few people Down Under who don’t have a viewpoint on Baxter, but as we sit down in his Manhattan office the then chief creative/strategy officer of IPG Mediabrands is keen to emphasise that he has learned a few lessons in the year or so since he left Sydney.

Brexit could lead to Adxit: Mat Baxter

Baxter in the offices of Initiative New York.

Learning a new skill set 

“When you’re the boss in just one market you can just go do something,” explains Baxter. “You know ‘kill the Big Boutique and we’ll become Creative Connections’ and we’re doing it tomorrow,” he adds referencing the time he completely repositioned his then agency UM’s proposition. 

“Today for me it’s all about influence and persuasion. Now it’s about getting people motivated and galvanised around a plan.”

Baxter’s combined strategy and creative role, for the past 12 months, has seen him leading the IPG Mediabrands network on key global pitches and working on projects that include a global repositioning for his network.

How has a man, not necessarily known for his patience or consensus approach to management, coped with the challenges of helping marshal a global network of some 8900 staff?

“You have to sell it to all the different CEOs and the sheer complexity of moving the tanker gets significantly more complicated,” he explains. “You have to be a lot more statesmanlike. You can’t just say this has to happen.”

So command and control no long works? “That’s right,” he says. “But that’s the reason I was excited to take this job. It was going to develop a skill set and this was a weak skill set. I’m the first to admit I’m not good at that.”

Baxter says the fruits of a more consultative approach are already being shown in IPG Mediabrands’s new global positioning: Dynamic By Design.

The Dynamic by Design launch was six months in the planning,” he says. “It had to be translated into 20 different languages, they then have to be simultaneously pushed out.

Sitting in his Manhattan office in the heart of the island, just one block over from the Empire State Building, it is clear that Baxter is proud of the project.

“It’s designed to differentiate us from the other networks and ground our product into something that is unique and distinct from our competitors,” says Baxter.

“The essence of Dynamic by Design is that we design dynamism into every aspect of what we do, so dynamic marketing becomes the core proposition of the network and then each of the agencies interprets dynamic marketing in its own unique way.

“Now the way UM brings dynamic marketing to life is obviously going to be different to Initiative, different to Cadreon, etc., but they’re all laddering into dynamic marketing.”

Dynamic creative the new battleground? 

If there is one part of the marketing ecosystem that Baxter thinks needs to really grapple with dynamic creative.

For too long, argues the media agency executive, agencies and marketers have struggled to effectively utilise the flood of customer data with tailored, optimised messages.

“I think dynamic messaging and dynamic creative is going to be the next big battleground,” says Baxter. “It’s something that clients and agencies are going to have to get their heads around.

“Sure it’s one thing to dynamically deploy the media unit. You know, ‘X person is here and so I’m going to put some form of advertising in front of them’ but the next step though is that whatever goes in front of them needs to be as dynamic as the placement itself.

“Getting that right can double, triple or even quadruple the effectiveness of the advertising.”

This is something that creative agencies are often reluctant to do noting that it has the potential to significantly increase their workload without any significant increase in remuneration.

However, Baxter says it is important in the modern era that creative and strategy are aligned.

“Media and advertising is still a fairly straight-forward process,” argues Baxter. “In terms of, you have a great idea or product that people engage with that results in an action – ideally the sale of a product.

“With all this digital stuff in the world sometimes we can overcomplicate the simplicity of that equation. The reality is, that in 2016, strategy and creative are a dual pursuit.”

Asked about the question and frustration that creative agencies have with the implementation of dynamic messaging, Baxter notes automation will control a lot of the future execution.

“Yes they are going to have to determine the (creative) variants but the management and execution of those variations will be managed by machines,” he says, before adding: “and to be honest it’s an arms race.”

“Ad serving companies, technology businesses like Adobe, agency businesses media and creative. Everyone is in this arms race because they know that dynamic creative is going to be massively impactful.”

A different perspective on media 

From his relatively short time in the US, Baxter’s viewpoint on the media has also evolved a bit.

“I’m interested in the sheer scale of it,” he explains. “Not that that was a surprise – I mean I knew it was big – but there are implications to the scale.

“The American market is fascinating because it is just so big. In getting things done you have all this power in terms of budget and scale but you also have really big budgets that are under their control and they move very carefully and in a considered way.”

Is that radically different to Australia? Surely marketers are conservative at home too?

“The thing I notice between America and Australia is that in Australia we have permission to do things that you would never get permission to do in the US,” says Baxter. 

“The reason for that is that Australia flies under the radar and that allows us to be the slightly misbehaved little brother.”

One of Baxter’s big achievements back home was UM’s work on Coca-Cola’s Colour Your Summer campaign a move which saw Coke’s iconic red can changed.

Last year, UM picked up the US media account for Coke – an account worth $400m – and Baxter says the Colour Your Summer campaign is a case study of good local innovation in the Australian market.

“If you do something here (in the US) you want to be pretty sure it’s going to work,” he says. “Whereas in Australia you can try something and if it didn’t work, it’s like ‘okay that didn’t work’, and then move on.

“I would not assert that Coke America is not an innovation market for them,” he adds quickly. “They do not treat their US operation as a conservative operation but the Australian business allowed us to showcase some of the things that we as a network are doing.

“It certainly didn’t hurt us, put it that way.”

Amid an ongoing global transparency, as a result of the ANA transparency report, is IPG Mediabrands seeing a lot of big multinational pitches?

“It is more than when ‘Mediapalooza’ was at its height,” he warns, referencing the series of big global media pitches that occurred last year. “There is a lot of pitching that is going on… A lot of it has to do with transparency and so it should be – after all, we are talking about billions of dollars of clients’ money.

“It actually surprised me as to how big an extent it is an issue out here.”

Baxter adds the pitching process across multiple markets has offered up its own challenges.

“It has come on a way – even over the past eight months, even with global pitches. Yes, I might be supervising the content of the global pitch but you cannot control the content and approach of  every element of a pitch that was going on in 23 markets; you have to modify the way you operate or the thing would just implode.”

Defining the success of Tajer’s media model

Baxter was the final member of IPG Mediabrands global CEO Henry Tajer’s former Australian management entourage to make the shift over to the US.

Tajer: brought over a number of senior Australian agency executives.

Tajer: brought over a number of senior Australian agency executives.

Tajer got the global role at the helm of IPG Mediabrands in part because of the diversified business model he built locally which saw the media agency build different revenue streams out of the likes of Cadreon, Mnet, which recently rebranded as Ansible, and Ensemble.

What does success look like in this job?

“The ultimate marker of this is do we deliver on the five-year plan that Henry has sold in to IPG?,” asks Baxter, matter of factly. “In four years time, we have to look back on those objectives and say ‘did we hit those objectives’?”

Baxter is clear this isn’t a matter of imposing what happened Down Under on the rest of the world.

“You can’t just lift the Australian blueprint and drop it into the States, or any other market,” he says. “There are different dynamics but the essence of the approach, the broad philosophy, is applicable globally.

“It will be executed in different markets differently but it will be the same broad approach.”


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