Meet GroupM Connect, WPP's Answer To The Mainstreaming Of Programmatic

GroupM ConnectAbout one year ago, GroupM quietly introduced a new structure designed to consolidate its real-time ad buying capabilities across programmatic, social, search and mobile.

Called Connect, the new group appeared to be the WPP-owned media agency network's answer to the growing need for programmatic decentralization of programmatic buying. We have seen that decentralization play out across rival holding companies such as Publicis and Omnicom, with sometimes painful results.

Rather than dissolving its programmatic buying arm, Xaxis, as Publicis Groupe did with VivaKi, GroupM has positioned Connect as a complementary sister entity to Xaxis. Clients of GroupM's “Big M” agencies (Maxus, Mindshare, MediaCom and MEC) will still use Xaxis – some of them, anyway.

“We’ve brought all of the people, operations, data and technology around all real-time programmatic and biddable media … in one big worldwide organization” said Ruud Wanck, global CEO of GroupM Connect. “We firmly believe that going forward, everything that can be bought programmatically will be, simply because it makes sense.”

Connect is comprised of roughly 2,000 programmatic experts across the globe, although relatively few of those are focused on programmatic buying.

At Mindshare, about 70 people support a programmatic buying unit (PBU) that plans and executes for large clients such as Unilever and Kimberly-Clark. It’s done so since 2011. The PBU headcount across all GroupM agencies is somewhat larger than 70, but GroupM does not disclose the exact number of staffers.

By contrast, Xaxis employs nearly 1,000.

Other Connect employees come from the search and social teams at GroupM Interaction, a precursor to Connect with similar goals. Acquisitions including The Exchange Lab, Catalyst and Outrider operate as "specialist layers" within Connect.

All GroupM clients that work with programmatic or biddable media are in some way, shape or form supported by the Connect organization.

“It’s not as though we conceptualized [Connect] and then built it,” said Matt Anderson, head of programmatic at GroupM North America. “We’re doing these things, they work really well and we’re seeing them scale. What we’re not doing is fully leveraging our abilities to pull them together for aggregate benefit. That’s where Connect comes in. It creates that consolidated base.”

Anderson was previously managing director and senior partner at Mindshare, where he ran the PBU that now makes up the bulk of Connect in North America.

From a balance sheet perspective, Connect is a separate organization with its own profit and loss statement. Anderson reports to Brian Lesser, CEO of GroupM North America and founder and former CEO of Xaxis.

But from an agency and client standpoint, Connect employees are simply programmatic experts embedded into existing client teams. Connect intends to scale programmatic expertise across GroupM while preserving agency cultures.

“[MEC isn’t] going to look at the folks that are within the agency at Connect as Connect folks. They’re MEC folks,” Anderson said. “They should look at them and say, ‘I didn’t know you were Connect or MEC. I didn’t know there was delineation – you’re just on my team.’”

Connect is tech- and platform-agnostic. The Exchange Lab’s meta-DSP, Proteus, will allow GroupM agencies to offer clients a completely transparent, fully disclosed media buy. Agencies can create dedicated campaigns for clients that require transparency around and cost of media and placements. This is unlike Xaxis, which is open about its nontransparent, nondisclosed model.

But, according to Anderson, buying transparently in real time only works for larger clients, like Unilever and Kimberly-Clark, with considerable bandwidth and resources.

“Most clients find that the Xaxis model fits them best, simply because the level of commitment [of] bringing in a PBU in is reflective of a desire, an internal bandwidth and an ability to commit to the level of granularity that [Connect’s] model requires,” he said. “It’s not just a matter of funding a team to be able to run a programmatic operation for you. … It’s also understanding that when you step into a fully disclosed, fully transparent model, you pull the risk on the equation side over to you.”

He says Xaxis’ model, in which the desk buys inventory upfront and delivers said media to the client at a mark-up, places the burden of performance on Xaxis.

“Xaxis has over 3,000 clients globally. The basic premise there is that programmatic has a lot of advantages for you. A lot of those are significantly advanced with Xaxis’ position,” Anderson said.

Connect and Xaxis aren’t mutually exclusive. GroupM clients who use Connect can also opt in to buy Xaxis media. They’ll be able to see how much they're paying for Xaxis-originated supply and how it performs, essentially “driving the ship” for their own account, Anderson said.

Although Anderson at times sounds like an advocate for Xaxis, he insists GroupM Connect doesn’t have skin in the game with regard to which option clients or agency account teams prefer.

“Xaxis and Connect are really complementary offerings,” he said. “The question becomes, what is the ROI and investment against buying transparently or through Xaxis?”

Most of GroupM’s media buys, however, still run through Xaxis. Connect could not identify a client.

“Globally we’ve got a relatively big footprint, but a relatively small footprint in terms of total number of clients that are PBU vs. Xaxis,” Anderson said. “Part of it is because Xaxis has been around longer, but it’s also a function of the model.”

Agency View

With support from Connect, GroupM agencies are gearing up their internal programmatic and data-driven planning efforts to achieve the Group’s programmatic vision.

Maxus recently hired Rob Marshall as its head of programmatic in the United Kingdom.

“We [want to] have a coherent voice to the client and increase confidence that this is a really great method of buying media, and not just something that has grown hugely and will quickly fade away,” Marshall said.

Maxus also launched a new tool called Change Planning, which layers data into the planning process to create campaigns that can be better leveraged programmatically.

“Programmatic isn’t just one line on the media plan – it’s way more important than that,” said Nick Vale, head of worldwide planning at Maxus. “We need to ensure that the data … of the micro-moment in programmatic is feeding into the big idea in the traditional way, but equally that the traditional big idea is usable in the ad tech world.”

Programmatic is at the heart of all the work produced at MEC, according to Bruce Kiernan, practice lead for performance marketing North America. And Connect is at the heart of it.

“[Connect] is really the brain power that coordinates programmatic learnings across GroupM accounts,” he said. “It’s the thought leadership that enables the folks who are operating the programmatic space at MEC to stay a head of the curve.”

Connect will sit behind each agency’s efforts to facilitate GroupM’s programmatic evolution at scale – attracting and retaining new talent within each of its agencies. Its training approach will focus on beefing up the expertise within external groups with continued education, training and certification programs.

Anderson said Connect’s structure will be a big talent draw in a competitive space.

“If we can put good training programs in place, offer good career paths for these people and show latitude as well as vertical opportunity, people will feel as though they have greater opportunities in their careers.”

Over the next few years, GroupM plans to have Connect up and running globally as its transparent and agnostic real-time media offering.

“The end objective is to really enable our agencies to run programmatic on behalf of their clients,” said Wanck.

5 Comments

  1. James C.

    Sounds like clients want Xaxis to go the way of Vivaki but WPP found a way to circumvent that by creating Connect to funnel business to Xaxis and keep the double dipping flowing. Does anyone else think this is a bad sign for Xaxis?

    Reply
    • Why would Xaxis go away? Its Sir Martin's Cash Cow, one they will milk until advertisers finally wise up. Advertisers all talk about ROI but the worst ROI they make year after year is trusting these people.

      Reply
  2. Insider

    @paul, @james - you do realise that clients using Xaxis or Connect, do so with their signed consent? ie it is OPTIONAL. So if its so bad as you imply, why dont clients walk way? Hint: one very good reason why ..

    Reply
  3. Charles

    Connect is a misnomer. Smoke & Mirrors would be a more truthful name. It's the WPP way - bureaucratic red tape with sister agencies going after each others businesses while the clients think they are getting value with foo foo dashboards and irrelevant KPIs. Trust me, I worked at two WPP agencies.

    Reply
    • Chester

      "trust me". For all we know you could be a disgruntled former employee who held responsibity for managing the supply of paperclips and ring binders.

      Reply

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