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5 Minutes with… Nick Baughan


Maxus UK CEO on insight, Internet ad blockers and the importance of good relationships

5 Minutes with… Nick Baughan

We do so like to talk about change, revolutions and evolutions in advertising but for most of us it’s all about novelty fads and getting distracted by shiny pieces of tech. For media agencies, though, keeping on top of the constantly shifting landscape is more than just a bit of fun – it’s crucial. Whether they’re tussling ad blockers or partnering with publishers and emerging platforms, media agencies can’t afford to slouch if they want to help their clients grab the attention of capricious consumers. For Maxus UK CEO Nick Baughan, that makes media a pretty exciting place to be. The agency, part of GroupM, has only been around for six years but it has exploded in size and is making its presence felt. LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with Nick to talk talent, creative media and the joys of reading.

LBB> How did you first get into the world of advertising and media? Was it something you were always interested in?

NB> It’s an unusual business, isn’t it? You don’t get a lot of people who say, ‘when I grow up, I really, really, want to be in advertising’. 

I took quite a systemic approach to deciding what I wanted to do in life. When I graduated I went travelling for a year – I thought that I would have some kind of epiphany on top of a mountain but that didn’t happen. I spent a whole year doing various work experiences; everything from insurance to private equity to law to marketing. I quickly began to narrow down the things that were really interesting and I thought would have a future. I liked the media targeting part of PR and the non-creative side of advertising, so media agencies seemed like the obvious choice.

LBB> Is there any advice you wish you’d had at the start of your career?

NB> Yes and no. I think you have to start on the coal face. I don’t believe that advertising is one of those industries where you can jump straight into strategic planning or straight into creative. You need to understand the nuts and bolts of your industry before you can take a broader view across it. I spent the first three years in my career planning and buying regional press for car dealers, the first year of which was spent ‘vouching’. That’s probably died now but it’s essentially sticking small bits of colourful sticky paper to newspaper ads and sending them in the post to clients… I don’t want to seem like some ridiculous ‘School of Life’ person, but you do need to understand the rudiments of how the business works before you jump into some of these loftier positions. 

LBB> You joined Maxus as MD in 2012 and were named CEO in October last year – how has the agency evolved since you’ve come on board and what’s your vision for it?

NB> Maxus is only six years old, so it’s a very young business in a very young category. Like any young business our ambition has always been growth. Over the last six years we’ve been the fastest growing media agency in the UK, and now we’re actually a medium sized business. We’ve got 250 people. 

In the past 12 months we’ve continued to mature as a business and we’ve probably put in place a longer term development strategy, as opposed to a more short term strategy around immediate growth. The four pillars we’re growing our business under are: content, technology, data and insight. They are all areas that are common to a lot of agencies’ growth plans at the moment but like any service business, the way you differentiate yourself is by the people that you hire and the service that you provide. So over the past 12 months it’s been about making sure we have exactly the right people in place and the right strategy to move it forward.

LBB> Leading on from that I’m keen to ask you about the talent pool. What are your thoughts on the younger talent pool available to media agencies in the UK? I’ve read several people suggest that there’s a bit of a brain drain, particularly when it comes to people who can handle data, strategic thinking and tech by-passing agencies and going to tech firms. Is that a phenomenon you’ve noticed? Do media agencies need to change in order to attract and retain talented young people to the industry?

NB> It’s a really significant challenge, without a shadow of a doubt. I think five years ago when people did leave agencies they tended to go to other media agencies and that’s no longer the case. We’re very pleased with our position in the UK, it’s a very successful business, we were agency of the year and we don’t tend to lose huge amounts of people to other media agencies. The competition is definitely ad tech businesses, publishing businesses. 

The reason for that is we train our people extremely well. They have a huge breadth of knowledge across lots of client categories and that’s a hugely valuable commodity. I think the expression, two years ago, was ‘the polymath’. Everyone was after someone who could balance right-brain and left-brain thinking, which has always been the genesis of ours. I think there is more conversation about data and technology in our business but there is still a premium on creativity. If you marry these things up in a single person you’re in an absolutely fantastic position. These truly polymath people are rare and they are fought over. 

From my perspective, I want people to work out a long career at Maxus but our first duty of care is to make sure people are developing a career. I think media agencies are extraordinarily good places to develop a career because of the breadth of exposure and knowledge that you get.

Do I find myself in competition with other sectors for that talent? Yes. Absolutely. Am I reasonably confident in the future of our business to attract talent? Yes. Absolutely. There’s a lot of nay-saying in all agency corners, talk about the death of the agency model. I don’t think that for a second. I think that agencies are in a fantastic place and will continue to attract fantastic talent – we just have to be a bit more competitive to retain it.

LBB> When it comes to skillsets, advertising is constantly evolving and nowhere is that more keenly felt than in media agencies where you have to keep on top of the shifts in media and explosion of platforms. How do you make sure you’ve got all the skills and knowledge that you need?

NB> We put a lot into this because it’s a hugely fast moving business, both for us who live it and for clients who can only dedicate a certain amount of time to media. Educational training is critical. We do lots of our own training initiatives as Maxus but also as part of GroupM. There’s the GroupM University, which operates across all four of the agencies. It’s an enormous endeavour and all the people in all the various GroupM offices participate. 

LBB> One of the big evolutions and points of tension at the moment is the rise of ad-blocking, which seems to have reached a critical mass in the last couple of months…

NB> A lot of it goes back to education because there tends to be so much noise in the market around digital issues. What’s really important is that we’re sorting fact from fiction. Certainly the new kid on the block is definitely ad blocking and it’s an extraordinarily important and resonant issue to tackle. I think that agencies certainly have a responsibility to make sure that our clients are up to date with the implications of what ad blocking means to our campaigns. We are very clear that a client never pays for an ad impression that is blocked, that’s a pretty important first step.

I think in terms of a meta industry and how to tackle this issue, the responsibility lies mostly with the publishers themselves. Recently, the Washington Post has implemented a nudge to paid subscriptions on their site to readers trying to access their content with an ad blocker and that’s admirable. If you’re running content and that content is ad-funded then the publisher has every right to withhold that content if people are trying to withhold their revenue. 

Now, I don’t think all consumers necessarily think in the same way that we do, as professionals, about the triangle between ad revenue, content and viewers. But it is important that they be educated. If we took ad blocking to an extreme position – for example that the majority of ad impressions were blocked, which I don’t believe for a second will happen – then an awful lot of publishers of popular content are going to go out of business very fast. It’s not sustainable and it’s not acceptable and I expect that the Washington Post will be the first of many to draw a line in the sand. I think consumers will become much more aware, quite quickly, of advertising as a force for good content they can consume for free.

LBB> How do you see the relationship between media agencies and creative? I know a lot of media agencies are building their own in-house content or even creative divisions and I was wondering what your thoughts are on this?

NB> There are so many shades of grey to this conversation. It’s very difficult to speak about this in absolutes. I don’t think it’s quite come full circle of media agencies as producers of original creative content. It does happen, but to mixed success. And it tends to only be the very, very, very large agencies that have invested in serious studio capacity. Most media agencies, when they talk about content and creativity, are talking about partnering with third parties to answer a brief. I don’t believe that media agencies are trying to supplant creative agencies, I don’t think that’s our area of skill or excellence but I do think that media agencies are interested in investing in trying to become more creative. 

Part of the mix here is being very clear about the difference between creative content and production. I think, at the moment, and I hedge this comment a little bit, it feels to me that there is less reason for digital production to sit with creative agencies as it does with media agencies. As we move into a world where we’re looking at more single touch solutions from media trafficking to creative I think you’ll see the production of digital creative move closer to media agencies. And I think the territory that creative agencies can own incredibly comfortably is the ‘big idea’ and the creative template for that brand guardianship. I think in terms of production you’re seeing an increasing amount of de-coupling into companies like Hogarth and Tag at a general level but I think we’ll see more proximity to media agencies because we will increasingly be the means of distribution and production.

I’m a huge believer in the fact that the best work and the best results come from a client balancing the relationship between their agencies. It is fundamental. If I was a client I would spend less time overseeing the output of individual agencies and more time ensuring that the way the agencies work together is bang on. I’ve seen brilliant individual agencies fail to work together and produce mediocre work and I’ve seen second-tier agencies work together to produce absolutely brilliant work. I’m a very big believer that if you get the model, the framework and relationship between your agencies right, you’ll see rewards very quickly. 

LBB> One thing that I get really nerdy about are creative ideas that really get meta with their media and really exploit a particular channel in a clever way. How can media agencies initiate and facilitate these sorts of media-centric creative projects? Are there any projects of this nature that Maxus has been involved in that you’d like to talk about?

NB> I agree. I think there’s a frisson when you see a really visceral marriage between creative and media. Sometimes the idea can come from the media owner, sometimes it’s the creative agency and sometimes it’s the media agency - in the best of times it’s all of them. But those tend to be individual creative expressions rather than necessarily longer term strategic harmony between media agencies and creative agencies, which is the more important thing to get right. 

But I agree with you; when you see really creative uses of media, the cut through and the attention they get are absolutely fantastic. It’s what we’re all here to do. It’s what you call a Hallmark moment, when you see your work and it looks fantastic – these are the things you’re proud of, no doubt about it.

LBB> How does Maxus collaborate with other agencies within the WPP network?

NB> It’s interesting, because at Maxus in the UK across a lot of our major clients a lot of the creative agencies aren’t actually WPP agencies. So on Barclays BBH is the main, on BT its AMV BBDO, on Fiat it’s Krow, on L’Oreal it’s Publicis and McCann. 

I’ve been in GroupM for 10 years, and I’ve worked with lots of creative agencies, some WPP and some not. The WPP agencies have been fantastic but the one that we probably work most closely with in Maxus UK is for UPS and that’s Ogilvy. That’s an international relationship and a good one.

We did some fantastic work with them earlier in the year for the small business community. We created a trade mission for UK small businesses in the US. It was done in partnership with the Guardian and Ogilvy, done under the auspices of UPS. It’s a genuinely great example of how to get multiple partners involved, from creative agencies to media agencies to client to media partner, to do something that’s a little bit more engaging for a hard-to-reach audience. That’s been one of our genuinely great examples of work this year.

In terms of other clients we’ve worked with other WPP agencies on, there’s a cross-WPP multidisciplinary team on the climate reality project that Al Gore runs. We’ve worked with numerous WPP agencies on that, and our role was getting numerous YouTubers involved to record content. Young people asking the UN Assembly why they’re holding their future hostage by refusing to acknowledge climate change properly. All these kids ended up in the UN Assembly in New York to show the video that they’d made. 

It doesn’t matter who owns what portion of your agency community, it’s much more about how these portions work together.

LBB> What are your thoughts on tech platforms and publishers pushing their own in-house creative shops?

NB> I think Google’s YouTube Studios are filling a vacuum that’s been under addressed by creative agencies, tailoring video content for new means of distribution. If you’ve only got three seconds to grab a consumer’s attention before they skip your ad, you need to acknowledge that and not just cut down to slightly different edits, but build those assets from the ground up. I do think that the creative agency category in general has been slow to really, really consider the creative nuances necessary to grab attention from the first second.

I think they’re filling a gap and I don’t think they’re purporting to be creative agencies. I think they’re trying to help clients, media agencies and creative agencies and in that respect they’re probably to be encouraged. I don’t think any of them are out there to replace creative agencies, I think they’re trying to increase the amount of revenue that goes to those individual publishers.

LBB> The side of media that really fascinates me is the behaviour change and the psychology of attention – ultimately you’re trying to reach people on the platforms and in the places that are going to be most effective. What do you think is the key to building a media strategy that engages people’s attention and have that human impact?

NB> This is a bit of a cliché but it’s absolutely about insight. It’s not impossible to produce really creative, engaging work without insight but it sure as hell helps. The great campaigns over the years have been rooted in a firm consumer insight. I think clients legitimately want it all these days; they want to see strategy rooted in real insight and they want to see that strategy converted into effective and efficient media that pays back. It goes back to that conversation about how we  get all the right people in a room.

I think Life Skills for Barclays is a great example of an insight-driven campaign that was developed between us and BBH. The initiative is not only a fantastic one – helping young people into work – if you look at the real beauty in some of those treatments around what are the individual nuances that will really help young people? Don’t have an email address that starts with ‘SuperJim’, what not to say in an interview. There are some really beautiful human truths in that campaign. 

LBB> Who are your ad industry heroes and why?

NB> I’m a media guy and therefore I would look to the real founders of our business. Chris Ingram would be a notable one; he was the ‘CI’ out of ‘CIA’ and was arguably the father of the media independent. People who fundamentally change businesses and models really interest me. I’ve never met Chris but he changed the status quo and the position of media on the clients.

It’s kind of hard to answer this question without saying Martin Sorrell. Again, that’s someone who has created something from the ground up in the space of a generation that’s become one of the most successful and influential businesses in the world. 

Beyond that? I work with really inspiring people every day – probably a bit embarrassing to name them all but I think I’ve been extraordinarily lucky to work with some truly inspiring people. In advertising and media doesn’t suffer fools or arseholes, really. It’s a people business. Therefore you get bright, motivated people as a rule rather than the exception – which is why I love the job we do.

LBB> Outside of work and the ad industry, what inspires you?

NB> I’m a voracious reader, across a lot of different categories. The book I’m reading at the moment is called The Dark Inside and it’s written by a chap called Rod Reynolds who left Maxus about a year ago to write a book. It’s just been published by Faber and it’s absolutely super. It’s James Ellroy-esque and set in 1940s America. It’s an extraordinary book for a first time author and we’re all very proud of Rod for making such a success out of it.

Beyond that, outside of work my children are a huge priority. Perhaps when they grow older I’ll take up fishing or something like that, but they keep me so busy right now.

LBB> Gotta ask… what are your favourite media platforms?

NB> I’m a news addict. Certainly Twitter is a conduit into the news, I find it invaluable and it can help you explore different points of view. I read a wide variety on the political spectrum, so I tend to read The Guardian most mornings, the Telegraph… Buzzfeed is becoming a really interesting source of political commentary too.

I think there are a few of them, Vice, Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, whose geneses were entertainment brands that are moving increasingly into investigative and harder editorial journalism. You just need to look at the people Buzzfeed have hired in the last couple of years. Jim Morton as political editor, Janine Gibson as the editor – these are seriously talented political minds and they wouldn’t be going somewhere whose future lies in cute cat pictures. I think it’s going to be a hugely important voice in future journalism.

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