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    James Dixon on Atomic 212°’s ‘big, hairy, audacious goal’: Crack top 5, ‘take on the big brands and win’

    Atomic 212° has big ambitions: To crack the top 10 media agencies for billings this year, then the top five in the next three years. To keep retaining clients in a tough pitch market, dominated by “frustrating” procurement-led reviews. And to keep senior talent with long tenures, even as competitors attempt to poach them.

    The independent agency‘s chief digital officer James Dixon has been with the agency for over 17 years. He joined in 2007, back when it was still Atomic Search. The core leadership team has similarly long tenures: among them chair Barry O’Brien‘s 10 years, CEO Claire Fenner‘s 10 years, and MD Rory Heffernan‘s 13 years.

    Dixon hired Heffernan as a “wildcard”. He was working at Blockbuster, and has since progressed from SEO analyst to national managing director, “so I kind of use him as a reference to say everyone can achieve their best career here,” Dixon says.

    Asked how Atomic has kept hold of so many key leaders for so long, Dixon tells Mediaweek the core group really feels like “family”.

    I think they belong – the senior team. We’ve had some come in and found it hard to adjust to the Atomic culture. There is a bit of a tribe that feels solid, with a kind of unspoken mission just to take on the big brands and win. That momentum gives a lot of those long termers no rationale to leave.

    I know that our senior staff do get headhunted and poached. Try to. But they genuinely reflect on the environment here and feel that it’s where they want to be. Had a couple of recent ones. And luckily, we talked them out of it. Their opportunities are obviously to go down the agency size ranks, which doesn’t appeal to most of our high performers, or go up, but then they’re put off by that global reality that they’ve either come from or hear about … the multinationals which don’t offer necessarily the same appeal, culture, values.”

    Last month, the group went to Tasmania, hiking with AFL player Jack Riewoldt for three days. “It was a team bonding slash thank you slash legacy thing. How we’re gonna leave our legacies here.”

    There is an opportunity to leave a worthwhile legacy at Atomic 212°, because it offers the best of both worlds, Dixon explains: all of the autonomy and agility of an independent, but with the scale to attract top talent and blue chip clients.

    That client roster has remained stable too; Dixon references Origin, Bupa, and LendLease’s tenures of five plus years each. The product, too, has remained the same.

    The tagline ‘Smarter, faster, accountable media’ has “always been in our roots, because we came through the performance background,” Dixon explains, “and that’s really come solidly into our doctrine and product proposal now. So I’m happy we nailed that years ago, and we don’t have to evolve it for the current market.”

    The agency currently has offices in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Darwin, and New Zealand. Are there plans to continue expanding into other markets, or is the focus on scaling the existing outposts?

    “The latter,” Dixon confirms. “Focusing on scaling Australia. We don’t have international ambition, other than New Zealand. I have noticed some of the other indies going that way, particularly Nunn in America and Akcelo … in Canada, so I’m always curious and envious of people that give it a go. But our missions are more Australia centric. We love this country. No immediate intention with other states.”

    Ambitions: Crack the top 10, then the top 5

    In the past few years, Atomic has “firmly actualised as the largest indie,” Dixon says.

    “I think that was a big, hairy, audacious goal five years ago. And now it feels like we’re firmly there, if not heading to the next big, hairy audacious goal, being top five. We’ve got billings of $300 million now. Top five is $500 million. So potentially we can get there in the next three years.”

    Last year, the agency was #11 in the country for billings, according to Comvergence, and brought in $43 million in new business billings, including Entain, My Muscle Chef, Victoria University, and Craveable Brands. Dixon is confident that this year, “we’ll do better.”

    “I’m feeling momentum. We’ve had 20% annual growth for 10 years, so we’ve never really deviated far from that.”

    The agency is currently busy on the pitch front – the days of specific pitchapaloozas might be over, because “it just feels like it’s pretty constant nowadays” – including the coveted federal government’s master media account, currently with UM: “we put our hat in the ring on that one.”

    “We’re not active with any retention, it’s all new business.”

    Pitching as the ‘wildcard indie’

    Dixon explains that Atomic 212° is still shortlisted as the “wildcard indie” in pitches, “and then we seem to do quite well in that proposition.” Clients resonate with the culture, he believes, but there’s always some for whom it isn’t the right fit.

    I reflect on a couple of losses. NBN a couple years ago, and they wanted a corporate, process-driven, multinational, in my view, and they landed with one [the account went to Publicis’ Spark Foundry]. But where there’s a big brand that wants agile, passion, and commitment, I think that’s what we show. I don’t know what the multinationals show. I just have to guess that we’re somewhat different.

    Currently, there aren’t any category gaps the leadership team is eyeing off. “If you’d asked me a couple of years ago, I would have loved a big tech like a Canva or Salesforce. We were lucky enough to get Salesforce a couple of years ago and we’ve got some lovely large e-commerce clients. Pet Circle is a favourite of mine because they’re growing fast.”

    ‘It is frustrating that procurement feel the need’: Pitching as the incumbent

    Amidst the new business wins, Atomic has also been on a retention spree –  BMW – which led to the agency’s New Zealand expansion – plus the Northern Territory government and Tourism Northern Territory accounts. Earlier this year, it won back Northern Territory Major Events Company too, after losing the account in 2019.

    It’s also added VetPartners, Adyen, and UKG to its roster in 2024. Dixon says the crew is “super pitch fit”, but “it’s a different emotion for sure” when you’re pitching to retain an account.

    You’ve done all this great work, you’ve had a great relationship, procurement have insisted, and marketing teams have to go, ‘guys, we’re sorry to have to do this, but it’s the three year process.’ And then we know we’re vulnerable. So we have to put our best foot forward.

    “We’re lucky that always our client relationships are good and strong, and the proof points are there, but we know that the pitch will be competitive, the multinationals will go hard on price. And we’ve got some very enviable brands. So yeah, we don’t take it as a gimme, we have to go all in and reprove ourselves.

    “I wish we wouldn’t have to do it. TrinityP3 do a good job of trying to break that cycle of things. It is frustrating that procurement feel the need to do it when it’s a good relationship. But they have to show that they have gone to market.”

    AI as Dixon’s ‘happy place’

    Dixon is having a great time doing “quite a lot of dabbling” in the AI space, especially media mix modelling. 

    “I am quite innovative, entrepreneurial, I want to jump onto it and leverage it for clients’ gain, for our agency’s gain.”

    At an upcoming AI conference, he’s presenting a CMO chatbot, which allows marketers to ask how a campaign is performing this week, among other features. He wonders whether indies can keep up with the huge investment global holding companies are making in the tech, but he also doesn’t have to navigate the stricter, perhaps more conservative, holding company policies.

    “There’s lots possible but it feels like businesses and even Atomic can’t change as quickly as the technology is evolving. Eventually, it’ll find its way into our workflows, maybe streamline things, particularly reporting and improve our reporting product. I believe it will, it will give our reporting more insights, more depth, more actionable insights for our clients.

    “I’ve probably gone through my peak of expectation, I’m just getting into my trough of reality as to where it will land.”

    The post James Dixon on Atomic 212°’s ‘big, hairy, audacious goal’: Crack top 5, ‘take on the big brands and win’ appeared first on Mediaweek.

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