Q&A: New CEO Brian Lesser on GroupM's digital reinvention

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Brian Lesser.
Brian Lesser.

"I wouldn't be taking the job if I didn't have plans to do it better," says former Xaxis CEO

Brian Lesser was just a kid the first time he laid eyes on Ogilvy & Mather’s office at 1 Worldwide Plaza. It was the 1980s, and his dad was running one of the top agency brands in New York.

"They had this red, thick carpet two inches thick and paneling on the walls, and I thought, ‘Man, this seems like the coolest job in the world,’" he recalled.

Today, Lesser starts his own pretty cool advertising job. He has just been named CEO of GroupM North America, placing him atop the largest media-buying company in the world. The appointment caps off a whirlwind week in which now-former CEO Kelly Clark unexpectedly announced he was stepping into an advisory role — part of a "six-month process" that may or may not end with the naming of a new CEO, he said.

But timing is only the second most surprising thing about the hire. Lesser was formerly CEO of Xaxis, GroupM’s digital-buying platform, meaning a dyed-in-the-wool programmatic guy is overseeing the largest media market in the world for WPP Group’s $106 billion media-buying empire.

Lesser spoke exclusively to Campaign US about the future he envisions.

For old-school media buyers, it may feel a bit like AOL just bought Time Warner. Have the barbarians officially stormed the gates?
We know that media is getting more complicated. There is a proliferation of channels and devices and it’s more difficult for advertisers to have a conversation with their consumers. The only way to solve for that over time will be more reliance on data and technology, and that’s my expertise. In the past I’ve applied that to display advertising, video advertising, social, mobile, but it’s also relevant to TV, radio, print and other traditional media. And that’s why this makes so much sense.

Have you ever run a large-scale media account across mediums for a major brand, and been held accountable for that brand’s performance? If not, why doesn't that matter?
I started in the agency world. I worked for a company called DMB&B when I graduated. I was an account manager, and my client was Procter & Gamble. Those were the days when things were a little less complicated, but I don’t think the principles have changed much. I think the techniques by which advertisers engage their consumers and the channels through which they have these ongoing conversations have changed. And I think you could argue that a digital native and a programmatic specialist is in as good a position — or even a better position — to manage that media evolution over time.

GroupM’s purpose is to support its network agencies. Is it doing a good enough job of that now? How will you do it better?
Yes and yes. But I wouldn’t be taking the job if I didn’t have plans to do it better. I have the pleasure of taking over for Kelly Clark, who has made an incredible amount of progress in the three years he’s been in the job. GroupM is good at providing the platform to the agencies, but of course we can get better.

For me, it’s all about a platform that makes the process of planning, buying and measuring performance as efficient as possible. The role of the machine should be to make the agencies more efficient so that they can focus on the brilliant ideas that our clients expect from them.

How confident are you that GroupM will emerge unscathed from the ANA rebate investigation?
I’m sure some will try to use this appointment to further this notion that GroupM or other agencies are not transparent, but the fact is that this appointment has nothing to do with business models or transparency. It’s about using data and technology to reinvent the process by which we engage audiences. In my experience, advertisers are smart enough to draw their own conclusions rather than perpetuate the hysteria on this particular topic.

How much is the ad fraud issue hurting the appeal of digital media? Do you bring any ideas on how to deal with it?
Ad fraud is certainly hurting the appeal of digital media. But digital media is still evolving. We have a responsibility to improve it, and improve not only the metrics we use to plan and buy, but the metrics we use to measure effectiveness. That’s part of the problem that GroupM has been ahead of, and I think we’ve been very innovative in terms of our standards for both fraud and viewability. We’re well ahead of the market on those standards. And of course in my role managing Xaxis, we’ve also had the highest standards, which have been consistent with GroupM.

Kelly came in as CEO of an operating company, whereas you come in as CEO of a media and tech company. Should we expect the role of GroupM relative to the operating companies to change?
Only in the sense that everything changes in the media industry. It’s a very dynamic industry, and of course the tools that we invented to make this process efficient five or 10 years ago are not going to be as relevant in the next five or 10 years. The role of GroupM doesn’t change. But that platform absolutely has to change. We can’t stand pat on technologies or techniques or processes that we’ve built in the past.

Can you see a day when GroupM agencies buy all their media digitally?
Yes, absolutely. The day is coming where all media will be digital, and all digital media will be bought and sold using data and technology. That’s not going to happen overnight, but yes that will happen over time.

Why should clients increase their media budget at a time when targeting has gotten so good and consumers are so eager to share good content on their own? Wouldn’t that money be better spent on creative?
I don’t think it’s necessarily about growing a media budget, it’s about spending it efficiently. Yes, we’ve made tremendous strides over the last 10 years in terms of how we use data to properly target advertising and make that moment of interaction more engaging. But clearly we’ve got more work to do. We would never encourage an advertiser to simply increase their media budget without proper metrics or purpose.

And I would say that on the creative front, we have more work to do in terms of applying data ad technology to make advertisers more welcome to consumers. If you look at something like ad blocking, it’s become an issue because consumers don’t feel in some cases that advertising is welcome. And so when we talk to advertisers about budgets, it’s more about what are they trying to achieve and what are the KPIs rather than just blindly increasing spend over time.

You said when you went to work in ad agencies with your father as a kid you thought it was the coolest job in the world. Do you still feel that way?
Absolutely. I’m very lucky to be in this industry and work in this job. The agency of today is much different than in the past, and our industry will go through as much change as any in terms of advancements in data and technology. I think that’s exciting, and when we recruit people into Xaxis, we say, "You’re going to have a very long and interesting career in the media and advertising industry, because of the seismic shifts and changes that are occurring." So I can’t think of any other place I’d rather be.


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