Media agencies are ‘bland’ vanilla ice cream, says Initiative’s Mat Baxter

“There aren’t many disruptors in the media agency space anymore. Everybody is pretty boring and bland,” global CEO of media agency Initiative Mat Baxter told the out of home industry at a fireside discussion yesterday.

And his chief strategy officer Sam Geer took it one step further. “This is how we see the media agency market,” Geer said, pointing to an image of a dessert. “That’s vanilla ice cream. Homogenised, standardised product … It’s the same shit.”

Initiative’s global CEO, Mat Baxter

Geer said most agencies trumpet meaningless promises, like: “‘We’ve got the best data … we can give you guys one to one, hyper-personalised ultra efficiency like no one else can’ and it’s a race to the bottom. It’s the same rubbish”.

The mission for Initiative then “is to try and bring the colour back, is to do something, is to challenge our clients”, according to Geer.

“I think there’s far too much subservience in this industry,” he said.

Geer tells the out of home audience that Initiative is striving to “bring back the colour” to the vanilla ice cream media agency landscape

Both Geer and Baxter acknowledged that Initiative hasn’t always met this new mission.

“We are a new Initiative, different from the anaemic Initiative of past,” declared New York-based Baxter, who is in Australia to appear at Mumbrella 360.  He pointed to the fact that the media agency has seen 14% growth year on year as proof of that.

“We went through, just locally, lots of different leaders … new business wins were not particularly impressive, and honestly, the agency had had stagnant growth for a long period of time.”

But the theme wasn’t just for Initiative to do better, but to also demand better from clients.

“The fact that clients are relentlessly expecting us … to underwrite their new business growth and their agency appointments, which I think the time has come to call that out publicly and start to really put some pressure back on the client for that behaviour to stop,” Baxter said.

He also criticised new CMOs who think a new strategy needs to come from a new agency.

“You’ve got to plan for the long term. Changing your agencies like you change your underwear doesn’t get you stability, consistency, long term growth,” he said.

“Every time a new CMO comes in, the order of the day seems to be ‘I’m gonna swap my agency out’. And when the average tenure of a CMO now is maybe two to three years, that’s changing your strategy a lot.”

The answer for agencies? According to Baxter, it’s simple: have good ideas.

“And those good ideas are disappearing. Because we’re investing all our time and money in data and analytics, and all of that energy and effort has been diverted from the core pursuit of what we should also be about, which is creativity,” he said.

“If you look at the composition of media agencies, they’re heavily weighted now to that [data and analytics] end of the business. And you look at how many agencies are investing in strategy, genuine strategy. And you can count them on one hand.”

But he was quick to establish that originality doesn’t always mean innovation, and innovation doesn’t always mean success.

“Innovation is overdone. Just because you can innovate it, doesn’t mean you should, or that it’s any good. And I think we over-innovate often,” he said.

“Old isn’t bad. Old actually sometimes can be great.

“You don’t need to be new. You don’t need to be media first. You don’t need innovation. But you do need brilliant execution.”

Baxter emphasised the need to focus less on “the shiny, sparkly objects” and more on “the most obvious solution right in front of us”.

And Geer agreed, arguing that, ultimately, the out of home game is simple: “You sell rectangles and we buy them.”


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