Darren Herman may be the most unlikely All Star OMMA has ever had. In fact, if not for a flippant challenge from his Madison Avenue mentor, and current boss, Barry Lowenthal, Herman might never have even gotten into the agency business.
Herman, who began his career as a digital entrepreneur, first as a member of the start-up team that founded in-game advertising giant IGA, and later, after his cash-out, as an angel investor in early stage social and mobile media companies, Herman got to know Lowenthal through a series of pitch meetings.
"I was always fascinated with the way agencies work, and always wondered why they couldn't do so much more with all the great talent and thinkers they had," Herman recalls. "And it was during one of those conversations that Barry said to me, 'Herman, that's why you'll never work in an agency.' When I asked him why, he said, 'Because you want to do too much, and you're just too ambitious for this industry.' And that's when I knew I had to do it."
That was four years ago, and shortly after Lowenthal's challenge, Herman accepted a job to oversee digital media for The Media Kitchen, the media services agency where Lowenthal is president, and which is a sister agency of kirshenbaum bond senecal + partners, and a division of MDC Partners.
And for the past four years, he has spent his time trying to prove Lowenthal wrong about the boundaries of Madison Avenue limitations. "He never worked in an agency, but I never came across anyone who was more entrepreneurial and understood digital media and technology better," Lowenthal concedes, adding, "I think it was the single best hire I ever made in my career."
Over the course of those four years, Herman has expanded and diversified the Kitchen's role in digital media, but he has also spun off new ventures and projects within MDC Partners, and picked up the titles of chief digital media officer of kirshenbaum bond senecal + partners and president of kbs+p Ventures. Among those ventures was the creation of Varick Media Management, one of the first agency trading desks which Herman cofounded and helped run. He's also incubating a number of other spin-offs, some of which have been nurtured through his strong ties to the venture capital community, digital start-ups and his own efforts to help showcase new enterprises transforming advertising and media through technology. Interestingly, Herman never planned to stick around the agency world that long. In fact, he saw it as an opportunity to get what he calls a "practical MBA."
"I only signed up for two years, and I'm working on my fourth," he says, admitting that he has fallen in love with the agency business, but sees it as an industry ripe for a makeover from young entrepreneurs.
The seeds of Herman's agency career actually began before his fateful encounter with Lowenthal, when he was still being counseled by another mentor, Michael Weinstein, a long-time beverage industry executive who was CEO of Snapple.
Not long after leaving iga, Herman met with Weinstein, who asked him, "where he wanted to be in 10 years."
"I told him, 'Mike, I don't even know where I want to be in two years.' But I did know I wanted to be involved in touching advertising technology again. And that's when he told me to look at all the young people who were building digital businesses at that time - companies like MySpace and YouTube and Facebook - and he said all those businesses were reliant on advertising revenues, but none of their founders had ever spent a day of their lives in the advertising business.
"I came to the Media Kitchen, because I wanted to learn how a dollar moves from point A to point B," he continues. "But I was going to leave in two years and build something on my own."
That's when MDC Partners ceo Miles Nadal made Herman an offer he couldn't refuse: to use all his entrepreneurial spirit, energy and desire to incubate and create new ventures within MDC. It turned out to be a perfect fit, because Herman's day job gave him entry to the leading media and technology companies, and his colleagues and sister organizations gave him the marketing insights, resources and discipline to turn them into real businesses and brands.
By infusing a start-up mentality, and recruiting the kind of young blood that would more likely go to Silicon Valley than Madison Avenue, Herman is helping to transform the culture of the agency world. He calls this new breed of digital media recruit "media technologists," and he says they will be to the future of Madison Avenue what the conventional media planner was to its past. Instead of understanding, recommending and allocating media, Herman says the new breed will be steeped in technology and what it can do to leverage how their client brands use it to connect with consumers.
"The role of the 'media technologist' was created and born in The Media Kitchen when we realized how much time was being spent on advertising operations, not including the trafficking of ads," Herman wrote in a recent opinion piece published by MediaPost. "Instead of putting together communications plans or negotiating with media partners, the media technologist is working to build and maintain relationships with our advertising operations partners, as well as be the first line in troubleshooting when systems go down. We expect that our internal brand teams will tap into our media technologists, as each brand has their own instance of our technology capability." "While Darren is incredibly entrepreneurial and inspiring, I think the trait I admire most is his generosity," says Lowenthal. "Darren loves sharing. He loves teaching digital media and he loves introducing everyone to everyone else ... Bringing people together for the collective good is a wonderful and rare quality, and Darren has that quality in abundance."