Wasting No Time, CEO Mat Baxter Leads a Dramatic Transformation of Huge

By Madison Avenue Makeover Archives
Cover image for  article: Wasting No Time, CEO Mat Baxter Leads a Dramatic Transformation of Huge

We're used to hearing industry talk about the need for agency transformations. Rarely, though, does the talk lead to action or change. Mat Baxter (pictured at top), CEO at Huge since July 2021, launched the company's transformation less than two months after his arrival, mobilizing its top management team to lead a multi-dimensional change program that continues well into 2022. Baxter reviewed transformation progress with the global Huge organization last week. I recently interviewed him about his ambitious program.

Michael Farmer: Mat, why did you begin a transformation of Huge, and what does it involve?

Mat Baxter: It is very evident that creative agencies, including Huge, have been underperforming in delivering results for clients. We've all been guilty of accepting briefs and projects without asking, "Why do you want this work done?" "How is this going to impact your performance?" "Would a different program of work have a greater impact?" Projects are typically integrated marketing or brand experience projects, and the people commissioning the work are product managers, brand managers and marketing directors. They're rarely C-suite executives like CMOs who ought to have improved performance as their No. 1 goal. The current projects are not delivering the required results.

We've become lazy as an industry. We've allowed ourselves to become passive service providers rather than proactive growth partners. Even when we do a good job executing briefs and projects, we're not delivering the performance impact that our clients need. We pay the consequences for this in client churn and commodity-like fees.

We're taking this on at Huge. Our transformation is designed to make us super-effective partners for our clients.

Farmer: Many agency CEOs talk about this issue. How is the Huge transformation program different?

Baxter: We're not making speeches about this and then going back to business as usual. Our top management team is driving this. They began a complete review of the kinds of clients we have, the work we are doing for them, the kinds of capabilities we are deploying, the products we are using -- and they're developing a better understanding of what our clients really need. We're in the middle of this review now, and it's giving us a clear sense of the ways we need to change.

Farmer: What do clients really need?

Baxter: First and foremost, we're in a commercial world that has become increasingly digital, and clients have made major investments in this area -- investments in systems, people and marketing spend. The return on this investment has not been great. Topline growth for these clients, with a few exceptions, has been weak for more than a decade. Our analyses tell us that clients have not achieved satisfactory performance in experience transformation, technology realization and topline growth.

Farmer: What is Huge planning to do about this?

Baxter: First, we're redeveloping our products and capabilities and aligning them to meet client needs in the key areas I just described. Second, we're changing the way we engage with clients, abandoning the service provider role and becoming performance improvement partners. This means changing the nature of the relationships we engage in and the responsibilities we commit to. Third, we'll reorganize the structure of our organization so we can deliver our improved capabilities on a global basis, across our entire organization, rather than being bound by a more traditional office-by-office structure.

Farmer: What are your concerns, if any, about the transformation?

Baxter: We're changing so many dimensions of our operation in a short time! Understandably, some of our people should be anxious about this, feeling that they might be left behind or have no place in the new Huge. Actually, the opposite is true. If we transform ourselves and do more meaningful work for our clients, we'll create more meaningful professional experiences for everyone. We'll grow faster, have improved finances, and offer greater professional opportunities for our people. We'll bask in the pride that comes from doing first-class work that makes a difference for our clients. We can't avoid the anxiety that comes with change, but if we focus on the future prize rather than on short-term fears, we'll be fine. So far, things are going well.

Farmer: Do you see other agencies going down the same path?

Baxter: They should, but it is not easy. The industry is locked into outdated ways of thinking and organizing. I'm lucky in having a first-class executive team that is willing to confront all the challenges without hesitation, acting as a single force for change. How many other agencies can do this? How many other agencies can make Huge changes?

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