NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- When Matt Freeman jumped from startup shop Betwave to Interpublic Group of Cos.' Mediabrands back in January to head up its newly launched division called Ventures, which was responsible for overseeing 16 separate agencies, he landed right in the middle of the action.The day after he joined the company it was announced that Nick Brien, former CEO of Mediabrands at the time, and the man who hired Mr. Freeman, was stepping down to run Interpublic's McCann Worldgroup. Mr. Freeman, along with Matt Seiler, global CEO of Universal McCann; Richard Beaven, global CEO of Initiative; and Tara Comonte, chief operating officer and chief financial officer of Mediabrands, were then named to the office of the chairman, the new management structure that would run Mediabrands. But such situations aren't really anything new for Mr. Freeman or all that daunting.
In fact, it's probably nothing compared to the time his family moved to Italy and his mother informed him that he and his brother would be starting classes at an Italian public school that year. "We don't speak Italian," he remembers telling his mother. "Good luck," she told him.
"As jarring as it can be it teaches you how to get along with lots of people and quickly figure out situations that are new," Mr. Freeman said. "It comes in handy in the business world, especially if you're building a global company. Sometimes you're forced to go into foreign situations, and you need to figure things out quickly."
In his first six months at Mediabrands, Mr. Freeman said he has seen the strategic importance of media grow significantly. He said by serving clients as an investment adviser while being at the "nexus of consumer data" makes media the most creative and innovative sector to be in right now.
The former head of Omnicom's Tribal DDB said he still gets a hankering for the creative side of the business sometimes, but that it's appeased by the fact that the worlds of media and creative are coming closer together.
Mr. Freeman recently spoke with Ad Age about what exactly his role and the role of Ventures is within Interpublic; whether not having a media background has hindered him; what sectors are poised for growth; and whether Interpublic will name a CEO of Mediabrands, and if he'd want the job if it did.
Ad Age: Ventures was launched with your arrival when Nick Brien brought you in. What is your role and the role of Ventures within Interpublic?
Mr. Freeman: My role is twofold. As part of office of the chairman, I help run Mediabrands overall. With Ventures, I oversee the 16 companies within the diversified business units. There's UM and Initiative and 16 other specialized companies I call "the island of misfit toys," in a variety of areas. Cadreon on the demand-side, platform side; Reprise, a search and social specialist agency; Cubo, an agency in Brazil that we are starting to take global; and bartering agency Orion are a few of them. I oversee all of those companies with their CEOs reporting in to me.
Ad Age: How have the first six months been?
Mr. Freeman: It's been terrific. I love the agency world and the scale of working with major clients, and I also love the world of startups and venture capital. Ventures is a great combination of the two and was totally ideal for me. We have had tremendous growth this year, and a lot of it is taking businesses like Cadreon and Reprise that have seen growth in the U.S. and expanding them globally.
Ad Age: How has it been running Mediabrands with Matt Seiler, global CEO of Universal McCann; Richard Beaven, global CEO of Initiative and Tara Comonte, COO and CFO of Mediabrands?
Mr. Freeman: It's been great just because of the diverse backgrounds the four of us have. We all bring very different skills to the table, and it's been more like meeting with friends than anything else.
Ad Age: How often do you meet to discuss Mediabrands business? With four different schedules it must get tough to find time to connect.
Mr. Freeman: We're together or on the phone on a weekly basis, if not more often. We spent the last month together doing financial planning around the world, so I don't think you could get much closer. And we have a bat-signal deal with each other, where our meetings take priority over other things.
Ad Age: Will there be a point where Interpublic names one person to run it?
Mr. Freeman: I don't know; that's a question for Michael Roth. But everybody is happy and busy for the time being.
Ad Age: Should that point come, would you have any interest in being that person? Would you make a play for it?
Mr. Freeman: I have a pretty rich day job right now, so ...
Ad Age: You have your hands in all these different sectors, so what changes are you seeing in the marketplace?
Mr. Freeman: Generally speaking, all clients need two things right now: increased specialization and increased unification. Part of what we're working on is increasing the number of specialized services we have, diversifying from the trading business to real-time data stores and much more complex data businesses. But we're also unifying all of the services we have on a singular platform so we can be more specialized for clients while becoming more unified in the way we deliver to them.
Clients need more specialization and less agencies. Five years ago, if you could run an SEM campaign you were a god. Today it's not enough to just do SEM you have to SEO as well. And it's not enough to just do both of those; you have to do real-time bidding on display, and you need an expertise in commerce and creative production. The specialization continues, and if you extrapolate out suddenly clients need 10,000 different specialist services from their agencies. But they can't manage 10,000 different agency relationships. So the real challenge for a holding company like Mediabrands is figuring out how to diversify and get best-in-breed companies and then unify them on a singular delivery platform for a client because J&J or Microsoft don't want to manage 10,000 relationships.
Ad Age: What sectors are poised for significant growth?
Mr. Freeman: From our perspective, the growth areas are on the Cadreon-like audience-network side, search and social and hyper-local is emerging as a tremendous area of growth for us. And we anticipate tremendous growth in the shopper-sciences sector as well.
Ad Age: Aside from overseeing these businesses, you're also pushing collaboration between them. Is there more collaboration at Mediabrands than there has been in the past?
Mr. Freeman: Yes. When you think about a business like Geomentum, which is doing hyper-local media, it has a natural intersection with Cadreon, an audience-based marketplace, which has a natural intersection with Reprise, our search agency. It's not that we're merging the companies or brands -- but we are merging the tools, platforms and data behind-the-scenes, because they are much more powerful when shared between the companies.
Ad Age: You don't come from a media background, so what challenges has that posed?
Mr. Freeman: None, really, because the definition of media is broadening pretty quickly. The old spots-and-dots model is not the basis of media today.
Ad Age: What experiences and skills from the creative side have you been able to apply at Ventures?
Mr. Freeman: I started out as a copywriter in this business, and the practice of thinking through how a brand connects with a consumer has been a constant in my career. It's no different sitting in this chair then back when I was a junior copywriter.
Ad Age: Mediabrands has maintained a good amount of momentum for over a year now, especially with Universal McCann's winning streak, how do you plan on helping maintain it?
Mr. Freeman: We have really centered our growth plan on using the diversified and venture companies to better arm Universal McCann and Initiative with specialized services. As their major client relationships grow, we help diversify those client relationships, and a lot of the growth is coming because they are becoming more of a full-service provider to the clients they are working with.