MBPT Spotlight: New Maxus North America CEO Wants Digital To Play Larger Role In Helping Clients

When Steve Williams was hired as the new CEO North America for GroupM media agency Maxus in May, Vikram Sakhuja, Maxus Global CEO, described him as “a perfect fit for the ambitious Maxus culture.” And GroupM North America CEO Kelly Clark said he was confident that Williams “will help us take Maxus to a new level.”

Maxus, with headquarters in New York and London, and North American offices in offices in Chicago, Los Angeles, Minneapolis and Toronto, launched in 2008 and has been the fastest growing global media agency for the past five years, according to industry research company RECMA. Among its global clients: Fiat, Barclays, Church & Dwight and UPS, along with NBCUniversal in the U.S.

The mandate for Williams, who spent the past two years as president of PHD New York and prior to that was CEO of OMD UK, is to continue the agency’s fast-paced growth, but also to continue to build its digital media discipline. Williams’ first hire was Jonathan Adams as chief digital officer for North America, whom he lured away from iCrossing, where he was senior VP and lead of North American Media.

Three months into his mission at Maxus, Williams spoke to MBPT about his role at the media agency and the advertising business overall.

You recently hired Jonathan Adams as your chief digital officer for North America. What role is digital going to play at Maxus going forward?
Creating this position and bringing in Jonathan Adams was a key priority for me. Maxus already had a lot of smart people in the digital space here, and Jonathan will add a little more rigor and fluency to our digital operation, to make sure we are far ahead of the curve in our digital mandate. He has the depth of experience and a solid pedigree in the digital field. He’ll be finding ways to come up with digital solutions for clients faster and blend digital with all other departments at Maxus. We’re going to begin working with a triangle format to come up with solutions and Mark Egan [North America chief strategy officer], David Gaines [chief planning officer] and Adams, working closely with me, will lead all our pitches. Ideas flow horizontally, not vertically. We are going to think in a matrix sense, not a vertical sense.

When moving to a different media agency holding company, how long does it take to get a feel for the new company?
Days or weeks, but actually not a real long time. The reality today is that most media agency holding companies all have strong operations. There are some cultural nuances that are different at each holding company, but those are easy to navigate. It’s not really a big challenge today to get a feel for an agency and to fit in. Plus, we all know each other and about each other so that makes it easier to adjust. I’ve been at Maxus for three months and I’m still listening and learning but I’ve already gotten the heartbeat of the culture right now.

When your hiring at Maxus was announced, it was said that you fit into the Maxus culture. What is that culture?
There is a relatively young team at Maxus that has a lot of spirit and energy and the agency is very agile with the ability to get things done very quickly. And GroupM is very big on collaborative growth and having the agencies work together whenever possible.

How does Maxus fit in with the other GroupM agencies? How much collaboration is there vs. competitiveness among the sibling agencies?
GroupM offers each agency the corporate tool set to help it be successful individually but also applies its scale to help all of the agencies when that is necessary. We’re not always collaborating with the other agencies and are not always in lockstep with their thinking on everything but we have a common ambition to be successful.

What is your mandate at Maxus?
My mandate is to take an already successful organization . . to the next level. To push the culture. To produce even more amazing work. To make ourselves meaningful to our clients and help them raise the level of their businesses.

Maxus has stressed a “Lean Into Change” philosophy?What does that mean to you?
I didn’t come to Maxus to totally rewrite the playbook. We are living in a world that has been turned upside down with technology and it has impacted our culture and our media platforms. The Lean Into Change philosophy means we welcome change and we embrace it. Today there are opportunities for brands to succeed by being smarter. We embrace new data, new technology and the new culture. We are going to spend more time on insight and understanding the consumer and how to reach them. The key to success for brands moving forward is insight and how it is used. We have creative technologists at Maxus to ensure that we can make the impossible happen. Our mentality when it comes to our clients is that nothing is impossible.

What is your management style like—to delegate or be more hands on?
I hope I’m the sort of manager who is different for everyone I manage because all people are different and need to be worked with differently. But I want to be involved in all aspects of the agency.

You started on the TV buying side at DDB in the U.K. What do you recall from those days and how has agency media buying evolved to where it is today?
I was lucky enough to grow up in a full service agency environment. What I remember is that it was a much simpler world when it came to buying media. Media buying back then [had] less platforms. Media buying was also more connected with the creative world because they were part of the same agencies. When I was buying media I quite voraciously wanted to learn media planning as well, and was able to do that. But there’s been a lot of change since then. Today media buying is more complex, more challenging. There is so much more on the palette to deal with.

Do you foresee traditional TV commercials ever going away?
TV commercials [are at] the stage where today’s multiscreen viewer sees it no differently whether it is on a home TV screen or via video on some other platform. Younger people today care less about where they view 30-second spots. I myself view more 30-second commercials on digital platforms than I do on a traditional TV. Increasingly, the viewer is not noticing where they are viewing the messages. It really doesn’t matter, as long as it reaches them. From an advertiser perspective, their commercials need to have the right blend of information and reach the right audience, regardless of the platform. If I ask my 19-year-old son where he saw his most recent commercial, I guarantee you he’d say he didn’t see it on television. Thirty-second commercials will still exist down the road whether they are seen on tablets, mobile phones or traditional TV. The platform will be irrelevant.

How do the more broad-based media agencies compete with the more specialized digital agencies, and can they do it effectively?
If you are good enough at what you do, you can do anything for a client. But you have to be good enough. You have to invest in technology and insights and then bring in the right talent to handle it. GroupM has done that and Maxus is very serious about building an ongoing, successful future for our clients regardless of the platform.