WPP Agency Maxus Names Jonathan Adams Chief Digital Officer

maxusOn Thursday, WPP-owned media agency Maxus named former iCrossing executive Jonathan Adams as its chief digital officer. After previous stints at OgilvyOne and The Media Edge (since rebranded MEC), Adams is returning to WPP.

The appointment is Maxus North America CEO Steve Williams’ first hire since he began in June. Williams spoke to AdExchanger about Adams’ new role, the state of digital and the agency’s strategic horizons.

ADEXCHANGER: What will Adams’ key responsibilities be at Maxus?

STEVE WILLIAMS: The key responsibility for Jonathan will be about working very closely with me and a couple other critical team members to ensure that the quality of our work is the best it can be. More specifically, given his role as digital officer, he’ll ensure that Maxus in North America is as fluent and agile around digital channels as we possibly can be.

What’s your vision for digital at Maxus?

I have a vision for the industry not having the conversation about digital. The reason agencies, and media agencies in particular, need deep expertise with first-class practitioners like Jonathan is because the world is changing so quickly. It’s important to keep up to speed. I am hopeful that with the team we’re pulling together now, and Jonathan being a key part of that, we can introduce a horizontal approach to media, platforms and technologies, and how data flows between them.

That means that the word digital becomes redundant. Because, at the end of the day, what isn’t digital? I’m looking for us to become as competent as possible working horizontally, because that’s how ideas travel. We’ve got to be experts at working vertically as well, because flawless execution is crucial.

Maxus won a big campaign a few weeks ago, NBC Universal’s domestic digital media duties. Did that inform this hire?

Not especially. One of the first observations I made when I came in was that we’ve got a lot of really great talent within the organization, in all offices. But what I felt we could really supercharge was the general architecture of digital fluency at the top of the organization. We’ve got a lot of people here who are all-around experts, and I’ll call out [Chief Strategy Officer] Mark Egan and [Chief Planning Officer] David Gaines. Both of them are great strategy guys who are very comfortable with data, analytics and the planning piece within that.

And obviously, we’ve got this firepower of GroupM’s resources that, given the structure of GroupM, more than complements our ability to be able to execute at scale. We’re putting on a good number of people and we’re making great ground.

It’s going to be clients like NBC Universal, and doing better work for our current clients, that will keep us on our toes and keep us sharp. Jonathan’s a key part of that.

How have your client interactions changed over time?

Not so long ago, everybody had quite a straightforward palate of media options. In a relatively short space of time, we’ve moved to a highly complex yet totally connected ecosystem of platforms and channels and technologies that’s all navigated by big and middle data.

The change has been remarkably quick in the scheme of things. I think agencies are challenged with playing within that, and the scope of a media agency these days vs. 10 or 15 years ago is wholly different. I’m not suggesting we’re going to throw ourselves into creating the ads. There are a lot of incredible digital and mainstream agencies that are doing that. But the scope of responsibility of spreading our clients’ messages around in ways that influence consumers has changed beyond all recognition.

How does this affect your teams?

It’s going to take a different kind of team formation and mentality to deliver great work in the future. We’ve got a global philosophy called Lean Into Change. It’s a mantra that drives us because unless we’re prepared for the technology and data culture totally colliding, we’re not going to do better work.

If we’re going to Lean Into Change as an agency, we need to acquire much more knowledge in an organic sense, and we need to be quicker. Speed is everything.

I want the individuals within our organization, and it starts from the top, to start thinking diagonally. That means thinking both lineally and laterally so that ultimately we can, and are prepared to, play anywhere on the pitch. That’s the mentality and the team formation that I’ll be building for Maxus North America.

Speaking of Maxus’ Lean into Change philosophy, as media buying in general becomes more automated, how has Maxus leaned into programmatic?

This is a very good example of the effective and compelling interaction that an agency like Maxus needs to have with its holding company, in this instance GroupM. The breadth and depth of forward facing service capabilities in the digital arena that GroupM has got in all digital channels is mind blowing. It’s one of the reasons we’ve been able to be effective in winning some interesting pieces of business, NBC Universal being a primary example of that.

Now, the job of the agency within that is to ensure an understanding of how the programmatic piece fits in. Programmatic is about understanding where the data flows are, and therefore how you make the smart buys through programmatic. So we need to ensure that our service capabilities and our lens into programmatic is almost as deep as the specialists that actually sit in front of their terminals and execute the data.

So one of Jonathan’s key responsibilities will be ensuring that we have an effective lens into the engine of programmatic, and how we pull the levers in the right way and bring the right team onto the pitch at the right time. That takes a deep and innate knowledge of the programmatic world. And that’s why we need a chief digital officer – we need an architect, an interpreter and a change agent to help the organization.

What about programmatic TV buying?

I want our TV buyers to become both interested and passionately involved in the world of programmatic, because it’s coming their way soon. I’m not suggesting that TV buying is going to go completely programmatic inside the next three years or anything silly. But it’s coming one way or the other, in whatever time frame it is.

I’ll be very keen to drive our whole organization to become much more plural in their interest of media. There are some obvious examples of that. What goes on in our TV buying, for instance, is critically impacted by whatever’s happening in search because it’s a connected ecosystem.

We’re going to be doing a lot of work to ensure our team members are really alive to how the ecosystem is connected. Taking programmatic, you can learn as much about it as you can be efficient in it. Whether that’s an agency exchange or a private marketplace, it’s about being digitally fluent within the organization.

Are you building anything to complement Xaxis? 

When you talk about programmatic, Xaxis is the heartland of that. GroupM’s approach to programmatic is plural; there isn’t just one solution. Clients require a range of solutions, and for different reasons. Whether it’s Xaxis or whether it’s building a private marketplace which is much more discrete to a client’s particular needs, it not about any of the GroupM agencies building anything that is complementary to Xaxis. That’s the beauty of having a well-invested holding company that creates the tools of the trade, that any of the agencies can then use.

What is complimentary to Xaxis, or any of the other data-driven divisions of GroupM, is making sure that we have the right level of talent that’s able to manage and interpret what goes in and out of the data-driven thinking and execution elements of our business. That’s the complimentary piece, making sure the agencies are intimately involved.

Can you talk about the complexity of native advertising, and how’s that working from a buyer’s point of view?

I’m not going to make a particular point about our approach to native advertising or not. But I think witnessing the industry buzz, if you will, or some of the mockery that’s been going around about native advertising, I would caution the industry. We need to be very careful that we don’t look at native advertising as just a super smart way to make connections with consumers that they don’t think are really happening.

I think native advertising, and this is a sweeping generalization, I think we need to be very aware of the fact that the consumer is smart about our products and services. They can spot a poorly executed native campaign and will react accordingly. We’ve got to be careful and sensitive with what we do and how native we get within a campaign. Because of the way the media market landscape has changed, we have a much savvier, media-literate consumer in the mainstream than ever before.

This is a responsibility on the vendor side and for the smart planner in the agency world, to ensure that we don’t infringe upon the intelligence of the consumer when we apply such campaigns. There are such a range of example of really interesting, humorous, smart examples of native advertising, but there are also what you might call insipid examples of native advertising.

I think native advertising works more of less effectively depending upon the general state and reputation of the brand or service. If you’ve not got a strong, credible, authentic brand, you’ve got nothing to build on. Brand behavior and reputation drives how the consumer accepts native advertising.

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