In a career that spans decades in chronological time but epochs in media buying and planning history, Steve Farella, chairman of MDC Partners’ Assembly, has mastered the intricacies of his craft with a grace and infectious enthusiasm that belies how difficult it is to pull off what he’s accomplished.
Arguably no aspect of the advertising industry has been as thoroughly transformed by technology as the media discipline in the past 20 years. And it continues to be the poster child for rapid-fire change. Farella’s nimble navigation of this minefield is a primer on how to stay relevant — name a senior media services job title and Farella’s not only held it, but excelled at it.
In March, he was named chairman of MDC Partners’ new media offering, Assembly. The shop is MDC’s response to the phenomenon of automated buying and rolls up several of its media agency brands, including TargetCast, RJ Palmer, Doner Media and Integrated Media Solutions (IMS). With the birth of Assembly, Farella also was named chairman of TargetCast and MDC’s media umbrella unit, Maxxcom, which was rebranded MDC Media Partners.
The new post marks an appropriate milestone, and a perfect time to name Steve Farella Mediapost’s Media Agency Executive of the Year.
To most, the challenges of programmatic and other tech-driven changes are daunting. To Farella, they’re fuel. He recalls a charity event he recently attended on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, an iconic location that left Farella impressed — but bemused.
“It was like going to a museum,” he recalls. “In reality, everything gets done by machines in the back room.”
Assembly, he adds, is a response to the same transformative force. “This business began as ‘we can buy it cheaper’ but if you look at any large media shop today, we do everything except creative messaging,” he says. “What’s coming next is right in front of us: the electronic transfer of money for media. We believe this will create a fairer marketplace. And as the newest scalable media agency, we think that can benefit all of our clients.”
There’s credibility behind that claim. Farella has demonstrated an almost preternatural ability to be on the right side of industry history. At Benton & Bowles’ legendary media department, he was the youngest vice president running the agency’s largest piece of business, Procter & Gamble. He was media director at New York creative hot shop Ammirati & Puris before he turned 30.
When unbundling upended the advertising agency organizational structure, he launched MPG for Havas in 1999. And he played the scrappy independent media boutique owner when he launched TargetCast with his longtime business partner Audrey Siegel (now a managing partner at Assembly). In 2012, MDC acquired a majority stake in the shop and Farella assumed responsibility for Maxxcom.
Farella is “the consummate chairman,” concludes Assembly and MDC Media Partners chairman Martin Cass. “He’s seen it all. He’s done it himself. And therefore you get very wise counsel. It’s almost like he’s been preparing himself for this his whole career.”