Interview: Maxus global CEO Lindsay Pattison talks gender inequality, Martin Sorrell, chatbots and more

In her most in-depth interview to date, Maxus worldwide CEO Lindsay Pattison talks to Mumbrella Asia's Dean Carroll on a wide range of issues – everything from gender inequality and her boss Martin Sorrell’s successor to AI and fake news


Let’s start with you. How would you describe your own management style and how is it different from your peers at other media agencies?

“You grow into your leadership style. As people move up in seniority, they often make the mistake of thinking that the job title gives them power. But really you’re not ever in full control and the lesson you learn is it’s all about influence. I will lead from the front with strategy and vision, and ensure that I am personally invested in the business.

“I will always be on the horse leading the charge but one person can never save a company or drive everything. What you need is to inspire and influence everyone around you. Your team must be able to give you input and you must be transparent, and communicate well with them. There should be as little hierarchy as possible.

“A leader always has to have charisma, but the old way of command and control was to withhold information because it is power – and focus on the financial or rational side of the business. Of course you need to have financial acumen, but the average age of a Maxus employee around the world is 28. They expect to be able to talk to the CEO about their views and to understand why they are being asked to do things. Therefore, my personal management style is much more open and inclusive than some. You need to be empathetic. These days you need EQ as well as IQ to run a business.

“Agency bosses need to show an interest in all elements of their businesses and to be curious about the ideas offered by younger colleagues; Gen Y expect to see you as a person, not just someone setting targets and wearing a suit. You can reveal differences, and you can reveal vulnerabilities at times. You don’t always have to have the answer to every solution, but you should show your approachability and humanity.”

And your business Maxus is part of WPP. Everyone celebrates the incredible success of the WPP CEO Martin Sorrell, but a number of people in the industry have also voiced concerns to me about the company culture and the pressure put on staff in terms of long hours and so on – probably an accusation you could level at any of the big networks. What’s your experience at Maxus and the wider network; how would you describe the approach?

“I think that when you are the largest marketing organisation then anything that taints the industry gets levelled at you and I think that is completely unfair. And of course Martin is very vocal. He is the most visible leader and very much the public face of our industry.

“Good on him for that, he is making the industry part of the business world rather than something much smaller. I’m not sure anyone would recognise the head of Omnicom, Havas or Dentsu in a line-up.

“So Martin’s high-profile does open you up to criticism. I just wonder why others don’t have a voice. It is incumbent on us as industry leaders to speak up when there is a position to take. I find the deafening silence from others astonishing.”

Moving on to gender diversity. It is still a major issue for the industry. Should agencies adopt positive discrimination to promote more women and shatter the glass ceiling in order to redress the balance? If they don’t, it could take a century to reach parity right? There are certainly not many female global CEOs like you in the industry.

“Well, we have a global mentoring programme called ‘Walk the talk’ for senior female leaders at Maxus. It addresses some of the internal barriers that women face. It also helps develop goals and the support network to enable female leaders to get where they want to be. I introduced it because I was stood onstage receiving an Ad Age award for ‘Woman to watch’ and while it was lovely I just thought ‘Isn’t it odd that we have to have awards for women’. Women should not be considered a diversity issue, given that we number half of the population.

“There is a lot of empirical evidence now that suggests there is bias. And if you’re a mother, there is definitely a bias against you. That will take years to overcome. Clearly, the interesting thing is that women often hold themselves back. They don’t put themselves up for promotion and with ‘Walk the talk’ we wanted to explore that further; so 210 women have gone through that programme. Exactly what are these self-limiting beliefs or gremlins on your shoulder that say to you ‘No, you can’t do that, don’t be stupid’? Men have those little voices in their heads too, but for women they seem louder and do hold you back.

“So those 210 women went back to their offices and gave their own talks, meaning we have actually reached around 600 women in the company with this mentoring programme. My gift to the industry is that we have opened it up and WPP are going to test it horizontally in the UK. My push to Martin [Sorrell, the WPP chief executive officer] is that I want WPP to run it around the world once a year for our most senior women. Both JWT and Wunderman are also taking that programme on themselves so that is great progress.

“We are also looking at paternal leave and flexible working from a structural perspective so that we can allow dads to take time off work as well as mums. It is challenging to do it around the world because it costs money, but we do have paid leave at 80 per cent for six months now in some countries for either a mum or a dad. That is best in class. We don’t do that sadly all over Asia yet. Australia is probably where they are best at it. You need to address the internal barriers and those external factors too.”

And back to the quotas issue. Where do you stand there?

“As a senior woman, I don’t really want to feel that I’m in my job because someone is trying to fill a quota. You should have ambitious and stated targets for reaching equality though so perhaps aiming for 50 per cent of your senior management being female by 2022 is a good target to aim for. And then you put programmes in place like ‘Walk the talk’ to help you achieve that. If you say it’s a quota, you are pissing off the men and doing a disservice to the women. I realise that some people disagree with me on that and say it won’t change unless you are harder on it.”

Changing tack, with the coming artificial intelligence revolution what role will media agencies play in the future marketing landscape?

“I was lucky enough to go to Davos this year as part of the WPP delegation at the World Economic Forum and everybody was talking about AI and gender equality, those were the two hot topics. The company that spoke most eloquently about it was IBM, which runs Watson – one of the most developed forms of AI. They said let’s flip AI, which can sound a bit scary when you are talking about things like genetically modified products, to IA or ‘intelligent assistance’.  

“So how does AI actually help humans do their jobs better? That’s the more interesting way to think about it rather than saying ‘robots are taking over the world’. The very early instances of AI like Echo, Google Home or asking Alexa to think about things for you is probably a good example of how AI will affect our industry.

“People will be able to search using their voice. We have spent 20 years optimising keywords and image search terms. Now we have to think about how people’s voices will interact with intelligent assistants.

“If my home is all connected up to the ‘internet of things’ I can then use voice commands to order that detergent I’ve run out of. My payment details will already be on record as will my calendar saying when I’m in so that they know when to deliver it.

“What the intelligent assistant could say to you is: ‘Well, last month you ordered Ariel, but did you know that there’s a special offer on Bold? It’s two thirds of the price and your friend Dean really recommends it.’ So we have to start thinking about branding and commercial opportunities within that new environment.

“It’s exciting. Lots of clients are already using chatbots really effectively. Jestar, one of our clients in Asia, is using the AI chatbot ‘Ask Jess’ to deal with customer issues. That means 95 per cent of the complaints are triaged before people get through to speak to someone. Of course Jess gets more and more intelligent with each customer engagement so the possibilities are endless.”

Is there any connection between the issues of AI and gender equality, the two hot topics at Davos?

“Well, it is quite annoying that there are so many female chatbots who are helping you secretarially shall we say. Whereas the male chatbots are the ones in the more aggressive environments. That’s a bit weird that we are perpetrating stereotypes even in that space. For example, in the United States you have Bernie; a male AI dating coach who helps you on Tinder.”

You are now a beacon for the industry in terms of your rise. So what’s your ultimate ambition then? We’re yet to hear who will succeed Martin Sorrell, if he ever does retire. Have you got your eye on his job eventually – that appointment would certainly be a strong sign of progress in signalling that gender was becoming less of an issue for the industry?

“I would use a football analogy here. Nobody wants to follow Alex Ferguson. And I would feel a great deal of sympathy and empathy for anyone that tried to follow Martin Sorrell. And anyway, he shows no signs of going anywhere.

“But I remain ambitious and I don’t think this is it. I’m not yet a my peak or in my forever role. I am only 43 so I’m still relatively young with years ahead of me. I don’t know what the next role is. In the old days, it was very clear. You were en exec, then you’re a planner, then you’re a manager and as you climb further up the path then becomes less linear.

“However, I went from a country CEO to becoming a global CEO and most people would have done a regional role first. But I went from managing partner at PHD to CEO of Maxus so I missed out the MD level.

“I think our industry is now changing so quickly. The swim lane of media is probably the most interesting place to be training when there is so much change and opportunity. But to torture an analogy I also think I could do open-water swimming, if that makes sense. I am only two and a half years into this global CEO role so I’m still trying to be the best and learning stuff everyday.”

Shifting to another hot button issue – the rise of Donald Trump and fake news websites. What advice are you giving clients in terms of where they should advertise and what whitelisting strategies do you have in place to protect the brands you look after in this regard?

“Brand safety is a really important issue. We have, as GroupM, a huge blacklist of sites. We are scouring the internet all of the time to understand material we shouldn’t be appearing next to. We can then also create white-lists for highly proven credible inventory and access private marketplaces where we know the safety controls are already there.

“We then would encourage every client to use brand safety tools like Integral Ad Science. It’s an additional tech cost, which clients don’t always like but we encourage it. We also have a brand safety team here. In addition, we helped fund and found The Trustworthy Accountability Group in the US. I genuinely think we at Maxus are leading in this area whereas the standards applied at an industry level sometimes aren’t good enough and at GroupM we can do more.”

And what about the likes of alt-right website Breitbart?

“That’s a different question. We haven’t blacklisted them because you may disagree with the point of view, but you may also disagree with the point of view in The Washington Post or The Daily Mail. And then you run into challenges around freedom of speech. But if a client asks for it then we can blacklist those sites that they feel don’t fit well with their brand. We have experienced that, particularly in America where Breitbart is bigger. We give clients a choice.”

Is the reverse true as well, do some clients demand to be on fake news sites because the critical mass traffic and the return on investment can be so much greater than with the more credible and earnest journalism portals?

“No brand in the world wants to be sited next to a completely fake story without no grounding in reality. There’s so much heat around fake news because Donald Trump claims everything is fake news unless a member of his own team said it.

“It gets traffic because it’s clickbait. What we can’t control is behaviour and sometimes humans like those weird sensational stories. And if you are buying programmatically through an exchange, then you go where the volume is. But everyone is getting a lot more careful now and almost every client does not want volume at the expense of reputation.”

Moving on now. Superbowl ads: industry friend or foe?

“Friend. It’s a brilliant showcase for brands to really think about the message they are putting out to millions and millions of people watching at one time. It’s the chance to be at your very best. It literally is the world’s biggest stage and that brings its own huge challenges.”

But is the return on investment there given the massive sums charged for a 30-second Superbowl ad and the fact that most viewers will use the break to visit the bathroom, buy a hotdog or open a beer?

“It depends on what you are trying to do. For Airbnb, who put together their simple and very quickly in response to the challenges coming out of the Trump administration in terms of racial and gender equality, they generated a huge amount of positive press coverage. So on brand perception-favourability scores, then there would have been a good ROI – especially when that ad didn’t have huge production costs.

“Although, those big-budget 90-second car ads. I’m not sure they sell an extra 100,000 vehicles as a result. But if you’re spending that amount of money on an ad you should be pretty clear on the outcomes you want to achieve, and you should have an effective way to measure those outcomes.”

So what would you say are the game-changing things coming down the line for the industry and where is Maxus positioned in terms of these?

“What we try and do is lead change for our clients. We live in a world of peak complexity where there is massive shifts so it’s the most exciting time to be in this industry. We have to be a step ahead and think about what we can do with AI or augmented reality and the opportunities there.

“I think what is key is not to be the dog that chases after every car though. There are so many new channels, innovations and start-ups that you just have to work out where you can have an influence, which will actually help our clients achieve their outcomes.

“Just because something seems sexy and new it doesn’t mean it is going to sell more cars or toothpaste. You always have to think about the branding and commercial opportunity rather than getting overexcited and writing think pieces about chatbots or virtual reality.

“At the same time, our role in GroupM is to be the challenger brand. That means we as an agency have to be brave, bold and agile. Some 90 per cent of our business is local clients, although we have strong multi-market clients that connect us. Working with local clients on the ground means you can be more nimble and test things out within reason.

“In fact, our ambition is to be the beta-tester in the group so we are trying new technologies and learning when they fail. As long as you have a testing framework, you learn something and you’re not planning in the dark you can’t worry too much about failure. You move on.”

Scam work entered in industry awards: is it a legitimate avenue for creativity or a destructive force in the industry?

“It has certainly driven poor behaviour, but we are talking about human nature and some people want to win at any cost. They think they can game the system and shame on them. It detracts from the people who just want to celebrate the great work the industry is doing.

“These days it’s so easy to look behind a campaign so it’s really foolish to enter scam work because you will be found out, which then becomes a mortifying and embarrassing situation for an agency.

“But on a more positive note, awards do encourage you to do your best work. And of course people like the respect and recognition that comes with an award. Who doesn’t want that?”

As a global CEO, what is the most important market for you right now? What will it be in five years from now? And what will it be in 10 years from now?

“Our top markets are the US, the UK, India and China. India and China are just goliaths. India is incredibly successful for us and it’s the shining star where we produce brilliant work through lots of energy and creativity. China is more challenging because culturally it’s just very different, but it is a whole world of opportunity and it is changing so quickly.

“The US remains the world’s largest advertising market. I would say it’s quite conservative. Meanwhile, the fastest growing markets in the years ahead will definitely be in the East. So Indonesia and the Phillipines are two really exciting places in that regard.

“However, the real untapped market – and as an agency and a network we are still trying to work out how bullish to be about it – is Africa. We are not as entrenched in that market as we could be. Although there are challenges in the supply chain there, it does feel like the land of opportunity.”

How big a part of the jigsaw is Asia for you in terms of business and how much untapped potential exists in this market?

“Asia is roughly one third of our business and it is our highest area of growth. While global multinational companies continue to see this region as ‘growing markets’, we see hyper growth from local multinational clients like Huawei, Shanghai Auto, Tatas, Hero MotoCorp – the list goes on and on.

“And we see increased growth in e-commerce companies from this region. Led of course by Alibaba, but also Flipkart, Lazada and the ever growing start-up culture around tech in Asia. The latter still hasn’t realised its full potential as yet.

“So overall I see Asia as a hi-potential region. We are bullish on China, despite the challenges of local competitors and localised ways of working versus say US or UK-led clients. We are very strong in India anyhow and see continued strength there. Then we see room for growth in the mature market of Australia, and then high potential in Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines.”

Ad-blockers could potentially decimate the media and marketing industries if adopted on a mass scale. How much of a threat is that scenario and what can be done to combat such an end game?

“This is a multi faceted issue. We need to improve the user experience so people don’t ad block. We need faster page loading so it costs less, given many consumers are paying for data. We also need better creativity in ads and from publishers, and creative agencies can help with that.

“In addition,as a broader industry – media owners and agencies – need to better persuade consumers that there is a value to the content they consume and that part of the value exchange is to receive ads. The only alternative is to pay for the content.

“Those publishers without compelling and differentiated content will suffer – and those that do have it will prevail. Advertising dollars will naturally flow towards those with the highest quality, most relevant content. Despite audience-based media buying’s advantages, content still matters. Especially to brand-focused marketers.

“In the short term, this is more of a challenge for publishers than for agencies and advertisers; as let’s make it clear, we only pay for ads that are delivered and viewable. It’s also worth remembering that most ad-blockers don’t work in apps, so the ongoing growth of mobile is not helping the ad-blocking business.”

And on the content issue, there are lots of buzzwords and trends around at the moment – everything from programmatic and gamification to experiential and chatbots. But are we starting to focus on the wrong things, as in the quality of the distribution channel rather than the quality of the content itself?

“Context is important. Quality is key. The fake news and fraud issues are denigrating the integrity of the online environment and the reason we all need to balance volume and cost efficiency is efficacy. Programmatic does not mean ‘cheap’. It means efficient highly targeted work. And it takes some manual labour out of the price.

“And ad content is of course critical. To be memorable and persuasive, the content has to make an emotional connection with a person. This requires intelligence, originality and creativity. It also – for many brands – has to be seen at scale. So both the quality of the content and its distribution therefore matter.  

“There’s been increased emphasis on the distribution due to the range of new platforms, new metrics and new devices. Indeed, we live in exciting times and the opportunities to innovate in terms of both content and its distribution continue to grow.”

From your position of inside knowledge, how can agencies continue to make money in an age of zero-based budgeting – where the focus is on annual shareholder dividends at the big holding companies rather than long-term sustainable business models?

“Great clients will pay for great people – the best, in fact – and a great service. To that end, we should ensure we have skin in the game and are rewarded for meaningful results. We can always buy ‘cheap media’ but that might not be the right media.

“We can discount costs, but we are a business and good clients know this and will negotiate with us so we both achieve the right outcome. By the way, if you entrust an agency with your media dollars to spend you should be able to negotiate a win-win contractually. If your agency rolls over and you have a poor contract then maybe you shouldn’t do that deal. Some bad clients will behave badly and the old saying ‘you get the agency you deserve’ is true.”

Are loss leader accounts worthwhile in any circumstances then?

“I am not sure; it doesn’t sit well with me. Some people may choose to loss lead to get PR and volume though.”

How concerned are you about consultancies either stealing the business of ad agencies or buying the agencies outright? It is already the direction of travel right?

“Consultants often celebrate the triumph of process over agility and this is anathema to an industry that moves as fast as ours does. Media agencies are in a process of constant evolution due to the ever-shifting sands in terms of consumers. If we do not reinvent, we die. The willingness and ability to adapt and evolve is a crucial part of our DNA and one that would be challenging to port to a more rigid environment.

“Consultants can say what to do easily and then they tend to move on. Implementing it is harder. We respect the consultancies, but our clients know that there’s a very significant difference in writing a strategy and executing media plans without compromise across the globe every day.”

Metrics now play a key part in the feedback loop for any campaign. Whose numbers can you trust now though? Even Facebook has done a mea culpa in relation to its video views and so on.

“We believe in industry agreed standards used by all and operated by third parties. End of story.”

So what is more important, big data or big ideas?

“Both. The idea makes the emotional connection with the person and persuades them to buy our clients’ products over their competitors. But increasingly data is being used to inform the idea’s development as well as its means of amplification.”

And what are the media/brand opportunities of wearable technologies, if there are any?

“It’s early days but the main opportunity, as with the increasing number of IoT connected devices, is data. Not all connected technologies can or will show ads to a person, although branded services on wearables and home devices are likely to be big.

“But all give marketers increasing amounts of non-personal data, which can be used to make advertising relevant and compelling. I’m excited by this area, although there will be privacy issues that need careful consideration.”

How quickly will VR and AR conquer the world?

“I am more interested in AR than VR, as VR still feels some way off. It a closed world and largely still for gamers, whereas AR I can see having more mass appeal – as already seen with Pokémon Go – and it can enhance a real life experience. So I am more optimistic about sustainable success there.”

Alright, now to a different topic. The conflict between chief marketing officers and procurement chiefs is growing as budgets tighten further in these straitened economic times. That must be frustrating for you guys heading up the agencies when you have a great idea but no money to implement it from the brands?

“Most progressive advertisers ensure that marketing and procurement work in harmony towards the company’s best interests, and not individual departments. Very broadly marketing is qualitative and well equipped to select and work with the most capable agency partner. Meanwhile procurement is quantitative, aiming to ensure that the agency delivers its work in an efficient manner.

“As I said earlier, we find that clients get the agency that they deserve. In our complex, fast moving and often imperfect world, we’re finding that increasing numbers of marketing and procurement clients are focusing on getting as much of the agency’s very best talent as they can.”

The social media influencer bubble consisting of people with millions of followers but hardly any engagement. When will it burst and who will be left standing?

“I am not sure it will burst, people like other people. They like authenticity and younger consumers understand the value exchange of promoted brands in the main. I think this will become clearer in the future.”

Back to more traditional mediums. Everybody seems to be a Mad Men fan, but what’s your favourite screen portrayal of the industry whether it be a TV show or film?

“I would probably stick with Mad Men. Don Draper’s Kodak sell remains a brilliant piece of television, showing our craft at its best. And I was cheering Peggy and Joan along in every show.”

Programmatic and audience profiling – is it possible to allay the privacy concerns?

“We don’t ever work with personally identifiable information, which means we don’t have the same challenges as the likes of Yahoo, and its well publicised data breaches of personal information. Nevertheless, we take privacy very seriously. That means we ensure that our clients’ marketing clarifies what non-personal data is being collected, what it’s being used for and how they can opt out.

“In fact the vast majority of data that we work with is first party campaign data, usually created by a person as they proactively interact with our clients’ brands. Over time, each person’s advertising becomes more relevant as a result, and sometimes a little more intuitive.  

“It only becomes individual, not personal, if we ingest a client’s anonymised CRM data. This means that a person can then be advertised to in a way that fits with their existing relationship with a brand. For example, they aren’t advertised at as if they’re a stranger by an airline when they’ve actually been flying on that carrier for years.”

Finally, who are your business heroes and why?

“That’s actually a real hard question. I see elements I admire in so people every single day. But I don’t have one who I want to become.”


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