38. Brian Lesser – from 24/7 to Xaxis and Xandr

Brian Lesser was a long-time leader at WPP entities such as the Media Innovation Group (MIG), Xaxis and GroupM. He left GroupM in 2017 to join AT&T, ultimately guiding the newly-formed Xandr ad platform, which included AppNexus. Since 2020, Brian has been CEO of InfoSum, a distributed data collaboration platform.

His exposure to the ad business began early and at a lofty level, when as a pre-teen he trailed his dad into the offices of Ogilvy & Mather on 8th Avenue in NYC, where Mike Lesser was CEO. The well-appointed office, “nice suits and … funny friends” intrigued the young Brian.

Nonetheless, in short-lived rebellion, he studied political science at the University of Pennsylvania in preparation for a legal-political career: a few months in the district office of the long-time, late NJ Democratic Senator Frank Lautenberg redirected him back to the ad business.

Brian joined DMB&B and then Procter & Gamble, learning brand management on a series of ultra-glamorous accounts with an alimentary theme: Pampers, Charmin and Baby Wipes. Later, he worked at a high-flying dot-com web-building shop called iXL, which like so many high-flying dot-com web-building shops imploded dramatically in 2001. (Years later, iXL emerged from bankruptcy and was folded into Razorfish.) Meanwhile, a suddenly unemployed Brian Lesser did what #PaleoAdTech co-host Martin Kihn did a few years earlier and got an MBA from Columbia Business School.

In 2006, Brian found himself inside David Moore’s innovative 24/7 Media as head of product marketing. At the time, as Brian tells Marty in this panoramic episode, 24/7 had three business lines: an ad server (Open Adstream), ad network and search ads business. It had recently acquired a search marketing firm called Decide Interactive.

Brian made his way to VP of product management and was at 24/7 when in one of the most dramatic turnaround stories of the dot-com era, it was acquired by WPP for a healthy $650 million in mid-2007. (You can hear the Battle of Britain-esque saga from 24/7 founder David Moore himself on a previous episode here.)

Thus, Brian was acquired into WPP and launched on a decade of stellar career wins as he helped invent the modern programmatic agency. His first stop was the Media Innovation Group, a kind of engineering skunkworks within WPP that built technology for the use of its agencies. MIG built a platform that has been called by some the first DMP — at least, for agencies — and the first agency trading desk, before those terms were current.

Funded by a $6 million investment approved by Sir Martin Sorrell, who ran WPP, MIG bought a Netezza database and built what Brian calls a “performance database” for ads, pixeling ad units and tying them to people via cookies; by linking these browser-level journeys to outcomes across a heterogenous campaign, the platform could measure and ultimately optimize performance. Open Adstream was wired in as well, and the value to clients was an ability to see across ad networks, and later real-time impressions.

It was called Zeus (or ZAP for Zeus Advertising Platform) and was not sold separately. [Trivia: Zeus was later used by the Washington Post as the name of its premium ad network in 2021.] After a combustive scene orchestrated by Sir Martin, components of WPP including MIG, MEC Audience Buying and Planning Team and targ.ad, which pre-combustive scene were somewhat in competition, were combined into a single node. What emerged was Xaxis, announced in 2011 and led by Brian Lesser.

Xaxis was “the central audience-buying company for GroupM,” and it rolled out in North America, Europe and Australia; its pitch was campaign optimization. In the beginning, Brian says, value-based pricing prevailed, and Xaxis’ clients were okay with fees based on “a percent of media.”

After Rocket Fuel went public admitting to take rates that approached half of media spend, advertisers took notice, and Brian admits this event “definitely had an impact,” which peaked in 2015-16 and then “settled down.”

Xaxis’ success propelled Brian into WPP orbit, and he was named CEO of GroupM in 2015 at a time when the WPP Group commanded $106 billion of media spending and was the largest media-buying company on earth. He oversaw over a dozen holding company entities including Wavemaker, Mindshare, MAXUS and MediaCom, and of course Xaxis. It was — as he freely admits — a “promotion” (in air quotes), putting him on top of a complex, matrixed organization vigorously spinning wheels within wheels.

At the time, his appointment was welcomed by programmatic pundits but worried traditionalists, who feared a harbinger of a robot invasion. They were right and wrong, as Brian told a reporter for Campaign at the time: “The role of the machine should be to make the agencies more efficient so that they can focus on the brilliant ideas that our clients expect from them.”

But his appointment is still a symbolic moment in the dash of data-driven advertising, as machines gained a seat in the wood-paneled board rooms offline.

A meeting with AT&T Chairman and CEO Randall Stephenson in Dallas, the same day Amazon bought Whole Foods, convinced an initially reluctant Brian that AT&T could succeed where others (aka Verizon, which eventually sold its media dreams to PE) had struggled. He joined in 2018 amidst a flurry of generally favorable media coverage, including this Superman-ish Ad Age cover:

Sept. 10, 2018 issue of Ad Age, announcing Brian Lesser’s move to AT&T

AT&T’s vision seemed logical and was later summarized by AppNexus’ Brian O’Kelley as “data plus media plus connectivity equals more money.” However, issues emerged immediately: the Trump-fired Department of Justice sued to block AT&T’s planned merger with CNN-owning Time Warner. If the suit succeeded, the grand vision wasn’t so grand; and most of Brian’s first year on the job turned out to be diverted into legal channels. Plans were delayed for a critical year.

Stephenson told Brian to “hit the ground running” in mid-2018, once the merger was approved. Around then, Ad Age’s Jeanine Poggi described Brian as “a popular man at Cannes this week” and quoted him as saying: “The future state of the ad business is a platform business”

He explicitly cited Google and Facebook as models, although not precise analogies because their content was worse. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, Brian and his team had been scouring M&A targets large and small, eventually landing on O’Kelley’s AppNexus, which it acquired for a reported $1.6 billion in 2018. (Working the deal was none other than David Moore’s right-hand man John Hsu, whom Brian befriended at 24/7, and who was now AppNexus’ CFO.)

Shortly thereafter, AppNexus was combined with AT&T’s ad businesses including DirecTV and a big data team to form Xandr (based on Alexander, as in Graham Bell), with Brian leading. Xandr’s mission was to build a cross-channel ad buying platform with inventory from multiple sources including other MVPDs (e.g., Altice USA and Frontier Communications), including TV, video, display and other formats, on phones, TVs and computers.

Brian Lesser and AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson at the launch of Xandr

Xandr was unleashed during a three-day event at the Ritz-Carlton Bacara, hosting Derek Jeter and Issa Rae.

SANTA BARBARA, CALIFORNIA – SEPTEMBER 16: attends the Relevance Conference at The Ritz-Carlton Bacara, Santa Barbara on September 16, 2019 in Santa Barbara, California. (Photo by Rich Polk/Getty Images for Xandr)

O’Kelley left before the year was out and later admitted confusion over AT&T’s strategic direction. TimeWarner was renamed WarnerMedia. Ultimately, Brian himself left the company in 2020 after Stephenson was replaced by John Stankey, whom Brian respected but whose ad tech vision perhaps varied from the original plan. Ultimately, AT&T sold Xandr to Microsoft, spun off WarnerMedia to Discovery, and “walked back” the platform idea, much like Verizon before them. A colorful postmortem in Variety neatly summed up the likely culprits in its headline: “… Culture Clashes, Massive Debt and Donald Trump”

Although content for the moment at home “hanging out with my kids,” Brian helped InfoSum raise its Series A and joined as CEO in 2020 at the start of the pandemic. He’d been a customer at AT&T and was impressed by the company’s privacy-safe data collaboration technology, which spins up clean rooms and co-ops among parties without co-mingling data.

Would he ever go back to running an agency or holding group? “I’d never say never,” Brian admits, “but I like running a tech company.”

[In a final piece of ad tech trivia: Brian Lesser was actually the very first guest on our friend Zach Rodgers‘ long-running AdExchanger Talks podcast, back on Sept. 23, 2016.]

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