AdNews Interview


If you subscribe to Darwinian theory, then you’ll understand that in order to survive and thrive, subjects must evolve and adapt in a constantly changing environment. Ogilvy Australia’s chief executive, Andrew Baxter, gives a sense that he is a champion of Darwin’s thesis, at least in the advertising game where the need to evolve is sometimes a matter of life and death for a business.

He’s been in the top job at one of, if not the, largest creative agencies in Australia since August after the resignation of executive chairman Tom Moult. Sources at the time of the changes suggested Moult’s departure was a result of a divergence of opinion with the higher-ups on the future direction of Ogilvy. Now, three months on, Baxter has cemented his vision for the agency, even if he is reluctant to divulge the details of his playbook lest he tip off Ogilvy’s competitors.

Baxter’s journey to the coveted number one position started more than 18 months ago when Moult promoted him from Melbourne boss to national chief executive in an effort to align the two offices. The desire for greater collaboration between Sydney and Melbourne has led to a rethinking of how Ogilvy works. Beyond its ‘traditional’ creative offering, Ogilvy has under its roof a mammoth digital house in DTDigital, which numbers over 150 people across the country. Add to that mix shops across digital media buying, direct, production, multicultural marketing, brand and promotional, and Baxter has a panel of specialists to draw on for any project.

“A big part of what I’ve worked on is the collaboration side of things. We’ve got a far bigger capability than any other agency to tailor teams to identify the client business problem and then to solve it,” he says. “When you’re a slightly smaller agency, you tend to have a lot of generalists. I think we have a lot of very clever specialists in all parts of the business. The advantage for us is bringing those tailored teams together to solve those business problems.

“It’s making sure that as we’re continuing to evolve, we’ve got the best talent at the table when we start the best projects off to get the best ideas up. The other part of it is we are switching people around on certain projects. It should never be a Sydney or Melbourne thing, it should be about who’s right to work on this brief at the right time and getting the best possible work out.”

He states the evolution of agencies is a passion of his, and he is attuned to the goings-on in the ad world around the globe as long-held business models are suddenly under threat from shrinking client budgets, leaner structures and the digital revolution. He keeps his eye not just on the traditional centres in the US and the UK but also in places such as Amsterdam and closer to home in Asia, where Ogilvy has a strong network.

“We’re looking closely at trades that wouldn’t traditionally be called communications or advertising industries, particularly those with digital offerings,” he adds. Of course, Baxter contends, no one really knows what the agency model of the future is going to look like but that’s why it’s necessary to evolve as is demanded by clients and the market. “We’ll always evolve to whatever is needed out there. We’re always looking at agencies around the world to see what the best ones are doing, how they’re evolving and listening to what clients are saying.”

Despite his bold ambitions for Ogilvy, Baxter concedes there exists a disconnect between the agency’s performance and the market perception. He says sometimes people forget how big the Ogilvy network is (500 staff), especially in Melbourne. “There’s always a six to nine-month lag between where the agency is and the external perception. We’re happy with where the Sydney office is and the guys have done really well in the last 12 months,” he says. “There’s great work coming out, a great team and a good vibe about the whole place. This agency has always had a real mystique and mystery and it was the same when I was on the outside. But the reality is, it’s a good agency doing well, thankfully. Touch wood.”

It’s work such as Coca-Cola’s immensely successful ‘Share a Coke’ integrated campaign and AAMI’s ‘Rhonda’ series that Baxter is particularly proud of. He believes those two campaigns represent the new way of creating big famous campaigns in the modern age, much like Qantas’ ‘I Still Call Australia Home’ was how you did it 15 years ago.

Baxter believes ‘Share a Coke’ and ‘Rhonda’ are proof positive of Ogilvy’s creative and strategic capabilities. “In the past 12 months, we’ve been putting the facts out there. We let the work talk for itself. So too with the hires [of Mark Sareff, Brett Howlett and Shaun Branagan]. We’ve never been an agency that beats its chest but I think our clients know where we’re at and I think prospective clients know where we’re at,” he argues. Baxter points to the large-scale Vodafone, Woolworths and Westpac pitches this year – Ogilvy won one and was in the final contention for the other two.

‘Evolution’ is the watchword here. Baxter firmly believes in the necessity of evolution in order to stay relevant in a fast-moving environment, both the evolution of the agency operations and the evolution of the perception of the Ogilvy brand. He says: “Agencies are like any brand, you can’t be complacent. Don’t stand still, keep evolving. I think the agency world sometimes forgets to do that. You have to keep listening to what those needs are and evolve your business to that. That’s the guarantee to where Ogilvy is going in Australia."