Since Wendy Dixon joined as worldwide director for business strategy and operations, M&C Saatchi Group has been through a radical metamorphosis. Sure, you could probably say that about a lot of companies over the past two years, but for M&C Saatchi Group, the changes go back well before the pandemic - and they were about a lot more than getting to grips with the unmute button.
Wendy came on board in Spring 2019 with the remit to transform the company to be more powerful and connected, but just a few months later the group had a reckoning to face when it revealed an accounting error and its share price dropped. As CEO Moray MacLennan said to LBB earlier this year, “it hinted at other cracks in terms of the governance in the centre”. Suddenly, Wendy’s job became all the more crucial. Refocusing M&C Saatchi Group’s strategy to make sure it was fit for the future needed nailing.
In Summer 2020 Wendy’s role changed to chief growth officer, which was a focus that was reflected in the new strategy the group announced at the start of 2021 - a commitment to ‘Navigate, Create and Lead Meaningful Change’.
To find out what that means to her and the M&C Saatchi Group as the new strategy begins to bear fruit, LBB’s Alex Reeves caught up with Wendy.
LBB> Where did you grow up and did you display any traits back then that you've put to use in your career in advertising?
Wendy> I was born and grew up in Toronto, Canada. Anyone who’s visited will know how diverse and authentically multicultural Toronto is; like a microcosm of the world. Looking back perhaps that was what sparked my interest in international business. In terms of early traits, there are probably three fundamental areas that have served me well in my career. One is a love of people, the second is a love of learning, and the last is simply not shying away from doing the work to achieve my goals. This industry will never not be about people. I have always been deeply fascinated by human behaviour and became observant of it at a very early age – as a result I seem to have very well developed “tentacles'' that pick up on behavioural signals. And generally, I get my energy from others, and love the social part of the industry.
LBB> You started your career in Canada as an account executive at Leo Burnett. What do you remember most about that time and did you learn anything that you draw on now?
Wendy> OK, this is going to be one of my longer answers because there is so much to draw on from that time because of how incredible Leo Burnett was for me from the start. I was thrilled to be recruited into Burnett when I was 23. I did a Bachelor of Commerce Honours degree over four years at Queen’s University. But by the time I graduated I was ready for work. While many of my friends went off to travel, I went straight back to Toronto to start work. That was a time when the big agencies and big clients were recruiting on campus. And I had specialised in marketing. I didn't know I was going to land in advertising specifically, but I knew I loved business, brands and marketing. Leo Burnett stood out to me for their worldwide reputation and clients, their culture and their charm. And that's what led me into the agency world more than anything. I was looking at the client side initially - clients like Kraft Foods and Procter & Gamble. But it was the spirit, character and fun of the agency side that drew me in. So again, it was the people who I really felt I had that connection with. And that's why I stayed there for so long.
I worked at Leo Burnett for 22 years in Toronto, Chicago and London and travelled all over the world to meet client and agency teams, and consumers in every region. My learning, experiences and the culture of Leo Burnett will always be special to me.
What I learned then, remains critical to my growth role today. That is the importance of being “client driven”. For me, this is about putting everything aside and tuning deeply into what clients need, where the business potential lies, and finding interesting, sometimes unexpected, and effective ways to add value. Always solution neutral from the start.
To do that requires spending quality time with clients, to understand what's going on behind the scenes, to have a place at the table, being a partner, debating insight and solutions. And you better know your shit. Never underestimate the power of knowledge of the facts, data, research findings, trends, the list goes on. Take ownership and care like the brand is yours.
The other thing around that time was being “lucky” enough to have strong female senior leaders who championed me and pushed me forward into things that were uncomfortable at the time - big presentations and doing them at a much more junior level than was the norm. Because they were training me how to be good and how to be a leader, they would put me into these big meetings, presenting to very senior clients when I was still very green. You can only imagine the preparation boot camp I was put through. But it was worth it and I’m thankful for it now. This became a “setting of the bar” time for me. My whole career I've always loved work when it’s intense, the steeper the learning curve, the better. And the longer you can keep that up in your career, the better you'll be. Today I continue to be a firm believer in “if you’re good enough you’re old enough, and later on, if you’re good enough you’re young enough”.
LBB> Account management has been a major thread of your career but it’s also been quite varied. What has usually guided you throughout your professional life so far?
Wendy> There is one single, overriding theme for me, and that is that we exist to help clients grow. It’s about what they need, not what we want. If you focus on that you will get smarter and you will do better. For me, that led to complementary roles that involved the myriad of factors that contribute to an agency’s ability to serve clients well. For instance, as head of account management, clarifying how high account management performance is defined in a new landscape, making sure people were developing new capabilities and skills in things like data, new technology and social platforms; keeping the talent motivated and inspired; setting the agenda for integration. Or in my role of leading Employee Engagement as we were one of the firsts in the industry with Publicis’ Power of One strategy and executing that for the first time on P&G. I took on these roles because I was passionate that these were areas required in order for us to help our clients grow and for our business to maintain the highest standard of delivery. And when clients grow as a result of the agency partnership, the agency grows and in turn, people grow in their careers.
LBB> You joined M&C Saatchi Group at a difficult time in 2019, when the business was forced to do some soul searching. What did you see your role as coming into the Group at that moment? And how did it shift over time?
Wendy> I joined the company after a few conversations with Moray MacLennan in the Spring of 2019. I joined that summer because of his vision for transformation of the total company to be a more powerful connected group. I knew I could make a valuable contribution based on my experience. I was impressed with all of the capabilities within the business and could see the untapped potential in becoming more connected. And I liked Moray. We saw eye to eye and I knew the role would be challenging, rewarding and fun (back to the people point!).
When the financial challenges hit I kept my focus firmly on the future. It didn’t change what I was already there to do. In fact, that, and the pandemic, like for many, accelerated our change agenda.
LBB> Chief growth officer isn’t a title with an established advertising heritage. In the past growth might have been the responsibility of a variety of leaders. What do you see as your priorities leading the growth team?
Wendy> I’m not going to lie - I love my “new” job. I love that I’ve not taken the traditional agency new business track, I love that I can bring a client focus to this role, and I love that I can contribute ideas and initiatives that go far beyond pitching but that strengthen the agency at its core. At M&C Saatchi there is a freedom for great ideas, whatever they are or wherever they come from – it’s very refreshing.
My priorities are very clear. To help build a connected, collaborative culture, to shout from the rooftops about what we can do for brands, and to drive growth by focusing on client growth.
LBB> There’s a long history of the M&C Saatchi Group culture with Brutal Simplicity of Thought and the entrepreneurial spirit running through the business. How do you feel that culture has bound the global business together and helped it grow up to this point?
Wendy> Brutal Simplicity of Thought is an extremely powerful and attractive proposition to clients. If you’ve ever sat through a long strategic or creative debate, or found yourself lost in building a presentation, ‘BSOT’ helps focus the mind, sharpen the insight, clarify creative ideas. It also comes in handy when building a team, to prevent duplication and too many cooks, which we as an industry are often guilty of. I would say that today, it's more relevant than ever because of the complexity of modern communications and the overwhelming amount of data that clients must navigate. As humans, simplicity is what everyone craves. So, it is still absolutely relevant. And it's still integral to how we work and what clients will experience working with us.
LBB> And culturally, how has the new strategy to deliver meaningful change taken that spirit and updated it to drive growth?
Wendy> I think our new proposition around meaningful change elevates beyond a way of working, or a principle like Brutal Simplicity of Thought - it elevates to a space that works for clients on multiple levels. Clients who, first of all want transformative change for their business, but also want to leave a positive impact on the world, doing the right thing. This is becoming the new commercial imperative. We know that clients are focused on achieving this double bottom line and therefore so should we. Which is why our strategy is to collaborate with clients and collaborate internally to deliver meaningful change via seamless connection of capabilities. Everyone who's leading the company agrees that in order to grow, we need to work together to deliver more impactful multi-dimensional solutions. The past two years have been about building the right infrastructure internally to do just that. Like our peers, it has its challenges, but it is necessary and right and will continue to develop.
LBB> What were the major challenges and big decisions in rolling out that strategy across the group? And what have been the best results?
Wendy> The major challenges and decisions are not surprising. We’ve simplified our business, invested in new capabilities, created a unified offer, and hired new people in central roles to help drive the strategy. But it’s what’s happening internally, with people, that is just as important. People are changing the way they work, the way they think, the way they operate, seeing the potential of the group, how it is delivering better capabilities and service to clients. That's a wonderful thing to see. We really are coming together as an M&C Saatchi community, bonded by the brand spirit, which is amazing.
And because we're not so huge, it's actually been more possible than you'd expect. We're not a giant. We're about 2,500 people, so it's not an insurmountable challenge to affect change.
As a result we are attracting more inbound interest through the new single-channel Global M&C Saatchi Group channel. There’s a big point to be made that we are so much more than the core advertising agency that was started 25 years ago. In that time we have developed a unique set of specialist capabilities ahead of the curve and have been working with major global brands across the customer journey. This, combined with the strength of our brand is what lays our path for the future.
LBB> Have there been any unexpected results or pleasant surprises?
Wendy> At the beginning of the year we gave an investor’s presentation where we outlined the strategy and the expected results. To be going into the end of the year well ahead of expectations is very reassuring. We’ve had near zero client attrition, have won some great new clients across the group and we have attracted some incredible talent to bolster our capabilities in data, digital innovation and sustainability. All of this is true upside and I am proud of how far we’ve come in a year. It’s also cause for optimism for next year and beyond as marketers will require new thinking on future revenue sources and how to be part of the solution to save the planet.
LBB> In terms of recent work from the Group for its clients, what would you point to as a good example to illustrate how M&C Saatchi Group will grow in the future?
Wendy> During lockdown we won the Promote Iceland global tourism account and it has continued to bear fruit in terms of famous creative work and awards. The ambitious partnership with the client continues to thrive via a borderless collaboration between a select group of talent - star creatives, our agency in New York, a PR squad in London, one in New York, and global performance media. A collection of people working together to come up with the ideas, execute them and earn boatloads of earned attention. Do you know what the Icelandverse is? If not, go take a look
The other end of the scale which is exciting is the potential we have to help clients through their digital transformation. Bringing together data, creativity and performance marketing as a triforce to really help clients go from A to Z in terms of direct-to-consumer engagement and results. We've done some incredible work for clients ranging from the world’s largest football club to the world’s largest online retailer. In both cases we have delivered uncaptured global revenue and direct sales.
Lastly, I see a huge opportunity in harvesting the leading expertise we’ve developed in the entertainment, sport, lifestyle and influencer space over the last decade. More and more, it’s impossible to ignore that brands need to connect with young audiences in culturally relevant ways to future proof. It’s not as simple as it used to be as these cultural connections have become increasingly nuanced. We call this approach Passion Marketing, when combined with an understanding of the powerful influence of digital communities, is an area that’s proven successful with clients such as McDonald’s, Heineken and Kia.
Any way you look at it, the future will be about brands being an authentic part of people’s lives which increasingly, love it or hate it, exist in the digital world. These communities and the people who lead them will be one of the greatest influences on brand success, and I believe that direct selling through these channels will be the next wave for e-commerce in bigger ways than we might expect.