Growth junkie

Maxus is one of the fastest-growing media agencies in the world. Global CEO Vikram Sakhuja assesses the biggest trends in the digital revolution
Global CEO Vikram Sakhuja says Maxus sees itself as a navigator for companies trying to understand and maximise opportunities in the digital age.
By Beatrice Thomas
Sat 21 Sep 2013 11:05 AM

In the fast-moving world that is the digital age, media agency Maxus is undertaking some rapid acceleration of its own.

Launched five years ago, the company, which describes itself as the only media agency born in the digital age, has risen to become the fastest-growing media agency network in the world four years running with 2012 billings in excess of $1bn, according to media evaluators RECMA.

With 30 percent growth in 2012, thanks to overall global activity increasing from $6.77bn to $8.79bn, it was also named by RECMA as the twelfth-largest media agency in the world. Among its clients are global giants such as Fiat, Barclays, Church and Dwight and UPS in a network that spans 2,000 employees across 55 markets.

And that’s not counting powerful local clients such as BT and Associated British Foods in the UK, Telecom India, Bolton in Italy, NBC Universal in the US, Tata Sky in India and Shanghai Auto Group in China.

All this and with no hierarchy or set structures — Maxus has a CEO based in Mumbai, CSO in London and CFO in Singapore and places client teams where clients’ headquarters are.

So what is the key to Maxus’ success?

As global CEO Vikram Sakhuja explains, Maxus sees itself as something of a navigator for companies trying to understand and maximise opportunities in the digital age.

At the core of its approach is what it terms “relationship media” and a philosophy it describes as “Leaning into Change”.

“It’s coming from a contextual reality that never before have marketers been so uncertain about how to manage the media market environment,” Sakhuja explains during a visit to Dubai.

What was once seen as a “game changer” six or seven years ago, now provided “only a six-month advantage over others”.

He says marketing communication had become two-way, while people power had come in via the social media element that has proliferated through the Arab Spring. As a result, the marketing industry has become festooned with fancy new terms such as “entraption to engagement” and “paid, owned, earned media”.

“These are all the kind of changes which have happened very fast,” he says. “Normally, these are things which happen in maybe a generation. But we are seeing it all — in a matter of five years, marketing has been redefined. The big joker in the pack is the digital game, because it’s no longer a medium, it’s a platform.”

Sakhuja says conventional media planning was about reach, frequency, share of voice and continuity.

But at Maxus, the planning process involved four steps — “mining the complexity, making the complex simple, making the simple magical and making the magical live”.

 “The essence of relationship media is putting the consumer at the centre,” he says.

“It looks a lot like brand consumer interactions with different media and in each one the game is how can we actually increase the relationship with the consumer by using the media around you.”

One example is Maxus UK’s award-winning Mercedes #YouDrive campaign, which picked up the Silver award at this year’s Cannes Media Lions awards amongst 16 wins for parent company, GroupM.

Sakhuja says as an established brand, Mercedes’ main market was men of around 40 years plus.

However, #YouDrive, explains Sakhuja, was about launching the A-class series car to a younger, British audience.

“How do you make it younger?” Sakhuja asks. “In this particular case the insight that we’re using is that a) youth like to be in control of the conversation and b) there’s actually a huge amount of dual-screen interactivity.”

The result was the modern-day, advertising equivalent of a choose-your-own-adventure novel. After watching part of a TV advertisement, consumers were invited to use social media network Twitter to “tweet” their preferred choice of ending.

The result? #YouDrive appeared 103 million times on Twitter, 30 million times on Facebook and resulted in 740,000 website visits, with 23,700 video views on the internet.

In addition, there was a 95 percent completion rate on online video views. Brochure requests were up 140 percent and Mercedes had 77,000 new leads.

Sakhuja says if they had thought about that campaign from a media planning perspective they may not have come to that solution.

“The minute you come to it from a comms planning approach, you suddenly say ‘I have to be relevant to the youth and the only way I can be relevant to the youth is not talk to them but talk with them,’” he says.

Sakhuja says the digital marketing approach also underscored a campaign by Maxus for Tourism Australia to promote the country’s capital city of Canberra.

“Everybody, when you got to Australia, you do Sydney, the Gold Coast, the Barrier Reef but nobody even knows of Canberra,” Sakhuja says, referring to Canberra’s history as a political centre but tourist abyss. He says faced with the option of regular campaign platforms, the team chose a different path.

They recruited up to 500 so-called net mavens from 31,406 applications and offered them an all-expenses trip to Canberra. Their only brief: go there and blog about it.

Canberra: the Human Brochure resulted in 4,900 photos uploaded to Instagram, 7,800 tweets and 1,900 Facebook likes — all reaching 8.9 million people.

Tourist numbers to Canberra were up 11 percent, Sakhuja says, and it was because of the power of word of mouth and the “credible feedback” offered by the bloggers.

So can the one-man, home-based operation that is often the average blogger be as powerful as traditional media?

“In this particular case, yes,” Sakhuja says. “In some cases there’s nothing like good old-fashioned advertising.  But, in this case you just want somebody to know how good Canberra is — they post pictures, videos, they tell you things to do, they Pinterest ideas. The digital world is actually lending itself to new and creative renditions of single content.”

As for other social media, Sakhuja says the power of Twitter “lies in what is trending and what is contextual”.

But the site remains a limited reach option compared to Facebook, he argues and is more of a “seeding mechanism”.

“For one client of ours, we wanted to plan a video going viral — so a piece of branded content,” he explains.

“We wanted to see whether it was possible for us to actually plot it.

“That’s when you realise that there is a method to the madness. You go to the Twitter handles of some of the celebs who have the highest amount of followers and who are pretty interesting. You get them into the scheme of things, let them Tweet and you’ve got a follow right away.”

Sakhuja says the content, of course, has to be worth watching. But, it was a way of reaching millions of people quickly.

Crystal-ball gazing, Sakhuja also predicts “more and more branded content or branded assets taking root”.

He points to Red Bull as a company which was leading the charge in this area. Through sponsoring ambitious endeavours such as daredevil Austrian skydiver and BASE jumper Felix Baumgartner’s jump from the edge of space last year — which was watched by a record eight million people live streaming on Google’s YouTube site — it was not only “authentic” but a huge money earner.

“Here’s a company which spends $20m to fund this jump from the edge of space,” Sakhuja says.

“You know just how bad the PR could be if anything went wrong. Fortunately it all went well. But this to my mind is a brand that walks the talk. This is a case where they’ve got owned media and now they’re doing earned media and increasingly this is going to get seamless.”

However, with all the possibilities that come with the fast-paced digital age also comes a rapid turnover in the platforms used.

“Foursquare was pretty big some time back,” Sakhuja says, of the location-based social network site.

“But I’m not hearing much about it. I’m sure it will come back in some newer form.”

As for YouTube, another giant of the digital world, Sakhuja predicts a somewhat less-popular future.

“What will become interesting is as we’re getting into real-time bidding and programmatic buying as we call it, there is going to be an element of machines doing the planning for you,” he says.

“At that point in time it’s possible that the YouTubes will actually get marginalised.

“You’ll be able to say at this point in time I need “X” people to see this video. Then it’s not so important for them to see it on YouTube. You just want to make sure that this profile, based on all this data, is seeing it.”

One thing that is certain, Sakhuja says, is the need to tailor strategies to the local market. “We call ourselves a global network of local agencies,” he says. “We believe there’s a merit in a global strategy and global thinking and a global approach but it has to finally come to bear at a very, very local level.”

“So, from a media perspective, the language, you must go local. [And] even from a creative standpoint.”

He says while skincare line Dove promotes “real beauty”, which can apply across markets, the application in an Arab state is going to be entirely different.

“Even amongst the different emirates of the UAE the rendition of real beauty in Dubai, versus Sharjah, versus Abu Dhabi will be totally different,” he says.

Maxus makes up one of six companies that collectively make up parent company GroupM, a consolidated media investment management operation under the broader WPP Group. Sakhuja, who took up the role of Maxus CEO eight months ago after 11 years as CEO Asia for GroupM, says while the company’s success has been phenomenal, it was on a growth trajectory that he hoped would see 20-25 percent growth again this year through acquiring business “from everywhere”.

“I’m actually a growth junkie,” he says with a laugh. “We’re not the largest agency, so there are a number of categories where we are still not represented.

“But almost without exception, whether it’s the US, whether it’s the UK, whether it’s Europe, Asia Pacific, you name it, the Middle East, I think we have got a huge headroom for growth and we intend tapping that.”

Sakhuja says there were several areas of growth, including in its Middle East operations, which were in the company’s sights.

“The obvious one is global, regional businesses,” he says, pointing to existing accounts of this category with Barclays and Kärcher.

“The idea is to get a few more like that, to bed those properly in each of the regions.”

Sakhuja says the Middle East had further potential in digital marketing as well as growth in strategy consultants.

“I see that the Middle East has been very entrepreneurial,” he says. “But they haven’t necessarily operated with a lot of detail and I think the opportunity to look at a client’s business from a strategic stand point and try to have long-term growth strategies and linked marketing plans.”

However, Sakhuja says the centre of gravity was “more local clients than global clients, which is unlike some of the other agencies”.

“Partly it’s inherited,” he says. “If tomorrow I get a chance to win a global business, will I say no? Of course not. I will obviously go after that. But I do feel more excited when I get these clients which operate locally.”

Sakhuja, who is based in Mumbai, says having a globally spread out executive works for the same reasons that its marketing approach has success.

“Technology has this habit of blurring lines,” he says.

And a global perspective was also easier to achieve with a dispersed executive.

“I sometimes feel that if a headquarters are just obsessed with a location restraint you probably live in your own exhaust — and that could be the exhaust of one country, one market,” he says.

“I just think it’s not very relevant in today’s age. At the end of the day the only relevant thing is if you have a business strategy and a plan you’ve got to be clear about.”

Asked whether the Maxus approach is better than other media agencies, Sakhuja pauses before responding.

“Truth be told, I think everybody is talking a similar language,” he concedes.

“I’m just hoping that we’re able to deliver it better. The good thing about us is our pedigree or legacy or baggage or lack of it is that we are as a global network only five years old.

“We are fresh, our ability to do these mental calisthenics and come out with these slightly creative answers and solutions is in part due to the way we are structured.”

However, the company is continuing to innovate. It is working on a target by year’s end of putting 30 percent of its global client billings on dashboards — allowing Maxus and the client to look at data in an easy-to-read, real-time user interface.

It is also doing its part in developing a matrix which will allow an 'apples to apples' comparison between TV and digital marketing — providing “a truly integrated plan with a truly integrated accountability structure”.

Sakhuja acknowledges that digitalised marketing is not for everyone.

“There are a couple of clients which still go by the old book, so headquartered in one particular market, will only use print or TV and no other medium and say all my 70 or 80 markets across the world will do just that,” he says.

“We have a few, but very, very few and I find I can’t relate to that, because to my mind it’s an archaic notion. I also find as you speak more and more to those clients they also get it.”

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Last Updated: Thu 26 Jan 2017 01:27 PM GST

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