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    Baxter, Ferrier, and Wilson on Naked, 20 years on: ‘I wouldn’t sell to a basket case holding company’

    Twenty years ago, the pioneering, rule-breaking, kind of mad, definitely controversial Naked Communications launched with founding members Mat Baxter, Adam Ferrier, and Mike Wilson.

    If Ferrier had his time over, “I wouldn’t sell to a basket case holding company,” he tells Mediaweek. “Working out who you’re going to sell the business to is a really fundamental issue.”

    At last night’s reunion, Wilson read from the journal he kept of the heady, crazy first few months. His former boss gifted him the notebook as a parting gift when he left to set up the shop.

    “Adam and Mat were increasingly at loggerheads and we will have to resolve this or the whole thing will never work,” one 2004 entry read.

    “We’ve been getting a bit too much PR recently, and we’ve learned that a bit too much PR isn’t a good thing,” read another.

    ‘A lawyer came in and she had to sit on a cardboard box’

    Baxter has just been named APAC CEO of marketing investment analytics company Mutinex. Ferrier is the co-founder of hot shop Thinkerbell. Wilson is chair of media agency Hatched after eight years leading Havas.

    The latter tells Mediaweek that while that trio, at that moment in time, worked, he can’t necessarily articulate Naked’s success: “sometimes when things work, there’s an intangible magic that isn’t easily explained.

    “It’s the same in relationships, or in culture, or in any creative endeavour. When sometimes the timing and the people and the ideas are just right for the time. I think that’s what Naked did. We had the right thinking at the right time, with the right people.”

    Baxter, Ferrier, and Wilson on Naked, 20 years on: ‘I wouldn’t sell to a basket case holding company’

    Mike Wilson at the Naked Reunion, reading from the journal

    Naked launched in the UK in 2000, and in Australia four years later. In 2015, Enero Group (then known as Photon Group) – the “basket case holding company” to which Ferrier refers – acquired it.

    During its heyday, Naked pioneered earned media strategy, quickly establishing itself as a truly disruptive force in the local market delivering impactful work for clients including Coca-Cola, Who Gives a Crap, FBI Radio, and the Transport Accident Commission.

     

    Ferrier recalls pitching on Coke when Naked was just three months old. “We had a chart and the chart read, ‘What the fuck do you know about cool?’. I remember thinking that’s nice and brave… I remember thinking that was kind of fun.

    “I remember their very first business meeting we had, a lawyer came in and she had to sit on a cardboard box because we had no furniture. I remember riding my bike around the office when we took the lease out because we had no people in it.”

    There was bike-riding and there was controversy. In 2007, Diageo fired Naked due to comments Baxter made about targeting binge drinkers. In 2013, the Labor Party fired Naked for soliciting free advertising and tailored articles from media outlets in exchange for an interview with Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

    Yet, 20 years on, Naked is still revered, as evidenced by the alumni and admirers in attendance, including: Pauly Grant, chief talent officer APAC & ANZ at Publicis; Imogen Hewitt, chief media officer at Publicis Groupe and ANZ CEO at Spark Foundry; Ian Perrin, MD at Speed; Mark Lollback founder at Global Mentorship; Fiona Johnston, chief client officer ANZ at dentsu; Henry Innis global CEO at Mutinex and Baxter’s new boss; co-founder and chief executive of Multinex; Carl Ratcliff, founder of This is the Day; and Paul Swann, Thinkerbell ECD.

    “My biggest personal learning surprisingly came from Adam and is still the most important advice I have ever been given,” Perrin, former MD of Naked, tells Mediaweek.

    “He told me that we are all far closer to insanity than we will ever let on. Knowing that everyone is as close to the edge as me was incredibly comforting. My favourite professional learning was helping to build a communications approach based on behaviour change.

    “My best memory was when we fired one of Australia’s largest advertisers. It was as liberating as all hell.

    “Adland should learn from Naked that sometimes bullshit and bluster may win awards, but they aren’t a great business model.”

    Zoe Scaman, the UK-based founder of strategy studio Bodacious, reminisced on “the chaos, the creativity, the debauchery, the brilliance,” in the lead up to the reunion.

    “When I left, they presented me with a calendar in which they’d all posed sans-clothing with perfectly placed props in different rooms around the office, with the line ‘with you we were Naked, without you we’re just nude’. Legendary… And don’t get me started on the parties. I tried to find a few photos to share, but every single one was NSFW!”

    ‘Incredible belief and drive can achieve just about anything.’

    “Part of the reason I’ve done what I’ve done with Mutinex this week is to try respark some of that disruption in my own career again, here in Australia and be part of another conversation about moving the industry forward, because I think Naked was really ahead of its time,” Baxter says.

    “It was one of those rare brands in the industry that did really reframe, for all of us, what marketing can do.” 

    He uses the Coca Cola win as an example: “To take the brand – one of the world’s biggest and most iconic brands – and just completely challenge the conventions of how they’ve marketed that brand through media historically.

    “For me, I think that’s still got to be the single most memorable moment, because it really was when Naked was properly born as a true, credible, authentic business with a serious global client.”

    Wilson reckons Naked taught him that “incredible belief and drive can achieve just about anything.

    “The model was interesting, challenging some of the pre-existing models. [But] what really made it hum was that you had people who were so passionate in their ideas, and so driven to make those ideas happen. So we could do things that hadn’t been done before.”

    “Just look at the founders, you’ve got Adam and Mat. Not only were they very clever people, but they would work so hard to get an idea to come to life; they had that drive.

    “I think there’s lots of smart people in the industry, and loads of people have great ideas. But there’s only a certain proportion of them who are prepared to stop at nothing to make sure their ideas see the light of day. Adam and Mat both had that drive.”

    Naked were ‘flag bearers’

    Wilson believes that since Naked, ad agencies have learnt “very quickly,” and “some of the elements that Naked brought to the fore were quickly adopted.”

    “Whether it’s in creative businesses, who think about idea amplification in a broader set of channels than perhaps they used to when everything was so ad centric. Lots of businesses are now much more ideas centric, which is as it should be, and I think in media agencies, that whole category has changed. 

    “It’s not entirely down to Naked, but Naked were one of the flag bearers for strategic thinking and the value of media thinking beyond traditional media planning and buying.”

    Ferrier adds “the rise of Accenture Song and how they’re solving problems across the entire business ecosystem – from EX to CX, and then to prospective customers as well” is “an interesting wake up call for everyone.”

    “Even Mat going to Multinex … they’re two interesting proof points that clients really are interested in partners who help them solve the problem first, and then work out what the execution of that might look like second. I reckon that’s got interesting repercussions for agencies and consultancies.”

    Too many agencies still focus on buying media or making ads, he says.

    “They’re thinking about getting those things out into the world. They’re not thinking about the actual problem the client has.”

    Baxter agrees. He recently took issue with US media agency execs promoting TikTok, claiming it creates and perpetuates bias. 

    “Back in the time that we started, it was through having independence of thought and objectivity free of vested interests,” he says of Naked, “No longer being a mouthpiece for certain channels or media owners. Not defaulting always to TV as the first port of call to solve a major client challenge. We created that objectivity and that creativity of thought, through just the brains in people’s heads, because we didn’t have a lot of the tools and capabilities that we have 20 years on.”

    Now that we are 20 years on, Baxter wants “modern day Nakeds popping up much more frequently than they are.”

    “There needs to be more companies out there giving it a go. One of the things I do love about Australia, I do think it has a really brave spirit [which] is something that I’ve noticed since coming back from America [where he led Huge and Initiative].

    “I think we could use that to our advantage. As a culture we’re straight talking, we get down to business. I think we could use that to strengthen our power and our leverage in the world market in the industry even more.”

    But in this effort towards progress, Baxter calls out an industry irony of agencies advocating for change to clients while resisting it internally.

    “For all the talk our industry has about advising clients to be disruptive, be innovative… the internal culture within those very agencies are actually the most resistant to disruption and change.”

    He calls for “a bit more of a rebellious spirit and a bit more willing to rip up the rulebook and rewrite the rules, as opposed to just adjusting them in small and slightly tricky ways.

    “That spirit of being more risk-taking, more adventurous, braver, bolder, more rebellious; those are good things for any industry to embrace when things around us are changing at the rate at which they’ve changed.

    “With the arrival of AI, and the arrival of all these shifts in consumer behaviour, we continue to see the evolution of the channel ecosystem, the evolution of how marketing is held to account within its own business, and the expectations from both boards, CFOs, and shareholders about marketing’s contribution to growth.

    “I think we need to have a wholesale rethink about how we design and architect for that future. Sometimes just completely throwing the rulebook out, and starting from a blank sheet of paper is often a good method to get there, and I don’t think we do enough of that.”

    ‘I don’t think if it had been entirely up to Adam and I, we would have sold’

    Ferrier would “make sure there’s a little bit more professionalism” and “discipline and processes under the chaos” if he was building Naked today.

    “What I’ve learned at Thinkerbell is that having the systems and processes and professional underpinning to an agency is really important, and can help an agency grow and create really good work.”

    Wilson says “what I would do is connect more with an executional capability in all aspects of the business because it would give us a stronger commercial foothold.” He also wonders how different things might have been if they never sold.

    “It was absolutely fair that the original founders in the UK were able to realise some value from investment.

    “They’d been doing it longer than we had at Naked because they launched in 2000. However, Australia was still very much on the up, and I don’t think if it had been entirely up to Adam and I, we would have sold. Photon was certainly an interesting group.”

    Wilson sums up the force and flaws of Naked: “Naked was a great idea. It wasn’t always a great business.”

    Top image: Mat Baxter, Adam Ferrier & Mike Wilson

    The post Baxter, Ferrier, and Wilson on Naked, 20 years on: ‘I wouldn’t sell to a basket case holding company’ appeared first on Mediaweek.

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