Digital A-List 2008

Digital A-List 2008 Executive of the Year: Brian McAndrews

As Microsoft's Ad-Solutions VP, He Is Helping Map the Giant's Online Future

By Published on .

A correction has been made in this story. See below for details.

In March 2006, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer delivered a speech that will forever live on in YouTube infamy.

Speaking to a roomful of ad executives in Hollywood, Fla., he bounded across the stage booming, "Advertisers, advertisers, advertisers."
Brian McAndrews, Microsoft's senior VP in charge of advertiser and publisher solutions
Brian McAndrews, Microsoft's senior VP in charge of advertiser and publisher solutions Credit: Justin Renney
He was talking about Microsoft Corp.'s future and playing on a speech he gave five years earlier in which he touted the bedrock of Microsoft as "developers, developers, developers!"

Those advertisers were Brian McAndrews' clients -- partners of aQuantive's Avenue A/ Razorfish. It was at the agency's 2006 client summit. Two years later, Mr. McAndrews is evangelizing Microsoft's future bet on advertising as the senior VP in charge of its advertiser and publisher solutions.

Mr. McAndrews, formerly CEO of aQuantive, came over in the company's massive $6 billion acquisition by Microsoft last year and, to many people's surprise, stuck around. Sure, it was the challenge of a lifetime -- to lead the software giant into the ad space, where it had floundered as a third-rate player for several years. But after an acquisition like this, most executives move on to their next lives as gentlemen farmers.

And while many industry watchers have proclaimed the wisdom of Mr. McAndrews, it's less his willingness to tackle the unproven path ahead and more the foresight in his past -- and that whopping exit strategy -- that makes him Ad Age's Digital Executive of the Year.

A quick history lesson on what Mr. McAndrews built at aQuantive, which has become the de facto model for many an interactive ad outfit:

Avenue A was born in Seattle in 1997, but Mr. McAndrews didn't join until 1999, after a decade at ABC and, before that, five years as a product manager at General Mills.

In 2000, at the height of the dot-com boom, he orchestrated the company's initial public offering, but by 2001 the bust had halved the company's revenue, and Mr. McAndrews decided to create two divisions: Avenue A, which would continue to offer online media-planning and -buying services, and Atlas, which would take on DoubleClick by selling technology tools to advertisers.

In 2003, the aQuantive name was born, with Avenue A and Atlas as subsidiaries. The next year, Mr. McAndrews acquired web-design shop Razorfish, which became part of the Avenue A unit (renamed Avenue A/Razorfish), and launched ad network DrivePM. (Clearly Mr. McAndrews is no stranger to deal making, a trait that will suit him well in his new role. In a recent Q&A at the Interactive Advertising Bureau annual meeting, he addressed how Microsoft will handle disruptive start-ups: "We'll buy them.")

Rising star
In the months leading up to the Microsoft acquisition, aQuantive was going increasingly international, signing a global ad-serving pact with Havas' MediaContacts, launching an agency partnership with Dentsu in Japan and buying French interactive shop Duke. Additionally, aQuantive became the first interactive shop to crack Ad Age's ranking of the top 10 marketing-services companies, a benchmark of particular pride for Mr. McAndrews.

What's more, aQuantive had become what other interactive shops aspired to be: a technology-grounded, revenue-diverse digital company Wall Street admired. Its stock had risen steadily through 2005, fluctuated between $20 and $30 a share in 2006, and then continued to rise in 2007. It was at $35.87 when Microsoft offered an 84% premium to buy it in May.

The move to Redmond, Wash., isn't without its adjustments, and Mr. McAndrews, who splits his time between the Microsoft campus and the downtown-Seattle digs of the company formerly known as aQuantive, says there's a bit of a reality check now that he's not the CEO anymore.

"I certainly approached it with a little trepidation, being a CEO ... with a much smaller company, but nonetheless I was CEO, and that has pros and cons, but I liked the fact that the buck stopped with me, and I could influence the culture significantly," he says.

Leadership evaluation
He recalls shortly after joining Microsoft getting the notice that they wanted to do a leadership evaluation, a fairly common occurrence at a large company that devotes lots of resources to training and development.

"They asked for the name of some peers and my boss. I wrote back and said, 'I've been a CEO for eight years; I don't have a boss, and I don't have any peers,'" he says, laughing. They wrote back and told him they'd do the test some other time.

Mr. McAndrews, 49, reports to Kevin Johnson, one of three Microsoft presidents who answer directly to Mr. Ballmer. Mr. Johnson is a Microsoft veteran, a guy who knows how the game is played in Redmond and upon whom the giant responsibility of managing Microsoft's online services has been placed.

For his part, Mr. Johnson says he's trying to give Mr. McAndrews a certain amount of autonomy. Mr. Johnson recently addressed the issue in The Wall Street Journal. "He's used to being CEO," he said of Mr. McAndrews. "If you let him run his business and let him achieve the goals he wants to, we'll be fine."

While Mr. McAndrews' understated demeanor might differ from that of the more effusive Mr. Ballmer, his competitiveness is on par -- fostered by a collegiate track career and by growing up as one of four boys. For him, the job of helping figure out how to monetize Microsoft's online future, one based heavily on online services and software, is a challenge -- perhaps an industry-defining one -- and too good to pass up.

"I loved my job as CEO of aQuantive, and in a lot of ways this is an extension of that job. [Being at Microsoft is] a little different, a bigger pond, but a lot of what we were doing we get to keep doing," he says. "And short of us buying Microsoft, which wasn't going to happen, this is my opportunity to take it up a notch and continue to have a role in a very dynamic industry in its very early stages -- and, hopefully, have a meaningful role."

One advantage: When Mr. McAndrews came to Microsoft, he got to bring 3,000 people with him.

He most recently worked on reorganizing the advertising group in conjunction with fellow Micro-soft senior VPs Satya Nadella and Bill Veghte and has announced an initiative called "Engagement Mapping."

That process aims to move the measurement of online-ad effectiveness beyond simply counting clicks and apply proper attribution across all the online ads consumers encounter on their paths to purchase.

Micro-hoo boss?
The biggest challenge ahead lies in Yahoo, for which Microsoft has launched a $44.6 billion takeover bid. Mr. McAndrews was consulted on the decision and is very supportive, though he says it clearly was up to "Steve [Ballmer], Bill [Gates], Kevin [Johnson] and the board" to make the final call.

Already Mr. McAndrews has been floated among industry watchers as a front-runner to lead the merged company.

When asked what he has in common with Microsoft's CEO, his answer is simple: "I do like to win."

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CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to Kevin Johnson as VP. Also, aQuantive, not Avenue A/Razorfish, was the first interactive shop to crack Ad Age's ranking of the top 10 marketing-services companies.
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