How to be an octopus: reviewing Madison Avenue Makeover

How to be an octopus: reviewing Madison Avenue Makeover

In his sequel to the award-winning Madison Avenue Manslaughter, Michael Farmer follows newly appointed CEO of Huge Mat Baxter in his mission to transform the agency. But the book soon reveals itself to have greater ambitions. Madison Avenue Makeover is another urgent intervention from the strategy consultant and author.

“Do we have the right conditions to be a great company? Can you give me an example of a bold step we’ve ever taken?” These were the questions Mat Baxter posed to 20 executives of IPG’s creative agency Huge who hailed from every corner of its global network of offices, in their first encounter since his being appointed global CEO. He was met with dead silence.

This scene, conveyed vividly by strategy consultant and author Michael Farmer in his new book Madison Avenue Makeover, is the opening salvo in Baxter’s crusade to transform Huge after being newly parachuted in to the top job. In this spiritual sequel to his earlier book Madison Avenue Manslaughter, Farmer is given a fly-on-the-wall view of how Baxter diagnoses the inertia, flattening growth and declining sense of identity and direction of a once ground-breaking agency. More importantly, he records — in meticulous, sometimes overpowering detail — the process of renewal and reimagination the agency is launched onto under his leadership. The inside view is truly fascinating: as Bain & Company partner Chris Zook writes in the foreword to the book, “Rarely is it possible, as in a medical clinical trial, to follow a story from the inside as it unfolds.”

As Farmer noted in his recent interview with The Media Leader, it was Baxter who proposed the idea of following the transformation to him (an extended version of the interview will publish imminently on The Media Leader Podcast)

Impressed by Madison Avenue Manslaughter, Baxter called Farmer out-the-blue and asked if we wanted to write another book, this time about the complete reorganisation of Huge. He would be given complete access and freedom, and Baxter asked that he include any criticisms he had of the project: “Otherwise, it will just be a book of propaganda, which I don’t want.” Most importantly, Baxter wanted Farmer to conceive of the project as a guide towards creating a new paradigm for agencies in an industry that had steadily lost its bearings.

A new paradigm for agencies? Michael Farmer on ‘myths’ created by Cannes Lions and his new book

Here we get a sense of the true ambition of the book and of Baxter’s plans for Huge. In an unlikely detour into philosophy of science, Farmer meditates on the idea of Kuhnian paradigms. The basic question is: how does a Newtonian or a Copernican scientific revolution occur? Philosopher Thomas Kuhn argued that scientists conduct their work presupposing a certain paradigm of scientific understanding, that is, until new data which refuses to be imbibed by the reigning paradigm reaches a critical mass. For scientists this represents a crisis, and their discipline will remain in crisis until a new paradigm emerges which can make better sense of the data.

Farmer writes: “Advertising, like science, operates under an existing paradigm — a theory of advertising — and a very specific paradigm has been in place since about 1960. Let’s call this the creative paradigm. It holds that advertising is about creativity, which is required to generate improved results for clients.”

And the data that should tell agencies there is a crisis is all there, Farmer believes: moribund growth rates for advertisers, declining prices for agency work, frequent turnover of agency relationships, not to mention a brain drain of talent. Farmer takes readers on a whistle-stop tour of the movement from commission-based fees towards labour-based fees, and details the rise of full-service agencies and agency holding company relationships.

The raison d’etre of Madison Avenue Makeover is to serve as a blueprint for what another Kuhnian paradigm of agency relationships can look like. Baxter wants overthrow the creative paradigm and instead usher in the results paradigm. For Huge, this will mean a joint commitment by the client and Huge to solve key performance problems together; a movement towards product-based pricing; ensuring appropriate strategic, creative, technical, analytical and delivery resources; and having an organisational structure that allocates resources based on the principles undergirding this new paradigm.

Despite reassurances of independence, Baxter had his own hesitations about writing the book. He worries: “What if Baxter’s leadership proved to be ineffective, or if clients were unwilling to deal with Huge in a different way? What if the expenditure of executive time and effort led to nothing more than an improved agency in a deteriorating industry? What if Baxter lasted no longer than his three most recent predecessors, who were appointed in 2018, 2019, and 2020?”

That is another astonishing aspect of what Baxter has tasked himself with: since 2018 Huge had burnt through four different CEOs. If that is not daunting enough, this is Baxter’s first time at a creative agency, having made his bones in media. As you’ll hear on the audio version of our interview, I compared this to watching three comedians in a row get booed of stage and then, not only deciding to try your hand at comedy for the first time, but also asking your mate to livestream it online.

But Farmer speculates that, for the work Baxter wants to do, this outsider perspective might work to his benefit. The midwives of new paradigms have often been “either very young or very new to the field whose paradigm they change.” And Baxter appears to have an inexhaustible well of restless, almost frenetic energy and a lot of self-confidence. As we get a quick tour of Baxter’s career, moving from Zenith, Naked, Mediacom and UM in Australia, and then to IPG Mediabrands and Initiative, previous colleagues, corporate partners and sometimes Baxter himself describe him as “rebellious” “crazy”, a “risk-taker.”

The heart of the book is the actual process — dubbed Project Polpo — initiated by Baxter to transform Huge, which I will not spoil here. Farmer intends to produce a guide and goes into granular, dizzying detail into the meetings of the executive leadership team, often quoting at length from transcribed meetings as they work to convert Huge from “a federation of individual clients, each managed in its own way, to a unified agency that has a clearly articulated way of doing business.”

At one point Farmer asks Baxter why they have decided to call the turnaround project Project Polpo. He replies: “It’s obvious, isn’t it? An octopus is not very elegant in appearance, but when it goes into action, it’s amazing. Did you know that the eight arms have intelligence capabilities that are independent of the central brain? That’s exactly what we need for this transformation!”

Cue the scratching of heads elsewhere in the IPG network. The octopus is the very prominent brand mascot for Huge’s sister agency MullenLowe, which has been smothering itself with the eight-tentacled creature since a 2016 rebrand. It even “refreshed” the octopus earlier this month, coincidentally on the eve of Farmer’s book being published.

Farmer is clearly optimistic about the results of the transformation but is cautious in the final analysis. Whether Baxter really has brought about a new paradigm for agencies will depend on the sustainability of Huge’s performance into the future and how the industry reacts. Regardless, Madison Avenue Makeover is an exciting and thoughtful book that is well worth a read for an industry gasping for new ideas.

Is there a book about media or marketing that The Media Leader should review? Do you work in advertising or media and want to recommend books to your peers? Email ahmed.elkady@uk.adwanted.com.

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