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New CEO Mat Baxter on adding media literacy to creativity & his vision for Huge

Mat Baxter: Let’s avoid the idiocy of the past

The Drum catches up with Mat Baxter, who shifted seats within IPG from chairman of Initiative to global chief executive of Huge. Here he discusses the need for dynamic creative and speed, and his vision for another level of success by pulling in a global client for Huge. We also hear about resisting the idiotic mistakes of the past and get an unexpected movie recommendation to boot.

The Drum: What’s your vision?

Mat Baxter: The primary thing that I want us to achieve is to build on the agency’s creative and innovation pedigree. It obviously has very deep roots in experience design, brand identity, brand planning and brand strategy. It’s got a great technology capability and innovation capabilities, so for me it’s really about building on top of that existing success. The last assignment I had was a turnaround assignment, and I’ve stressed to everybody at Huge that this isn’t a turnaround assignment. Huge is already an amazing agency. It’s about acceleration and taking Huge to just another level of success.

The Drum: What are some of the big opportunities now that the world is opening up?

Mat Baxter: The increase of first-party data. The increased reliance on direct-to-consumer and retail platforms. These are all opportunities for a much more orderly and considered commerce product and experience. Data architecture and data management is a massive opportunity as well.

Everyone’s on digital and everyone’s screaming for attention. Being creative and innovative is still the gateway into that engagement and that customer relationship. I don’t want us to pivot aggressively too hard towards data and analytics and some of the more functional and technical ends of the business. That’s not to say it’s not important, but every time we do something over there, we have to balance it with a dose of creativity and innovation. Emotion, creativity and innovation are still the absolute powerhouse products that move consumers.

The Drum: Besides everyone screaming for attention, what are some of the other challenges?

Mat Baxter: Firstly, it’s a cultural challenge for me. I’ve been a media guy for my entire career. I have a deep appreciation for creativity, but I have not been in that culture to the degree that I am now. That’s a personal challenge for me as the chief exec to recalibrate my thinking and to ensure that I foster the culture that we need moving forward. I’ve done a lot to try and settle the agency, if that’s the right word, and give them confidence that it is my priority.

The challenge on a business level is the speed at which the marketplace converges and the speed at which the digital marketplace moves. Clients are being very smart with where they place their advertising. However, clients are also demanding that they need to be just as smart with what they put in that advertising spot. Creative agencies are being asked to create dynamic, creative work that changes depending on the audience that sees it and where it’s placed. That puts a whole layer of technical challenge to the agencies to converge media programmatic work with programmatic creative work. That’s a big technical challenge and cultural challenge. Managing that convergence [is a priority] because whether we like it or not, it’s happening. We’ve got to be in the game to get success there.

Media and creative are not necessarily tight bedfellows on those types of efforts. And so part of the reason I’m excited to be at Huge is that I’m not proposing we start a media operation, but what I am proposing is we become media literate and we become media friendly, because everything is now media.

Think about clients. They speak about Facebook, Google, Snapchat, Instagram – you know, all of the big platforms. All they talk about is succeeding on those platforms. Well guess what, that’s a media discussion. Creative agencies that aren’t media literate are being left behind and [so are] media agencies that aren’t creatively literate. That’s where I get excited about the future. That’s where the market’s going. It’s a big opportunity that we’re going to be looking at really seriously. I want to be in that race, and I want to win that race. We’re going to be working pretty hard to do that.

The Drum: In addition to media literacy, what else are you bringing to this position?

Mat Baxter: Speed is one of the things I’m bringing. The media market moves super fast. Creative is a little bit more considered. I’m not saying there isn’t fast turnaround in creative, there is, but the media market moves so quickly that you’re making media adjustments, minute-by-minute, campaign-by-campaign in real-time. I’m excited about bringing some speed to the agency.

Now that’s not recklessness, but that’s a bias for action, and a decisiveness and speed where we can start to really move and seize opportunities maybe much more quickly than we have in the past. The biggest thing I learned at Initiative is if you fall asleep at that wheel, if you do not move quickly to adapt to what’s going on in the market, you’re going to be in trouble. I want to really bring that philosophy to bear at the agency while, importantly, respecting the craft. What I’m not going to do is move so fast that the craft gets damaged. The quality of the craft has to be protected at all costs, because when we lose that we’ve got nothing.

The Drum: How do you staff for the future versus making the mistakes of the past?

Mat Baxter: It used to be that you’d only do the work that was attached to your office or your market. Now, increasingly, you’re doing work wherever it pops up across the network. That fluidity of resource management has increased. It would be a disaster to allow that fluidity and that dynamism to dissipate and to end up allowing resource to go back and be wholly tethered to its home office.

The industry has been forced to change its operating model, and I hope we keep the best bits of that operating model, and we don't allow ourselves to regress and be in this situation where we go back to the old way of working.

If you took Covid away, and you said you could come into the office when you felt like it but you could work in the fluid way that we’ve been working during Covid, it would have revolutionized people’s experiences. We have to protect that and build on that. If we lose that, this industry is idiotic. And I really hope the industry doesn’t embrace idiocy and do something like that because we will certainly not be doing that. We’re going to continue to embrace and build on what we learned during Covid because it’s in our best interest. It will help us produce the best work, and it will help us attract and retain the best talent.

The Drum: Who’s your dream client?

Mat Baxter: I want challenger brands. I want brands that are brave, that want to do creative work, that want to transform. We’re here to challenge the markets, the market norms and how things are done. We’re here to be a disruptive force in the industry. That’s what we’re about.

We want clients that want to go on that journey with us. That typically is a challenger brand. Now some of the biggest established leader brands are starting to become challenger and disruptive brands. We’re seeing a change in behavior because they’re like: ‘Why are we being left behind? If we don’t go from a leader mindset to a challenger mindset, we’re going to be in trouble.’ I’m not turning my back on those sorts of clients, but I want a challenger mindset in those clients. They’re the clients we want to work with.

The Drum: What do you do for fun?

Mat Baxter: I love my movies. I’ve got a dog that is a search and rescue dog, and so I love getting involved in that. That’s part of my pastime, although I haven’t had that much time of late, but needless to say that’s a really important and rewarding experience for me. And I love reading.

The Drum: Here is the hardest question of the interview... is there a movie that you recommend?

Mat Baxter: Anything Christopher Nolan I’m a pretty big fan of. This is a weird one to recommend but I’m going to recommend My Life. That movie, for me, snapped me a little bit out of my monotony of thinking and reminded me just how important it is just to get out there and live your life. As we come out of Covid I think that’s going to be a big and important message. That’s my one. It’s not particularly glamorous, or action-packed, but I think it’s thought-provoking.

The Drum: Last question – a year from now, what’s your dream accomplishment that you’re telling me about?

Mat Baxter: A global account into Huge. I want to see us land a scaled global account. It’s important for the next stage of the agency’s growth and development. So that would be one. [Number two is] having an agency that’s happier in 12 months than it is today, and it’s already extremely happy so it’s a high bar.

Editor’s note: The interview was edited for length.

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