What’s so special about WPP media agency Maxus?

Unknown-2WPP’s Maxus is the go-to media agency of the moment; the fastest-growing worldwide and, in the UK, the new holder of the £135m L’Oreal media account.  Here global CSO and UK CEO Lindsay Pattison (left) and global marketing and new business director Richard Stokes explain what lies behind the company’s growth, how clients’ media needs are changing and their agency’s relationship with WPP negotiating giant GroupM.

1/Maxus is the newest WPP media agency. Why did it need another? What does Maxus offer that’s new?

LP: In 2008 Martin Sorrell decided there was space in the world for another GroupM agency – an interesting decision in the middle of a recession! The major reason was conflict – Maxus in China, India and Australia were fat and full, leaving room for a network brand. The second reason was to be a different kind of agency in the family.

Maxus officially launched in October 2008 when Kelly Clark was brought on board to appoint CEOs in major markets and do a rebranding exercise on existing Maxus offices – also to carve out and create new offices either from existing Mindshare or MEC offices, or acquiring agencies.

There were already agencies called Maxus operating in China, India and Australia, but they weren’t joined up as a network. In the UK we were BJK&E.

What sets Maxus apart is that by definition we’re new – as a global network we only just turned five.
Our challenge has been to assert our position when we’re seen as having started out as a conflict shop, or to be a different kind of agency. When we’re challenged on it, quite rightfully, by clients, we feel obliged to differentiate ourselves from our sister agencies.

2/How would you define the differences between Maxus and MediaCom, Mindshare and MEC?

LP: Mindshare are purple – that’s their colour. They are 80 per cent networkers and 20 per cent local, they have lots of set structures and hierarchies, and systems and tools and process, many of which global clients love, but that’s not Maxus – we are 80 local, 20 network business. MediaCom are probably 70 network and 30 local.

RS (left):0 MediaCom are huge in certain markets like UK, Germany and smaller in others. Mindshare – because they’ve got big global bits of business are a bit more consistent in certain areas.

LP: We’re not bound by legacy structures, systems and processes – so we can be agile

We are multicoloured. We have blue, red, green, yellow. Myself and global chief client officer Neil Stewart noticed that we were talking about certain people as ‘real Maxus kind of people’ So we worked on a project to identify what exactly it is that defines and sets apart Maxus people. We came up with PACE: Passionate, Agile, Collaborative and Entrepreneurial.

3/GroupM handles media price and share negotiations for WPP media agencies in the UK. Wouldn’t it be simpler if clients just hired GroupM?

LP: As the smallest agency in the GroupM family, I am very grateful for GroupM’s support. We would not have grown in the UK without GroupM. We wouldn’t have won BT. We were the cherry on the top of the cake – but the cake was made by GroupM.

With Barclays, again, GroupM support is a really important part of our story. It’s great to be young and challenging and agile, but we’re fortunate to have that big GroupM engine and also WPP behind us.

GroupM is the engine, but the individual agencies lead and maintain the client relationship. It’s me who will have lunch with the client to sense check and make sure they’re happy.

We might bring in GroupM specialist resources (say, a content division) occasionally to make sure our clients have the best possible service.

RS: GroupM isn’t just about buying – there’s so much more to it in terms of talent and technology as well. Ongoing investment is only going to make the GroupM tech stack more and more exciting versus some of our competitors moving forward.

4/You’re the chief strategy officer for Maxus Worldwide as well as UK CEO. How does this work? What does the CSO role entail?

LP : It means I look at strategy and product for Maxus as opposed to for clients, so I have various members of the global team report into me – Richard Stokes on new business and marketing; head of effectiveness – Martin Lawson; head of planning – Nick Vale; product development – Karen Kaufman, our lady based in New York.

Product, planning, effectiveness, new business – what we go out to offer the clients that’s more op-co specific than GroupM specific – not about trading or tech stack.

That’s why we take the time defining why we’re different to the other agencies and how to sharpen our offer. We’ve just created the new role of global chief client officer, appointing Neil Stewart (former CEO of Maxus Asia-Pacific) – he’s been working closely with me on global client strategy.

One question we frequently ask ourselves is: do we need to develop more bespoke products for specific clients? We’re also focusing on building global awareness of the Maxus brand – for instance through our global website, digital assets (LinkedIn, Twitter, establishing our Facebook timeline) and regular blogging.

RS: It’s definitely a big challenge – our clients that work with us obviously know us well. As soon as you get outside of that realm, less so, because we’re five years old and we’ve been concentrating on building the business and not shouting about it. We’ve got a clear plan to shout about it now and be more brash maybe – about certain work we do.

5/In a recent NABS survey media agencies were depicted as a highly stressful environment. Do you recognise this? How can the situation be improved?

LP: The NABS Resilience programme was launched recently to tackle the issue of stress in the industry. I wouldn’t say it’s that stressful in media, but it’s definitely intense. That’s why it’s so important to cultivate a nice family atmosphere – a camaraderie, to enable people to have a laugh and form friendships. Over 70% of our workforce are under 30. Given that we spend the majority of our hours at work – it needs to be a good place to work.

6/There are a number of women at the top of media agencies in the UK. Why do you think this has happened? What do women offer that men don’t?

LP: I think it’s more down to personality than gender. Karen Blackett (CEO MediaCom) and Steve Hatch (CEO MEC) are both fantastic leaders who know how to get the best out of their people.

7/What are your international plans? Where are you strongest and where do you need to grow?

LP: We’re a business in growth, we’re beginning to mature, and our challenge is building awareness and getting across the markets. So in the UK we’re in strong position, Italy too, Spain do well, India, China. We like local clients who do interesting work, we also get excited about the prospect of multimarket pieces of business.

RS: The benefit of being new is that we have fewer conflict categories than some of our sister agencies, so we talk to people in luxury, alcoholic beverages, airline, hotel, consumer electronics, ecommerce.

LP: In the UK we’re number eight, billings are about £320m, we’re 200 people and I would argue we’ve been going strong for four years in the UK which was when I joined – we’ve seen 750 per cent growth. We were 30 people and we were ranked 16.

We’re also recognised by Recma as the fastest growing agency worldwide for the last four years.

Our focus is to continue to differentiate and be agile and keep thinking, ‘how could it be better, is it joined up?’ It’s not just about scale, it’s about agility, talent, joining up.

RS: Sustainable growth that encourages the team is important, that makes people want to come and work here.

8/Are media agencies encroaching on creative agency territory by becoming involved in brand content and entertainment?

LP: When I started out it was full service at Y&R and I think the role of an account planner then was quite different to an account planner at a creative agency now. Then they were in charge of lots of numbers and data and consumer insight and core groups and creating an overall idea, now they would call it a creative idea, I guess we would call it a comms platform.

I think now there’s no reason why media should be the last two slides in a creative agency presentation, because of the media choices – 20 years ago there were five media choices. What CMOs and CEOs are most interested in now is digital and technology, how we can connect the dots of their different pictures. You can only do that with clever media planning and technology that allows you to do it with technology that allows media owners to be at the table.

That said, I think creative agencies do a brilliant job. We work with BBH on Barclays and they come up with some amazing ideas. I have a huge amount of respect for creative agencies – they think in a different way.

9/Mad Men or Math Men?

LP: We’re moving to an increasingly ad-served world. I would argue that there’s still a role for magic as well as maths. I think understanding context, understanding the audience, coming up with a partnership idea that connects with consumers is not an algorithm. However, if you can reach more discreet, specific audiences by using algorithms and programmatic buying then why wouldn’t you do that? Particularly in the area of performance marketing.

The maths comes in for outcome-based work, where a client needs 5,000 more broadband sign-ups this week, for example. But when they ask why their brand isn’t loved more by this part of the market – that’s when we need the Mad Men magic – the human touch.

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