Return of the Naked? Mat Baxter on exiting media for CX and strategy, why creativity trumps analytics and ‘boring’ consultants, and where next for IPG’s Huge
Former Initiative Global CEO and one time UM Australia boss Mat Baxter has ditched two decades in media to take the helm at IPG's experience, design and digital marketing agency, Huge. He has big growth plans – in which Australia may figure – and backs creativity to help brands navigate a sea of digital transformation and data homogeneity, with a blueprint that echoes Naked, but with scale, creative, data smarts and execution, and nobody to screw it up.
What you need to know:
- After two decades in media, Mat Baxter is taking the helm of IPG experience, design and digital agency Huge.
- He thinks it can beat “boring” consultants with creativity.
- But Baxter says he is not walking away from media – and will build all but media buying into Huge’s remit. Strategy is also a priority.
- He does not rule out launching the business in Australia, where he sees a gap in the market for a thinking shop that can also execute at scale.
Data and analytics is an ingredient, but it is a flavour enhancer, not the meal. More than ever, brands need people who can creatively interpret and creatively action the data they are drowning in.
Mat Baxter had more time to think over Covid than most. A bad car crash – airborne, roll, tree, airlift – left him locked-down in New York with serious injuries. Now fully recovered, and with much of the world re-opening, he’s swapping media for CX and digital transformation.
A dyed in the wool media exec getting out of the game could be read as the latest portent of media’s challenged future. But Baxter thinks otherwise. Huge will do media, along with creative and strategy-led digital services, it just won’t do the transactional part: “We’ll never do buying,” he says.
But Baxter doesn’t rule out launching in Australia, where he sees a gap in the market for “less boring” transformation than he suggests is being served up by consultancies, and a more creative, focused menu of services than digital agency rivals. “Never say never,” says Baxter. But accelerating growth across the agency’s current footprint comes first.
Creative by design
Huge started off in Brooklyn in 1999 as a design shop. Baxter sees its creative heritage as the biggest differentiator to brand growth even as the world pushes deeper into data, analytics and transformation.
“We compete with different businesses on almost every brief,” he says. “We're a design and brand identity business, and that puts us against those kind of shops. We do marketing in in the broadest sense of the word, which sees us compete with the likes of Ogilvy, VMLY&R and the traditional advertising shops like Wieden+Kennedy and Droga5.
“When we do upstream corporate strategy and transformational strategy we compete with Accenture, PwC and to a lesser extent, Bain, Boston – the pure-play management consulting companies.”
But Baxter insists Huge “will never be a PwC or a Deloitte and quite frankly, nor do we want to be.” He thinks agencies have lost their way trying to become management consultancies, devaluing what they are actually good at. He bastardises Gartner’s magic quadrant to frame big consultancy limitations.
There should be a bead of sweat on the client's brow as we sit and talk to them. They should be a little bit scared of what they are going to be asked to do. That doesn't happen when you sit down with a consultant.
Baxter’s magic quadrant
“If you think of a vertical axis of ‘boring to radical’, with ‘everyday to transformative’ across the horizontal, we want to be in the top right quadrant of radical and transformative,” says Baxter.
“I would say the consultants sit in the lower right quadrant of boring and transformative. They do large-scale, but relatively safe, transformational projects that don't necessarily push the client to exciting and creatively inspired places,” he suggests.
“The only thing we can beat the consultants on is our creative pedigree. There should be a bead of sweat on the client's brow as we sit and talk to them. They should be a little bit scared of what they are going to be asked to do. That doesn't happen when you sit down with a consultant.
“If you want a transformation with a dash of spice, we'll throw the spice into the dish. If you want to do mild transformation, go with the consultants.”
Only creativity drives growth
As every brand scrambles for digital transformation and e-commerce capability in a post-Covid society, Baxter says creativity is the only thing that can set them apart. Because everyone is online, ease, appeal and experience wins.
“Brand identity and aesthetics is a big trend,” says Baxter. Most brands now have tonnes of first party data; translating that data into deeper, de-cluttered experiences is what will determine success or failure in a commoditised digital world, he suggests.
“’I started this relationship, how do I maintain it; how do I keep my website engaging? How do I make sure I keep those consumers in my digital ecosystem?’ Answering those fundamental questions are massive client priorities – and the single biggest gateway to creating and nurturing a customer relationship is still engagement through creativity.
“Data and analytics is an ingredient, but it is a flavour enhancer, not the meal,” says Baxter. “More than ever, brands need people who can creatively interpret and creatively action the data they are drowning in.”
There are parallels with Naked, but it is very different. Naked was a thinking agency that [ultimately] dabbled in execution ... If you want to be a radical business on the thinking end, you've got to be equally radical on the execution.
Naked with execution
Prior to Mediabrands, Baxter made his name with Naked, the ‘misfits’ brains-trust pure strategy shop that, for a time, showed that thinking could beat doing. A lot of smart ideas and people passed through its doors, but Naked eventually winked out of existence. Swapping media for Huge in some ways represents a return to that ethos, agrees Baxter – only this time with execution as well as strategy.
“Huge has got a brilliant misfits spirit. There are parallels with Naked, but it is very different. Naked was a thinking agency that [ultimately] dabbled in execution. Huge does both: a thinking business with a very strong executional capability.
“If Naked had scaled and been around for longer, would it have augmented its thinking with execution? It would have had to, because the more radical your strategy is, the more important it is that you execute. Otherwise your radical strategies become diluted by executional partners that either aren't on the bus or don't get what you're trying to do,” says Baxter.
“If you want to be a radical business on the thinking end, you've got to be equally radical on the execution.”
Baxter is not too shy to liken Huge’s approach to that of Apple, one of its clients. “If you make hardware, you've got to make software. If you've got great software but it shows up on a shitty laptop, you've got a problem. Huge does the software and the hardware. If we can get that balance right, it's an unstoppable force.”
All of this fragmentation might mean that some of the traditional media jobs go away. But really good media people can go anywhere; their craft is indispensable in a multitude of places.
Strategic media exit?
With everything coming down the track – data privacy regulation, consent management, walled garden turf wars and expansion, first party data shifts, retailer media, in-housing, ‘malicious’ procurement – some might see now as an opportune time to exit media to focus on creative, strategy and CX.
But Baxter suggests it’s just another cyclical squeezing of the balloon: change always brings opportunity and good media people need not fear the reaper.
“All of this fragmentation might mean that some of the traditional media jobs go away. But really good media people can go anywhere; their craft is indispensable in a multitude of places. You are in mega demand from in-house clients who are onboarding their own programmatic solution. You're in demand from the media owners themselves who are doing more data driven solutions,” says Baxter.
“I see media as one of the most in demand skill-sets going. Where will the skill-sets live? That's the big question.”
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