A Conversation With Gila Wilensky On Xaxis' 10th Anniversary

Ever since GroupM spun Xaxis out of its Media Innovation Group back in June 2011, the data-savvy, programmatic expert unit has gone through machinations and repositioning as it sought to differentiate itself from other agencies and ad-tech and programmatic organizations.

On the eve of its 10th anniversary, we sat down (in front of a Zoom screen) with Xaxis U.S. President Gila Wilensky to understand how she defines the company's products and services and what she envisions for its future.

MediaPost: As you get ready to celebrate your 10th anniversary, how would describe Xaxis today, and how has it changed over time?

Gila Wilensky: We see ourselves are the programmatic experts within GroupM or WPP and we are focused on driving outcomes for our clients, so you'll see the phrase “outcome media company” embedded in our brand identity and working working in lockstep with with the great clients across our network.



MediaPost: When you say “outcome media company,” I think performance agency.

Wilensky: The term "performance" is always a little tricky, because what kind of media isn’t performance media? I mean, who wants to buy media that doesn’t perform?
But from an outcomes perspective, it’s about helping clients achieve their business outcomes.

We obviously do a lot of work in the media metrics space and work with clients who are looking for cost efficiencies and things of that nature, but our ultimate goal is to work with a client to prove how we can tie media to an actual business KPI [key performance indicator]. You know -- a car sold or a ticket purchases or a something that that ties to their to their business whether or not it's tracked digitally. For us, it’s about having the depth of conversation and the analytics chops to back that up and to work with clients to go a little deeper than versus just “performance media.”

But outcomes can also be applied to clients who are looking for things like brand lift, in affinity, in tying online to offline, etc. So it is a little broader than “performance,” per se.

MediaPost: Terms like “performance,” “KPIs,” and outcomes are in the eyes of the beholder. Can you narrow that down? In your heart of hearts, what is the Xaxis product?

Wilensky: We provide advanced programmatic services to clients. So what we're doing is is offering programmatic expertise that manifests in strategies, and ultimately, in campaigns that do drive those outcomes.

At the end of the day, we are using a combination of data, AI, technology, and a lot of homegrown solutions to tie media investments to client goals.

Other agencies can claim that, but what makes us unique is our investment in innovation and our structure that allows us to create solutions, new tools and new tactics constantly. It’s the side-by-side combination of programmatic servicing of clients, as well as the investment in innovation so that we can build new things that help the client -- all under one roof. That’s what makes us different and unique.

MediaPost: A lot of the way you describe that could sound like the original MIG [Media Innovation Group] Xaxis was spawned from. Over the years, you’ve described yourselves as a “media company,” an “arbitrager,” and other things like that. What’s different about the way you position yourselves today?

Wilensky: You can call us the world’s largest programmatic services company. And what we see as programmatic encompasses more than just desktop and mobile. It’s all channels. All screens. We’ve got technology, creative, innovation, media products, all under one roof. 

MediaPost: How much of that is within Xaxis as a company vs. WPP as your parent and your sister agencies like Ogilvy and JWT? Does Xaxis have its own creative department?

Wilenksy: It’s our own, in-house creative team focused on programmatic execution. It’s a homegrown Xaxis team. We can plug-and-play with a variety of other groups, accordingly. But we are part of GroupM. We’re a specialty shop within GroupM that helps achieve those programmatic services.

MediaPost: How big is your creative team, and how big is your organization overall?

Wilensky: Globally, we’re close to 1,700 people -- across 47 different markets.

MediaPost: We’re going to guess what the creative team is a relatively small percentage of that? Can you tell us, are they conventional creative types like copywriters and art directors or are they different kinds of skill sets?

Wilensky: It is a variety of skill sets? We’ve got designers. But we’ve also got developers and engineers, and technicians that work with different ad servers and different video technologies. We’re sort of organized by designers vs. classic creatives -- developers and creative technologists.

MediaPost: So creative in this area often means things other than advertising messaging -- copy and visuals? It could mean innovative development of technology?

Wilensky: It all stems back to the actual creative -- the actual message -- that we’re distributing via programmatic media and technology.

MediaPost: So do they take a brief from a client, go back into a room and bounce Big Ideas off of each other to come up with solutions like the old days?

Wilensky: Sometimes. Sometimes there’s definitely the ask for the Big Idea. But oftentimes, it’s about adapting creative concepts, and customizing them at scale to a variety of different segments for DSPs [demand-side platforms].

It’s about how you take one creative idea and then distribute it as intelligently as possible, and as custom as possible, across many different segments. So I would say we definitely lean in more in that area than the Big Ideas, but the Big Idea briefs do exist in Xaxis.

MediaPost: You said your organization is 1,700 people now. What happened to that workforce over the past year? Has it grown, stayed the same or declined?

Wilensky: We’re growing. I joined last June and we’ve grown ever since. We have a variety of new clients we’re working on. And we’ve got some new capabilities we’re trying to build out. So the future is super bright and exciting, and there’s a lot of energy as we approach our 10th anniversary.

MediaPost: You’ve been at Xaxis since June 2020. What do you want Xaxis to be going forward? What do you want us to call it a year, or two, or 10 from now?

Wilensky: The world’s largest advanced programmatic services organization is what we are going for.

What I want Xaxis to continue to be is offering best-in-class strategy, execution, measurement and outcomes for our clients using programmatic media and technology. And I want it to continue to be a place where we attract and retain the most fantastic talent.

No matter how much we automate, or how much we rely on technology, we’ll always need bright, ambitious, hard-working, innovative people behind everything that we do.

MediaPost: You’ve had some great tailwinds like the pandemic accelerating many clients into digital media and technological automation. What are your biggest headwinds? Is it data privacy, regulation and potential liabilities? How has Xaxis changed as a result of that?

Wilensky: The cookieless transition and the issues surrounding identity have been both a tailwind and a headwind. We still have to figure out how we will grapple with targeting consumers in 2022. But it is an opportunity, because it is an innovative moment in terms of changing the way we do things and targeting people differently.

In terms of ethics, obviously we’ve got a big investment in our proprietary AI called Co-Pilot, which is based on AI and machine-learning and we are working on perfecting the nuance between AI and ethics to make sure it is a unbiased as possible to make sure we are pushing media optimization into the ethical side of the aisle.

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