John Battelle, founder and former CEO of Federated Media, the ad-sales network for independent media properties, is returning to the CEO role, the company announced today. CEO Deanna Brown, who Mr. Battelle hired in 2009 as president of the company, and later became CEO, will be leaving the company.
The announcement comes a few months after Ms. Brown said the company would be betting on both native ads and programmatic buying, rather than the selling of traditional ad units. At the time, the announcement came across more like marketing position to explain why the business was suffering rather than a true attempt to get ahead of industry trends.
The company saw some of its top sales and marketing talent leave over a few months in late 2011, capped off by the departure of chief marketing officer Pete Spande.
Ad Age has recently heard reports of former employees choosing to not pick up their options in the company when vested because they lost faith in their ability to earn a successful exit. The company raised more than $57 million since it was founded eight years ago. (Note: This reporter is a former employee of Federated Media.)
Starting a business is a journey, as any founder will tell you. When I started Federated Media Publishing almost eight years ago, I did my best to collect all the lessons learned from Wired, The Industry Standard, and Web 2 Summit, and apply them to my new venture. One of those lessons was that it's OK to step away when the time is right. Several years ago, I did just that, becoming an "active Chairman" at FMP and handing the operational reigns over to an accomplished executive, Deanna Brown.
Since making that decision, FMP has grown dramatically, but it's also had its challenges. Last year, for example, we made the difficult but important decision to rethink the company so as to lean into our two most promising lines of business – content marketing (which we lay claim to inventing as "conversational marketing" some seven years ago) and programmatic marketing (which we invested in heavily last year, after acquiring a very fast growing business in Lijit Networks in Fall of 2011). It meant stepping back from something we had been doing for some time – directly selling standard display banners - but it proved to be the right choice. FMP is having a great first half of 2013, and I couldn't be more excited about our roadmap and potential for the rest of the year and beyond.
The funny thing is, even as I became "just the Chairman" at FMP over the past two years, I never stopped thinking about the company. It woke me up nearly every night, tugging at my sleeve, asking me questions, demanding my best thinking. Deanna and I would meet every week to talk strategy, review numbers, or just plain chew the fat. Running a company with hundreds of employees, top notch investors, and a big top line revenue number is damn hard, and Deanna not only ran the place, she made it hum. I am in her debt.
So when Deanna told me earlier this year that she wanted – in a thoughtful and appropriate manner – to move on and do something smaller and more directly related to content creation, I immediately understood. As I said above – it's alright to step away when the time feels right. We spent a month or more thinking about who might be best to replace her. FMP is a unique company – straddling the two fastest-growing sectors of the digital marketing world: Native content marketing, and programmatic platforms. There aren't many executives who are fluent in both, and who also might be a cultural fit for a company as storied as this one.
And then it hit me – quite literally in mid-sentence while on a Board call. Why the hell don't I simply step back in? I love this company, I am passionate about the Independent Web, and to be honest, I see a huge opportunity in front of us. What am I, nuts? Why didn't I think of it the moment Deanna told me of her decision?
I think the answer lies in how we often try to convince ourselves that the choices we've made in the past are the right ones. I agonized about leaving the CEO's chair, and I've spent the two years since then convincing myself (and many of you) that the right path for me was writing a book , running various conferences, and ruminating on what the "next big thing" might be.
But I've come to realize that it's OK to change your mind, as long as you are following your heart. I love the book I'm working on, and I don't plan to abandon it (I'm bringing on a co-author). And I love the conferences I do, and I'll still be doing them (though I'll be hiring someone to run them full time). But my first love is the company I started in 2005, whose story is not only unfinished, it's at the height of its running narrative. I am utterly convinced that the media company of tomorrow will have both a technology-driven programmatic foundation, as well as the ability to execute bespoke, beautiful ideas on behalf of the entire media ecosystem – creators, marketers, and communities. When you bring the scale and precision of data-driven platforms to the brilliance of great media executions, magic will happen. Delivering on that vision for the Independent Web is the mission of Federated Media Publishing. And I couldn't be more excited to rejoin the company as its next CEO.
So that's the news I have for you today. I ask for your support as I embark on this new journey – I know I'm going to need it. I promise I won't ever stop writing here, nor will I stop asking for your feedback and your insights. And because this is probably the only time I'll have the chance to say it in a post, I want to say thank you to Deanna Brown for what she's done not only for Federated, but for me personally. I can't wait to see what she does next, and, if I'm lucky, to be a partner to her next chapter. Onwards!