Media Headliner: A digital visionary with plans for a Vibrant future

Sean Finnegan tells Anne Cassidy why he swapped US behemoth Omnicom for the small British start-up Vibrant Media.

As one of the most recognised individuals in the digital media space and hailed in the US as a visionary, Sean Finnegan had received his fair share of press attention throughout his career.

But by ditching his position overseeing Omnicom's £2 billion global digital operation for a role with a small British start-up few outside the industry had even heard of, he managed to make more headlines than at any other point in his professional life.

Finnegan's departure as the chief executive of Omnicom's digital buying operation, OMG Digital, in January this year was described by one rival chief executive as a "tough loss" for Omnicom, where he had a distinguished seven-year tenure.

He was the first digital head at OMD, elevated to US director of digital in July 2007, overseeing all digital media for the Omnicom media assets, including OMD and PHD. Dubbed the "face of digital" at Omnicom, he led its global management team in developing services in digital investment.

Omnicom losing its digital "face" was, needless to say, a major coup for Vibrant Media, the in-text video advertising company Finnegan joined as its chief media officer. Although a leader in its field, the start-up had everything to gain from his appointment.

Finnegan is quick to put to rest speculation that the split with Omnicom was anything other than amicable, stressing his departure was "on very positive terms". Indeed, his colleagues and clients at OMG Digital can't compliment him enough; he's described as a people person with a tireless work ethic, "a big heart and a small ego".

"It was a heart-wrenching decision and bittersweet," Finnegan says. "I had been placed at the top spot. I set up a global structure and helped with acquiring a digital company and organising and developing digital functions. But inherent to digital is change. One of the things I needed to do after seven years was to re-enter the marketplace and an entrepreneurial environment."

And Finnegan is just as positive about the future for the operation he leaves behind at Omnicom as he is about the outlook for Vibrant. He believes OMG Digital is in safe hands. "We set up a strong market base and the units are doing so well that one person leaving will be made up by the rest of the personnel and services in place. Omnicom is doing great," he says.

After considering a number of digital start-ups, Finnegan found just the entrepreneurial spirit, and product, he was looking for in Vibrant. The company was founded in 2000 by Craig Gooding and Doug Stevenson, both British and formerly at AOL. They wanted to provide an alternative to running ads online that interrupt the loading of a web page (pre-rolls), which they felt served more to annoy users than to ingratiate them to the brands they advertised. They developed a new product that they claimed would offer non-intrusive online video ads.

Vibrant essentially provides a video player that swings into operation when users click highlighted words. For example, in an online news article about the fashion designer Stella McCartney's collaboration with Adidas, the words "urban life" are highlighted in green and underlined. By the user moving the mouse over these words, a video showing an Adidas campaign to promote its latest shoe collection pops up. If the user wants to see more, they can click but if they don't, and the mouse strays off the highlighted word, the video clip disappears.

The technique is known as user-initiated advertising, and it is where the search dollars are going, according to Finnegan.

"I did immediately understand, agree with and appreciate the product. The product is helpful, relevant, functional and provides deeper user experience," he says.

Finnegan regards Vibrant as having the same potential to achieve scale that paid-for search companies have had. And he's not alone. The company has also managed to lure AOL's regional vice- president of sales, John Sedlack, to lead its sales operations.

However, despite operating for eight years now and seeing rapid expansion in that time, Vibrant has kept a low profile. The company secured a patent four months ago protecting its technology and so it has only now started to advertise itself. Vibrant works with 3,500 publishers worldwide and has signed big-name brands such as Nike, Sony, Intel and Microsoft. There are also plans for a Nasdaq listing next year and more high-profile hirings are on the way.

Finnegan believes that while Vibrant is by no means on the same size or scale as Omnicom, his remit is similar: "When I started at Omnicom I was in a similar position to the one I'm in at Vibrant in the sense of the quality of people and the promise of the product."

He intends to take Vibrant to the next level in his role leading the company in product innovation, business development and marketing, and is looking to the next generation of product: moving on from text links to video through to providing click-through to video ads from standard video content.

It is testament to his energy levels that Finnegan manages not only to keep on top in the digital world, but is a devoted father to six. He says the secret to maintaining this is that he enjoys what he does, and needs to keep his children fed: "For some reason, they like to eat everyday."

THE LOWDOWN
Age: 36
Lives: Connecticut
Family: Wife Melody and six children (Hunter: 11, Claire: nine, Morgan:
seven, Logan: five, Declan: three, Cuyler: one)
Most treasured possession: My BlackBerry
Favourite websites: Facebook, The Onion, DrudgeReport
Favourite ad: Budweiser's "real men of genius" spots
Motto: It's a short life and a long career. Enjoy it

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