Media: All about ... Mediabrands

What are Matt Seiler's plans for the IPG media unit, Alasdair Reid asks.

Matt Seiler continues to build a tidy career for himself. Who knows - in three or four years' time, if he continues to follow his mentor Nick Brien up the greasy corporate pole, he might be the chief executive of McCann Worldgroup, reporting to Brien in his possible future role as the Interpublic chairman and chief executive.

Stranger things have happened. And, after all, Michael Roth has to retire at some point. If such a scenario does transpire, Seiler will probably look back on 2011 as a year fraught with as many potential pitfalls as likely rewards. Because, last week, he was named the global chief executive of Mediabrands, the holding company housing IPG's media units.

It's technically a step up, and indeed it served wonderfully as a stepping stone for Brien when he made the same move back in 2008; in reality, however, you suspect that in this instance, at this point in the group's evolution, it's a slightly more ambiguous staging post.

And, yes, it's true that on this side of the Atlantic we have a lower opinion of the group (and the potential merits of its media agency networks) than generally pertains in the States. For instance, a US trade title recently made Mediabrands its Media Agency Holding Company of the Year for 2010.

This gong was awarded partly on the basis that Mediabrands was pretty much invisible. The judges could perhaps have added (but didn't) that it moves in mysterious ways, its wonders to perform.

And that, arguably, is the crux of the matter. Mediabrands is less well known (and less well-defined) than the rival offerings of its major competitors: WPP's Group M, Omnicom's Omnicom Media Group and Vivaki at Publicis. It's more of an inward-looking management structure - and the wider market tends to have only the vaguest notion of what it purports to deliver for clients. Equally tellingly, within the IPG family as a whole, there's little consensus on the ways in which Mediabrands should evolve.

But of course the opportunity Seiler faces can be outlined in exactly the same terms.

1. Mediabrands was devised by Brien, the then global chief executive of Universal McCann, in July 2008. Brien stepped up to fill the role he had created and was succeeded at UM by Seiler, who was recruited from PHD North America. Mediabrands was devised primarily to improve the operational efficiency of (and ensure increased collaboration between) the group's media assets - largely its two full-service global media agency networks, Initiative and Universal McCann, but also its group negotiation arm, Magna, and various lesser-known assets that have been tidied up into an entity called Mediabrands Ventures.

2. But its status came under scrutiny in January 2010 when Brien was named as successor to John Dooner as the chief executive of McCann Worldgroup. As Brien took up his new job, the top Mediabrands role remained vacant, its function being overseen by a committee comprising Seiler plus Richard Beaven, the chief executive of Initiative; Tara Comonte, the chief operating officer of Mediabrands; and Matt Freeman, the then recently appointed worldwide chief executive of Mediabrands Ventures.

3. To some observers, Magna Global has also remained something of an enigma. It has a global secretariat headed by its president, Elizabeth Herbst-Brady; but at the level of individual markets, its functionality is overseen on a part-time basis by senior executives from UM or Initiative. In the UK, for instance, it is headed by the UM managing partner, Richard Oliver. Rival agency groups had expected that it would have evolved a higher profile and a more formal structure.

4. Mediabrands Ventures houses Reprise Media (search and social media), Orion, Shopper Sciences, Velociter and IPG Lab. It is headed up globally by Matt Freeman; in the EMEA region its president is Anand Verma; and in August 2010, Gary Birtles moved from his role as the UK chief executive at Initiative to become the chief operating offer of Mediabrands Ventures EMEA. The division's function is to ensure that clients of either UM or Initiative can plug into specialist services, as and when appropriate.

5. Seiler will be succeeded as the global chief executive of UM by Jacki Kelley, who will step up from her position as the chief executive of UM North America.

WHAT IT MEANS FOR ...

INITIATIVE AND UNIVERSAL MCCANN

- An intense period of internal debate is the short answer. Seiler appears to have been given carte blanche and has indicated that he will consult with senior network managers during the next few weeks. Already, however, there are indications that he may seek to implement radical structural changes.

- There is also speculation that he will seek to rebrand Mediabrands Ventures and attempt to give it a higher profile; and he will be urged by network bosses in some markets to give Magna an enhanced status.

ADVERTISERS

- If he gets it right, Seiler can do much to make prospective clients sit up and take notice of the Mediabrands agencies. In some markets (particularly in the EMEA region), they've been in negative equity, in branding and perception terms, for too long. It would be a good moment, for instance, to announce an audacious investment strategy in the more fashionable and leading-edge aspects of what used to be called digital.

MEDIA OWNERS

- Not a lot. While Magna continues to exist as a virtual entity in individual national markets, it's hard to imagine how it will evolve in any truly dynamic fashion. And in any case (in the UK at least), Magna's leverage is always going to appear slight in comparison with the likes of WPP's Group M.

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