The first time I met Brian Monahan was at the tail-end of a sojourn. It was 4 p.m. on May 18, 2009, to be precise.
I know the exact moment, because I chronicled it as part of a day-long sojourn I covered live for MediaPost.
That’s what Monahan’s colleague Brian Wieser called it, a “social media sojourn,” when he invited me to follow him around for a day as he met with industry experts to help define what social media was and how much to factor it into what he considered “advertising.”
Wieser, who has since returned to being a Wall Street stock market analyst, was then head of forecasting at Interpublic’s Magna Global unit and was using the sojourn as a real-time method for processing the meaning of social media, and my “live blogging” was part of it.
In truth, my first encounter with Monahan was not that meaningful because, like I said, it came at the tail-end and by then both Wieser and I were pretty sojourned out. I could see it in Wieser’s face -- gears turning -- as he rambled philosophically while interviewing Monahan over a speaker phone when we got back to his Midtown office.
Monahan was then a senior vice president of Universal McCann in San Francisco and Interpublic’s lead social media expert, but I could see Wieser was busy processing what we had already absorbed that day, much of it spent in the back of taxis riffing on everything from McLuhan to the meaning of social media life, and he was facing his own imminent end-of-sojourn deadline for defining the value of social media to the advertising industry.
I honestly cannot recall anything Monahan said during the interview, but I remember vividly what I heard in his voice. It was sincerity. I could hear that he really cared about what we were talking about. He was passionate about it.
The next time we met was in person. We were having lunch at Del Posto to plan an upcoming issue of MEDIA magazine Monahan agreed to guest edit. The waiter brought us some complimentary fritter-like appetizer, when Monahan told me his wife ran a restaurant that served something similar. He said he recycled the cooking oil her restaurant used to power his car, which had a specially modified engine.
We spent most of the rest of that lunch discussing the theme of the issue -- how media was accelerating the evolution of people -- and how we were going to execute it. Just as Wieser had done by using MediaPost as a medium to organize and publish the points of view of other experts, we agreed Monahan would use a print edition of now extinct MEDIA magazine to showcase conversations with experts to make the case that homo sapiens have evolved into what he termed homo mediated, a class of people who were defined as much by the media they use as anything else.
I consider that issue of MEDIA to be one of the most important things I’ve ever worked on, partly because of what we published, but also because it gave me the opportunity to work closely with Monahan, who may have been the smartest guy in a crowded roomful of brilliant young intellectuals that made up then CEO Matt Seiler’s Mediabrands, the Interpublic unit overseeing all of the holding company's media brands, including shops like UM, intelligence units like Magna, new specialty practices like programmatic trading desk, Cadreon, and what arguably has been the best new media laboratory ever on Madison Avenue, the IPG Media Lab.
During his time at Interpublic, Monahan was central to all of that, including stints running the lab and Magna before leaving to become head of marketing for Walmart.com. Along the way he helped incubate NewCo, with long-time editor (Wired) and publisher (Federated Media) John Battelle.
In April, after a three-year stint overseeing marketing, digital media and commerce inside the world’s most powerful retailer, Monahan returned to an active role at NewCo. Although he had never really left, his new job as Chief Evangelist, brings him back to what he says he enjoyed most during more than decade in digital media: working with startups that all want to use media and technology to change the world.
Monahan, who also serves on the board of a few special startups that he is passionate about, is now focused on transforming NewCo from its roots as an event organizer that started by hosting a series of “open houses” in the digital media innovation Meccas of San Francisco, New York, Boston, Austin, Cincinnati, etc., to a global event and publishing “platform” organized around a mission he is even more passionate about: using for-profit business models to make the world a better place.The following interview is edited from notes based on several conversations with Monahan in recent months during which he expressed both optimism and concern -- maybe even some remorse -- for the first round of digital media innovation, particularly programmatic audience buying.
MediaPost Weekend: You’ve been on all sides of the business. Agency, client and now you’re on the supply-side at NewCo, so you are a publisher. What are you thinking now, and why are you feeling buyer’s remorse about things like audience buying?
Brian Monahan: I was in an agency my whole career in Silicon Valley and in many ways my job at IPG was to be a bridge between IPG, its clients and the innovation in Silicon Valley. That manifested into things like our programmatic capability, the IPG Media Lab, all the stuff we were doing in Magna. And then I went to the client side at Walmart.com to be head of marketing there and got to put a lot of that into practice.
It was a great experience for three years. We took our non-holiday monthly comScore uniques from 65 million to 85 million during my tenure and largely that was on the back of harnessing data for more relevant marketing and e-commerce experience. And with any big, all-consuming role like that it was all-consuming and I missed being connected to the early-stage innovation. I always kept one foot in it as a co-founder of NewCo over the years, but as NewCo began to grow, I felt that after three years at Walmart it was time to jump back in.
I’ve also been doing a bunch of advising work. I’m advising a company called Blueshift Labs, started by this guy from Walmart Labs, which does real-time, multichannel personalization. I’m working with a company called NinthDecimal, which is a mobile audience intelligence network. I’m working with a company called Local ID, which enables retailers to do hyper-targeting at the store level. I’m working with a company called Price.com, which is essentially next-generation price comparison. I’m working with a VC called Commerce Ventures, which just focuses on retail payments. It’s been cool to reconnect and get hands on with some really interesting startups.
My role at NewCo has really been to focus on growth and monetization as we’ve grown from just doing events to becoming a media company.
We started with our festivals. This February will be our fifth year of doing a NewCo festival in San Francisco, and this one will be the whole Bay Area and will be a week-long. This fall, we also have events coming up in Shanghai, Toronto, Mexico City, Istanbul, Barcelona and Boulder. By the end, we will have done festivals in 18 cities. Just coming off of year two in Austin and Cincinnati, which saw 20% growth, year-on-year.
It’s been exciting to see that part of our business grow. And earlier this year, we decided to start publishing so we could share our point of view and learnings from having spent time with all these companies and cities around the world in service of our mission, which is celebrating and connecting the engines of positive change on the planet.
We very much believe that the for-profit organization is a very powerful way of mobilizing human capability. And we’ve been learning that there are business practices that can make those for-profit companies more successful in this modern age.
We also want to discuss what is the role of the for-profit entity in our community and that there really is a model of capitalism where you can align purpose with profit. With so many of these companies in Silicon Valley it’s almost like a punch line that they exist to make the world a better place. And the truth is when you spend time with these companies they actually believe they have a purpose beyond their personal enrichment or maximizing shareholder profit. Not all of them. Maybe not even the majority of them. But there are a number of successful companies that really internalize this notion of purpose.
It’s more than corporate social responsibility. It is a true alignment of profit with purpose and when you get it, it seems to have a lot of real benefits such as attracting and retaining talent, in terms of making partnerships, and resource allocation, fostering creative innovation. We’ve found there is a business benefit to being purpose-driven and that’s one of the big themes we’ve been writing about at shift.newco.com
We’ve got about 150,000 people or so coming to our site each week. We’ve got 50,000 people on our email list and 400,000 social followers. We feel like the story is interesting to people and the audience is growing nicely.
We’re going to launch a new executive forum this February alongside the Bay Area festival. This will be an invitation-only forum. We’ve got a great lineup of speakers -- everyone from Brad Smith, president of Microsoft, to Ev Williams, the CEO of Medium.
Basically, we want to talk about this next generation of capitalism. Is there a way to run a business that delivers profits that actually solve meaningful problems in the world. And how do you run a business like that?
MW: So explain why you’ve grown concerned about programmatic audience buying?
Monahan: The notion of buyer’s remorse, if you will -- for an audience-based approach to monetization -- is definitely interesting for me, because NewCo fundamentally is a niche media property. We write for the next generation of business decision makers. It’s not a mass audience. And our value proposition is. We’re trying to figure out what the model is for monetizing our media products and we figure that, hey, in a programmatic era, it’s much harder than it seemingly was in years past to find brands that are looking to engage with publishers like us. They’re looking to engage with mass audiences.
I feel like the pendulum has swung so far toward prioritizing the delivery of audience that we’ve lost the ability to prioritize context. I feel like it is a lost opportunity, particularly at a time when we’re talking about the attention economy, finding ways of breaking through and actually getting noticed with content, marketing and "native advertising," I guess you can sort of trick people into reading your advertorial, but it seems like the consumers are always one step ahead of brands, so finding ways of actually aligning your message with meaningful context and serving it up in a way that is actually going to get noticed seems to be the Holy Grail. And it seems that for the past five years, programmatic has really revealed the power it has in terms of minimizing waste, but all the focus has gone on audience and there seems to less regard for the power of context.
We’re very excited about the editorial direction we are heading in. We are getting good feedback from the,“NewCo movement,” if you will, in terms of the numbers and participation we’re seeing. We definitely feel we are onto an important story that people are ready to consider. Is there a post-capitalism, where the mantra is not maximizing shareholder value at all cost? Is there a model that aligns profit with purpose? And not to just pay lip service to it, but to actually make an operating business out of it. Those are the kinds of stories we’re trying to tell -- because, frankly, we’ve got major problems in the world.
Hurricane Hermione just went through and they were comparing to hurricanes in the past, and while the winds weren’t that strong, the seal levels were a foot higher than the last time a hurricane like this came through. We’ve got major problems like climate change in the world right now and seemingly few institutions with the momentum and power and track record of fixing anything. We certainly have a track record of for-profit businesses mobilizing creativity in a powerful way, and if we get it right we can get these engines humming and pointed in a way that rewards people, but also solves problems. That’s an optimistic vision, and we’ve found that people want to learn more about those kinds of companies.
Monahan: I often feel like there’s something changing about the role of a brand -- about a more empathetic understanding of the role a brand plays in a person’s life in favor of this really sophisticated segmentation of a population.
It seems like that in the old days we focused on building a single, main idea and a core value proposition for a brand. And a lot of that has opened up to “how do I intersect with a person’s life in a meaningful way?” As opposed to what we seem to be doing now, which is just slicing up the population and having messages targeted to each segment of it. It seems like we’ve lost some of that context, but not context where the message appears, but context with which the brand is viewed in somebody’s life.
MW: What have you been focusing on since you came back to NewCo full-time?
Monahan: We’re basically creating a new media brand that is “if Wired and the Economist had a baby,” and we want to tell the story of this new generation of business innovators who are making a difference in the world. And not just tell that story, but let people actually participate in it.
NewCo’s mission is to celebrate and connect business change agents who believe for-profits businesses are the engines of positive change on the planet. We do that through our events. We do that through our social networking. And now we do that through the content we publish.
It’s a really interesting time to be in publishing. Nobody knows this better than you -- because, frankly, MediaPost was one of the first companies to appreciate the power of coupling physical events with publishing content. NewCo began in the events business first, but everyone publishing these days is trying to figure out the right mix of content that is trusted, experiential. The focus for us is on the story of for-profit businesses using technology to solve big problems in the world.We’re creating a community of business change agents. [In April], we did NewCo Detroit. It was our third NewCo festival in Detroit and we probably had about 70 companies, and you can look at companies that are involved in solving problems for specific industries -- health care, education, fashion, or what have you. And then you make your schedule based on different neighborhoods. You plan your experience of the city and you meet the companies themselves in their offices. You meet with their founders and management teams, and hopefully you connect and it fosters growth.