Media Agency of the Year: U.S., Maxus

With aggressive growth and standout work, the Group M shop moves from newcomer to A-list star

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In the action thriller Contraband, a reformed con man played by Mark Wahlberg gets pulled back into a life of counterfeiting, shoot-outs and robbery. Yet despite the muscular setup and Wahlberg’s star power, the question remained: Would the picture be able to pull audiences into movie houses where attendance numbers are struggling to recover from near-record lows?

The Hollywood suits at Universal Studios, which produced the movie, needn’t have worried. Contraband premiered over the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend as the No. 1 movie in the country with $28.8 million in ticket sales, outpacing early tracking that had it pegged to take in less than $20 million. The release helped push up overall box office by 4 percent versus the same weekend last year.

That success was due in large part to the ambitious media strategy of Universal’s agency, WPP/Group M’s Maxus. The multimedia campaign encompassed a cool Facebook game, a cash giveaway via Twitter and an out-of-home blitz.

“Maxus has a lot of insight into what consumers are doing and how they’re processing all these messages coming at them,” says Suzanne Cole, Universal’s evp of media. “It’s bringing a lot of fresh, different thinking, and it has quickly built a wide-ranging team to service our business.”

Next up for Maxus and Universal: a varied and crowded first-quarter slate that includes Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax, the Denzel Washington-Ryan Reynolds thriller Safe House and the Jennifer Aniston-Paul Rudd comedy Wanderlust. Maxus is “bringing demographic and psychographic information to make sure every film is treated differently and special,” says Cole.

Of the agency, the studio exec adds, “They’ve hit the ground running.”

It sure seems that way. Adweek’s Media Agency of the Year U.S. has enjoyed a banner year.

Along with landing NBCUniversal’s U.S. accounts, giving the agency its first studio client, Maxus won global duties for S.C. Johnson and Barclays Bank, and expanded its relationship with Bausch + Lomb. Overall, U.S. billings grew from an estimated $900 million in 2010 to $2 billion in 2011, according to figures from Recma. While other media agencies have scrambled to reinvent themselves in recent years, suffering layoffs along the way, Maxus has bolstered its ranks. U.S. head count grew from 75 to 165 in the last year alone.

In addition, the agency established its first national TV buying unit, headed by John Miles from sister agency MediaCom. It also brought in David Fineman from Maxus U.K. to head its digital trading unit and hired Elif Akcayli, formerly OMD’s director of business intelligence, to run data and analytics. Maxus also added its first-ever chief financial officer, Neil Sternberg, from Mediabrands, where he was vp, worldwide controller. The New York-based operation also opened offices in Los Angeles, Toronto and Mexico City.

While Maxus’ plan has always been to create a global entity, the focus in 2011 was on strengthening the U.S. side of the business, says Kelly Clark, global CEO. That meant bringing in seasoned executives “ahead of revenue coming in,” says Clark—always an ambitious, and risky, move.

“We knew we needed to make investments in people and resources,” Clark says. “We needed a strong digital culture. We needed to improve our offerings in data and analytics. We’re small, so we made some key hires and really changed the company.”

Louis Jones, Maxus’ North American CEO, says the goal was to “look at the business from a more holistic standpoint” and put an end to in-fighting over online versus offline media spending.

“We socialized the idea that we’re all just planners and started to think about how to band together to give the client the best possible solution,” the exec says. “It’s not a question of who gets the most budget—it’s about the right orchestration. We’re thinking critically about what role each piece of media plays in the total objective.”

Taking advantage of the operations of its behemoth parent, Group M, Maxus has honed its bundling skills, combining services including social media, search, promotion and mobile to manage all of a client’s needs under one roof.

With Jones being “famously and deeply” involved in client business, Clark says, the agency produced a number of standout campaigns of late that, despite being outspent by competitors, broke through.

For one, longtime client Church & Dwight, parent of the Arm & Hammer brand, wanted to continue evolving its media buy along with the rapidly changing media landscape.

“Ten years ago, you’d see a lot of Church & Dwight ads in the middle of the night when we were buying as efficiently as we could,” says Bruce F. Fleming, the company’s evp and chief marketing officer. “We want to be a lot more targeted and thoughtful these days.”

Dwarfed by larger packaged-goods rivals, most notably Procter & Gamble, Church & Dwight can’t afford to “take a lot of experimental swings,” Fleming points out.

Nevertheless, a number of programs from Maxus were real standouts, including a branded series of Webisodes dubbed A Conception Story for First Response pregnancy tests, in partnership with cable network TLC, and a campaign encompassing social media and a sweepstakes in support of Trojan’s Fire & Ice line of condoms, which would become the most successful product launch in the brand’s 90-year history.

In a campaign for the new Arm & Hammer-brand toothbrush, My Way Spinbrush, the agency reached its target of girls aged 6-12 through games, Web sponsorships, print and online ads, enabling users to decorate their own toothbrushes. The campaign was based on research that said girls are most engaged with a product when they can customize it and are most engaged with media when they are allowed to express themselves.

After its debut last spring, My Way became the top seller among children’s electric toothbrushes, the only nonentertainment-licensed product to ever hold that spot. In doing so, it unseated its two closest competitors, Colgate’s SpongeBob and Dora the Explorer products. My Way has since spawned two brand extensions.

“This is a case where the Maxus process really shines,” says Dan Bracken, Church & Dwight’s director of marketing services. “They took the insight, put all the partners around the table and came up with a delivery vehicle that, on a limited budget, garnered the most attention and drove the most successful results.”

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@TLStanleyLA T.L. Stanley is a senior editor at Adweek, where she specializes in consumer trends, cannabis marketing, meat alternatives, pop culture, challenger brands and creativity.