Matt Freeman Quits Tribal DDB for Top Job at GoFish

Digital Ad Agency Network Can Seize on Microsoft's, Yahoo's Missed Opportunities, Says Exiting Exec

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NEW YORK (Adage.com) -- Matt Freeman, the executive who was handpicked a decade ago to build the Omnicom Group digital network Tribal DDB, is stepping down as the agency's CEO to head up GoFish, a publicly traded digital ad network.
Matt Freeman
Matt Freeman

During his time at Tribal, Mr. Freeman built the network from a storage house for DDB's fledgling digital assets into a global powerhouse in its own right, with a 40% annual growth rate, clients such as Nokia, Philips and Pepsi, and a reputation for being a true brand strategy partner for marketers. In January, Tribal became the first digital agency to be named Ad Age's global agency network of the year, a distinction usually reserved for a traditional network.

Gunning for Freeman
The departure of Mr. Freeman, a popular and well-liked executive and a familiar speaker at conferences, is a big loss for Omnicom, which has recently seen other digital figures depart for entrepreneurial opportunities. Mr. Freeman will be replaced by Paul Gunning, the president of Tribal DDB East and an eight-year veteran of the agency, who will assume the role of worldwide CEO when Mr. Freeman leaves later this month. Liz Ross, current president of Tribal DDB West, will take over as president of U.S. operations and add the new title of global chief marketing officer.

GoFish works with youth-content providers such as online gaming publishers and virtual worlds to target children, tweens and co-viewing parents. GoFish Corp.'s board of directors includes Peter Guber, the former chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment, and former Yahoo executive Jim Moloshok. There will plenty of upside potential for Mr. Freeman. Shares of GoFish currently trade at 23 cents a share, down from a 52-week-high of $2.51.

Have Yahoo, Microsoft dropped the ball?
Mr. Freeman in an interview said there is an opportunity for digital ad networks like GoFish to pick up a ball he believes Yahoo and Microsoft have dropped when it comes to online brand advertising.

"As Yahoo and Microsoft and others are trying to beat Google at Google's game -- search -- they've taken their eye off the most valuable ball they had in their court, which is online brand advertising," Mr. Freeman said. "Even though Google has a terrific business model, it's not a panacea for brands. Brands can't build equity by buying keywords alone."

Mr. Freeman said GoFish is poised to show the way for two reasons. First, its media properties boast strong user engagement, meaning users are spending more average time with them than utility-based sites. The second is the deportalization trend happening on the web, referring to the fact that consumers aren't necessarily remaining within the confines of a single portal, such as Yahoo. That puts networks that aren't wedded to a specific destination at an advantage, he argues

But there are major challenges. GoFish is relatively low on advertisers' radar screen, one prominent media buyer said, something that Mr. Freeman's big reputation in the online ad world will help fix. The network has a domestic reach of 20 million users and more than 60 million worldwide.

Compensation
The jump from big agency to less high-profile new media gig has become all too familiar in the ad business with top digital execs such as Aegis' David Verklin, Publicis' Nick Pahade and Omnicom's Sean Finnegan and Mark Kingdon all making similar moves. It's happening for many reasons: the opportunity for executives to cash out on a pre-IPO or pre-acquisition start-up is too good to pass up, or the politics of working at a holding company become too much to bear for some. Mr. Freeman offers this one: "Occasionally entrepreneurial spirits need to roam."

As for Tribal, Mr. Freeman said he is leaving at a time of growth and success, and he feels confident in the succession plans in place. Although Mr. Freeman is leaving the agency business, he said he still fundamentally believes in the model and the promise it holds for advertisers -- a topic he covered at a recent Association of American Advertising Agencies conference.

"If you define the agency model as people who are in the business of creative business models, then there is nothing wrong with [the future of agencies]," he said. "Tribal has 40 % annual growth rate. I don't think there is an industry where that would be wrong. "
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