Matt Seiler Is Out to Remake and Automate the Media Agency World

Mediabrands CEO has a penchant for reinvention

Facebook global sales chief Carolyn Everson knew to brace herself for some hair-raising skiing in the Utah mountains with Matt Seiler, a weekend guest of hers at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. When the two skied together previously, the Mediabrands CEO always sought out the toughest trails—whether Everson was ready for them or not.

“I don’t think I can do it, but he pushes me to try and the next thing you know I’m down the hill,” she laughs. “Matt just doesn’t like to do things the easy way or the same way. And he challenges himself and his agency teams the same way to move as fast and as differently as they possibly can for the betterment of the business.”

It’s the perfect analogy. Seiler gets colleagues to tackle the dizzying heights of a new challenge head-on as he pushes them to exceed their own expectations. Take programmatic buying: Interpublic Group’s Mediabrands is arguably the most aggressive among industry players in pushing for automation. In 2012, Seiler set a goal for executives at Mediabrands’ agencies (UM, Initiative and BPN) to automate all U.S. media buying—not just digital—to 50 percent in two years. (After they “freaked” out, he compromised and gave them three years to meet that goal.)

So far so good. In year one they exceeded their mandate, which was heavily digital; now into year two, video will be introduced along with other media. By year three, the agencies will be well into TV. (By 2017, G14 regions—those outside North America that are considered most important to marketers—need to hit that 50 percent benchmark.)

To do that, sibling unit Magna Global was restructured to become Mediabrands’ central buying hub, with technology, analytics and data capture brought together in one place. A consortium of media owners was created, including A+E Networks, AOL, Cablevision, Clear Channel Media and Entertainment, ESPN and Tribune, to sell more traditional inventory through automation.

“With Magna, we wanted to automate whatever we possibly could in the buying process not just because the industry desperately needed to have it done but also because the move toward automation allows for much more investment on higher-touch, higher- value engagement with media owners,” explains Seiler, whose intense gaze underscores his restless, inquisitive nature. “It’s what we call the custom and sponsorship side of things—more of working in concert with the media owner to create a very valuable experience—so it’s not just about buying an adjacency.”

Clear Channel CEO Bob Pittman likes that ability to free up customized plans. “Matt has done some of the best thinking about technology and how we can use it to better serve Magna and its clients,” he says.

“Matt’s not a media dork or specialist,” says Jay Sears, svp, marketing development at Rubicon Project, Mediabrands’ advertising automation partner. “Because of that, he brings Mediabrands buying to the cool kids table. Automation brings efficiencies to the salt mines. As an account guy, Matt is still client-focused and can explain automation to clients in the plain English they understand.”

For better perspective on the kind of innovation Seiler has introduced in his three years atop Mediabrands it helps to know why the former strategist and account man moved into media 10 years ago and why Mediabrands’ pay-for-performance model is fundamental to everything that happens there. In previous jobs, Seiler saw clients seeking an entity to take total responsibility of their business. That was challenging for holding companies because of conflicts, and because it undermined their purpose; operating units invariably undertook tasks with the bias of their particular disciplines. Media agencies, on the other hand, could be an extension of clients’ marketing departments.

“Media seemed like the perfect altitude at which to manage a client’s business mostly because that was where the concentration of their spend was,” Seiler reasons. “I thought the best way to prove that commitment to extending [a] client’s marketing department was to get paid exactly as they do. With things like automation, pay-for-performance leads it.”

Photo: Christopher Gabello 

Still, necessity plays a role in Seiler’s motivation. “Mediabrands can’t lead with scale so innovation attracts clients looking for that,” says one agency veteran. “But they’re challenged to win business when a decision maker believes size drives pricing. That’s not where Mediabrands wins.”

Seiler wants to be the technology-driven Nasdaq to the industry’s more traditional NYSE floor traders. Driving automation efficiencies into the process doesn’t concern him. Agency competitors are either paid on commission, where they have to spend as much money as possible, or in man hours where they need to keep as many people on a client’s business as they can. “But if you’re paid for performance, all you care about is, ‘How’s the client doing?’” Seiler notes. “Are they achieving their business objectives? If we can do that with fewer buying bodies and then reinvest on custom and sponsorship where we know things are much stickier, the better.”

Today, half of Mediabrands agencies are on pay-for-performance contracts, which tie agency creative teams’ financial incentives to clients’ business results.

Case in point: Initiative Germany’s efforts to reelect Europe’s most powerful politician last fall. Chancellor Angela Merkel was projecting a 23 percentage point win. Achieving that meant Initiative would get paid according to a regular contract; if she didn’t get reelected, the agency wouldn’t receive a single Euro. A return beyond 23 percent meant Initiative would share in the surplus. The result surpassed even Merkel’s own polls. Her Christian Democrats and allies, the Christian Social Union in Bavaria, pulled in 41.5 percent of the popular vote. Initiative realized an additional 17 percent in revenue beyond what was negotiated upfront.

“We weren’t behaving like a media agency. We were a crusader on Angela’s behalf, which meant we came up with so many innovations outside normal expectations,” says Seiler. “People do what they’re paid to do. If you pay them to build clients’ business, that’s what they’ll do. If you pay them to come up with a media plan, that’s also what they’ll do.”

Seiler adds the reason for much of that innovation reflex is the diversity of the people around him, execs who, like him, don’t possess traditional media agency DNA. The global chiefs of Mediabrands’ three networks all have strategy in their backgrounds: Daryl Lee at UM had been a McKinsey consultant; Jim Elms at Initiative was a media supervisor who worked with Seiler when the two were at Goodby, Silverstein & Partners; and Mauricio Sabogal at BPN spent time at Nielsen. Jacki Kelley, Mediabrands’ North American president, global clients, had worked for media owners like Yahoo, USA Today and Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, and Jim Hytner, CEO and president, global clients for Mediabrands G14 markets, was a client at Barclays and Coca-Cola.

Last year Seiler restructured those top management ranks to upend silos, reorganizing away from P&L and putting a focus on strategy. Agency heads were put in charge of strategies and products while Mediabrands assumed management of P&L, with execs like Kelley, Hytner and Andrea Suarez, who runs the world markets region, leading the way.

“The level of collaboration that came from that shift has been mind-blowing while our competitors still have hundreds of P&Ls,” says Kelley. “If you’re not up for transformation, a taste for change, fire in the belly, don’t come work here.”

When Seiler went to IPG CEO Michael Roth to explain that change and its associated costs, the holding company chief asked him to promise not to restructure again anytime soon. “I said I wish I could promise that, but I can’t,” recalls Seiler. “The world is changing around us at such speed, you have to have the flexibility to address it all.”

That penchant for rogue reinvention may be in Seiler’s genes. At the age of 42, his father, a major influence, got bored with his prestigious job as the associate dean at the Harvard Business School and decided to study architecture. Later in life, he studied mediation, arbitration and litigation and became a mediator until his death at 81.

Seiler’s own career has taken him through account work on everything from Procter & Gamble, BMW (which was his dream client) and PepsiCo brands at Benton & Bowles, Ogilvy & Mather, Ammirati & Puris, GS&P, BBDO and Omnicom before moving over to the media side, first as president, CEO at PHD, then as global chief at UM. (When he wanted to move out of his job as chief insight and integration officer at Omnicom and back into an operational role in media, he called Omnicom CEO John Wren. An hour later, Seiler, with no previous media agency management experience, was offered the PHD job.)

Bill Katz, chairman of Mediabrands’ partner Visible World, which creates targeted TV ad solutions, was president/CEO at BBDO in New York and Seiler’s boss when he worked at the shop in the late ’90s. Katz was part of the decision to offer account exec Seiler the agency’s top strategic planning role and was initially taken aback when Seiler told him he wanted to shift to the media side.

“He was self-trained, an account person with a creative mind and natural instincts about what we were trying to do and say,” recalls Katz. “I was surprised about his move to media until he explained it to me. Back then it was simply about the distribution of a message, but he saw media platforms changing quickly. He wasn’t the only one, but, given his background, he saw it from a different level. It wasn’t just about distribution, it was becoming about the way the message affected behavior.”

Concurs Facebook’s Everson: “Matt always values and knows that at the end of the day ideas are always critically important. His background at creative agencies is really relevant to his success on the media side.”