New CEO Mat Baxter on Adding Media Literacy to Creativity and His Vision for Huge
The Drum catches up with Mat Baxter, who has changed seats at IPG from President of Initiative to Global CEO of Huge. Here, he discusses the need for dynamic creativity and speed, and his vision for another level of success in attracting a global customer for Huge. We’re also hearing about resisting silly mistakes from the past and getting an unexpected movie recommendation to boot.
Battery: What’s your vision?
Mat Baxter: The main thing I want us to achieve is to build on the agency’s creative and innovative pedigree. It obviously has very deep roots in the design of experiences, brand identity, brand planning and branding. He has great technological capacity and capacity for innovation, so for me, it’s really about building on that existing success. The last assignment I had was a turnaround assignment, and I pointed out to everyone at Huge that it was not a turnaround assignment. Huge is already an amazing agency. It’s about speeding up and taking Huge to another level of success.
Battery: What are the big opportunities now that the world is opening up?
Mat Baxter: The increase in first-party data. Increased use of direct-to-consumer and retail platforms. These are all opportunities for a much more orderly and thoughtful product and trading experience. Architecture and data management also represent a huge opportunity.
Everyone is digital and everyone is screaming for attention. Being creative and innovative remains the gateway to this commitment and this customer relationship. I don’t want us to look too aggressively on data and analytics and some of the more functional and technical purposes in business. That’s not to say it’s not important, but every time we do something out there we have to balance it with a dose of creativity and innovation. Emotion, creativity and innovation are still the absolute flagship products that move consumers.
Battery: Besides everyone screaming for attention, what are the other challenges?
Mat Baxter: It is first and foremost a cultural challenge for me. I’ve been a media guy my whole career. I deeply appreciate creativity, but I haven’t been in this culture as much as I am now. It’s a personal challenge for me, as CEO, to recalibrate my thinking and make sure I nurture the culture we need to move forward. I’ve done a lot to try to sort out the agency, if that’s the right word, and give them confidence that it’s my priority.
The challenge at the business level is the speed at which the market converges and the speed at which the digital market evolves. Customers are very smart with where they place their advertising. However, customers also demand that they must be just as smart with what they put in this commercial. Creative agencies are asked to create dynamic creative work that changes depending on who sees it and where it is placed. This poses a whole layer of technical challenge for agencies to converge programmatic media work with programmatic creative work. It is a great technical challenge and a cultural challenge. Manage this convergence [is a priority] because whether we like it or not, it happens. We have to be in the game to be successful.
Media and creativity are not necessarily closely linked on these types of endeavors. And so part of the reason I’m so excited to be at Huge is that I’m not offering to launch a media operation, but what I’m suggesting is that we get media educated and we become friends with the media. media, because everything is now media.
Think about the customers. They talk about Facebook, Google, Snapchat, Instagram – you know, all the big platforms. All they’re talking about is being successful on these platforms. Well guess what, this is a media discussion. Creative agencies that do not master the media are left behind and [so are] media agencies that are not creatively literate. This is where I get excited about the future. This is where the market is going. This is a great opportunity that we will be looking at very seriously. I want to be in this race, and I want to win this race. We will work hard enough to achieve this.
Battery: Besides media literacy, what else do you bring to this job?
Mat Baxter: Speed is one of the things I bring. The media market is changing very quickly. Creation is a little more considered. I’m not saying there isn’t a quick creative turnaround, there is, but the media market moves so quickly that you make media adjustments minute by minute, campaign by campaign in real time. I’m happy to bring some speed to the agency.
It’s not recklessness, but it’s a penchant for action, a determination and a speed where we can start to really move and seize opportunities maybe much faster than in the past. The biggest thing I’ve learned at Initiative is that if you fall asleep at that wheel, if you don’t quickly adapt to what’s going on in the market, you’re going to be in trouble. I really want to bring this philosophy to the agency while respecting the profession. What I’m not going to do is go so fast that the machine is damaged. The quality of craftsmanship must be protected at all costs, because when we lose that, we have nothing left.
Battery: How do you equip your staff for the future rather than making the mistakes of the past?
Mat Baxter: Previously, you only did the work that was attached to your office or your market. Now more and more you are working wherever it appears on the network. This fluidity of resource management has increased. It would be a disaster to allow that fluidity and dynamism to dissipate and eventually allow the resource to come back and be fully attached to their home office.
The industry has been forced to change its operating model, and I hope we will keep the best parts of that operating model, and we will not allow ourselves to regress and be in this situation where we come back to the old way of working.
If you had taken Covid away and said you could walk into the office when you wanted to but could work the fluid way we worked during Covid, it would have revolutionized people’s experiences. We have to protect it and build on it. If we lose that, this industry is dumb. And I really hope the industry doesn’t embrace idiocy and do something like that because we sure won’t. We will continue to adopt and build on what we learned during Covid because it is in our best interest. It will help us produce the best work, and it will help us attract and retain the best talent.
Battery: Who is your dream client?
Mat Baxter: I want challenger brands. I want brands that are courageous, that want to do creative work, that want to transform. We are here to challenge the markets, the market norms and the way things are done. We are here to be a disruptive force in the industry. This is what we are talking about.
We want customers who want to take this trip with us. It is typically a challenger brand. Today, some of the biggest established leading brands are starting to become challenger and disruptive brands. We are seeing a change in behavior because they are like, “Why are we left behind? If we don’t go from being a leader to being a challenger, we’re going to be in trouble. I don’t turn my back on these kinds of clients, but I want a challenger mindset in these clients. These are the clients we want to work with.
Battery: What are you doing for fun?
Mat Baxter: I love my films. I have a dog that is a search and rescue dog, so I like to get involved in that. It’s been part of my hobby, although I haven’t had much time lately, but it goes without saying that it’s a really important and rewarding experience for me. And I love to read.
Battery: Here is the most difficult question of the interview … is there a movie that you recommend?
Mat Baxter: Everything I’m a fan of Christopher Nolan. Strange to recommend, but I will recommend My Life. This film, for me, took me out of my monotony of thought a bit and reminded me of how important it is to go out and live your life. As we come out of Covid, I think this will be an important and important message. It’s mine. It’s not particularly glamorous or action-packed, but I think it’s sobering.
Battery: Last question – in a year, what is the fulfillment of your dreams that you tell me about?
Mat Baxter: A global account in Huge. I want to see us land a global account at scale. This is important for the next stage of the agency’s growth and development. So it would be one. [Number two is] to have an agency that’s happier 12 months from now than they are today, and they’re already extremely happy so that’s a high bar.
Editor’s Note: The interview has been edited for length.
To learn more, sign up for The Drum’s daily U.S. newsletter here.