Fiercely independent since 1988, The Mx Group says ‘our best years are ahead of us’
Earlier this year, the founders of Chicago-based agency The Mx Group stepped back into chairman roles after 30 years at the helm of the indie B2B shop. We sat down with them and their new chief exec to talk independence, growing up and letting go.
Chicago-based The Mx Group on their 40-year story, growth and passing the baton / Pedro Lastra via Unsplash
Marketing agencies aren’t always the longest-lived businesses. Even those that do stick around long-term tend to do so with the help of acquisition or investment-backed pivots.
Not Chicago-based The Mx Group, which was owned and run by Andrew Mahler and Peter Wroblewski from its founding in 1988 until earlier this year. Then, after more than three decades at the helm, the duo stepped back, with long-time collaborator and FCB veteran Tony Riley stepping up as chief exec, joined by Nathan Ulery as chief operating officer.
The founding pair have remained onboard in chairman roles; as Riley puts it, “they’re there when I need them at all points in time, but not at any other points.” The leadership transition came after three years of preparation, and was inked on 02/22/22 – a deliberate invocation of the company’s original incorporation, on 08/08/88.
The DTC legacy
Mahler and Wroblewski first crossed paths at a direct marketing firm Omnigistics in the mid-80s. After three years working together for that company, they set out on their own, founding Tritech Marketing, which remains the organization behind Mx (over the years, they’ve also been known as MarketSense, and once ran a companion business, MarketEffect). Focusing from the early days on B2B strategy, lead generation and lead follow-up, those remain the core focuses for the business.
These days, you’ll see a lot of direct marketers from the 80s and 90s heading up consumer marketing operations. To Mahler and Wroblewski, that’s no accident, since the B2B space back then was built around tools and approaches that have come to dominate the whole industry. “When we first started,” says Mahler, “data-driven, key account marketing; nurturing clients through a selling cycle from initial activation through to retention and expansion – those things were very important to us. The tools that we were using on the direct marketing side were pretty cutting-edge at the time. Meanwhile, consumer marketing was mostly video and broadcast. Things have merged quite a bit: we’re using a lot of B2C media and capabilities like never before; and they’re using lots of B2B thinking and capabilities too.”
For all the recent talk of B2B learning from consumer counterparts, then, it’s arguable that agencies with a rich history on the business side have just as much to teach. On a recent hiring spree, Riley says, he looked to talent from a major consumer agency. “We showed them the customer experience that we’ve created for Siemens; I can’t tell you how many times these high-level strategic consumer advertising people said, ‘well, that’s more modern than what we’re doing on the consumer side.’ We’re able to look at it across the entire experience and connect one to the other. They have 50 people doing data mining, sure, but the ability to tie that all together across the experience, automate it all the way through, and roll it up – I think we’re doing that in the B2B space better.”
‘We’re keenly aware of our own limitations’
Mahler and Wroblewski remain the company’s only investors (though Riley and other members of the leadership team now own some shares). Inevitably, they’ve fielded offers of acquisition and investment. “Over the last few years in particular there’s been intense interest in the business from all corners,” says Mahler. “There’s this idea of ‘de-risking’; that if we’d had a liquidity event, we’d have ‘de-risked.’ But we’ve always felt that the risk wasn’t that high: that the leaders we had in place, and the vision that they had, was going to pay off for us as well, in the long term. We’re excited about it. It’s really cool stuff.”
For Wroblewski, the reason why they’ve rejected those offers is simple. “There hasn’t been the right fit. I had difficulty seeing some of the organizations that we talked to as really sharing our commitment towards our team and people.”
None of that prevents a little self-reflection upon the pair’s stepping back. “Frankly, Pete and I are keenly aware of our own limitations, and the fact that we’ve probably held the business back in many ways. Certainly, we’ve done quite well; we’re financially healthy; we own our facility; we’ve maintained great client relationships and people. But we’re really excited about the vision of the next generation of leaders in this business and where the business can go.”
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Speaking of where the business is headed: Riley has a clear strategic focus on a particular kind of global growth. “Right now, there’s a ton of interest in North America,” he says.
“Over the last year and a half, we’ve talked to other agency leaders, and they’ve looked to partner with us or to bring us on board because they have a real need to reach into a different part of the globe, or to reach into a different set of services ... we’ve lived the idea of partnership in the agency space more than I’ve seen elsewhere” – for example with British B2B shop Bray Leino, with whom The Mx Group often jointly pitches (and, says Riley, wins against major networks). “We do such a good job partnering with other agencies that we find that that’s not a limiter to our business. There just hasn’t been a need for us to get acquired in order to do what we need to do for clients or our people.”
Now that Mahler and Wroblewski have stepped away from the day-to-day running of the business, you might expect some difficulty letting go – not so. Having batted away acquisition offers for being insufficiently well-geared to their teams, they’ve instead created a succession plan with which the pair both seem absolutely comfortable. When pushed for reservations, Mahler repeats himself: “It’s great. It’s great.” Riley, for his part, is focused on “building the best B2B agency in the country,” and Wroblewski is confident in Riley’s ability to do so: “We believe our best years are ahead of us.”
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The Mx Group
The Mx Group is the second largest independent, integrated B2B marketing agency in the U.S. Our mission is to impact the marketplace for companies that impact the world. For over 30 years, we’ve created meaningful end-to-end buying experiences for B2B brands. Our clients are leaders and innovators in energy, utilities, manufacturing, hospitality, automotive, health care, technology and SaaS who rely on our expertise to influence and grow their businesses. Our relationships with our clients and people are why B2B Marketing recognized us as Agency of the Year. Our headquarters are in Chicago, but our reach is global. Whether a client is an established or startup B2B brand, we have the people and perspective to be a strong partner that makes a difference.
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