Brian Lesser had every reason to be proud of Xandr, the ad-tech company he led. On Wednesday, it unveiled a new deal to do work with Walt Disney, WarnerMedia and AMC Networks. He celebrated in an odd way: He quit.
Lesser, a well-regarded advertising executive, had expanded his profile after coming aboard in the summer of 2017 as CEO of a new unit devoted to figuring out ways to use its parent company’s massive troves of consumer data to help advertisers place their commercials in more intelligent fashion. The parent company is a massive entity known as AT&T and Lesser joined just as it was about to snap up the glitzy entertainment assets of Time Warner for a whopping $85.4 billion.
Lesser’s resignation became known Wednesday, after the company, now known as Xandr, struck a pact with several big media outlets to make available new data sets that would help Madison Avenue in the industry’s coming “upfront” ad-sales market. A person familiar with the matter confirmed his departure, reported previously by Reuters. This person said Lesser had ambitions beyond running Xandr, and was considered an internal candidate to take over as CEO of WarnerMedia, But he discovered he would not be getting the job, this person said, suggesting Lesser may have other opportunities he is considering.
AT&T did not respond to a query seeking comment.
His departure could crimp some of AT&T’s big plans for WarnerMedia. Lesser’s role was viewed as important enough that he initially reported directly to AT&T Chairman and CEO Randall Stephenson, then to John Stankey when he was named the parent company’s COO. Madison Avenue was interested enough in his plans that many agency luminaries traveled to Santa Barbara conferences for two consecutive autumns to hear Lesser discuss how Xandr would help make TV advertising as efficient and targeted as the commercials that appear on digital media, where marketers can use data and IP addresses to determine more about a consumer than just gender or age.
Xandr was also exerting influence on some key parts of its corporate sibling, WarnerMedia. That company had helped strike a new industry alliance called Open AP, where NBCUniversal, Viacom, Fox and Univision gathered to help advertisers find narrower audience types – like expectant mothers or first-time car buyers – that could be used across the various companies. But WarnerMedia, which helped found the alliance before it was bought by AT&T, discovered its new parent had its own plans for its new acquisition – with Xandr.
“I would expect the two organizations, the WarnerMedia ad sales team and Xandr, to get closer and closer over time,” Lesser told Variety in December. “In fact, that’s already happening.” There was one school of thought in the media industry that Xandr might even take broader control of ad sales at WarnerMedia, which has been trying to define itself after its former president, Donna Speciale, was ousted last year as AT&T sought its own people to oversee its Madison Avenue connections.
Xandr and WarnerMedia planned to present jointly at this year’s upfront and Lesser’s unit was going to be involved in designing ads that could be placed in an ad-supported version of the soon-to-launch streaming-video service HBO Max.
In short, Lesser’s unit is supposed to be the engine that helps monetize AT&T’s Time Warner purchase. While WarnerMedia ramps up the creation of video content to bring audiences to screens big and small, and DirecTV tries to establish a connection in consumer homes, it’s Xandr’s job to find new ways to get Madison Avenue into the mix and provide financial fuel. “What we want to get to is we want to say to one of our clients, ‘You can now reach the audience you want to reach across any program, in any device’,” Lesser said last year.
It wasn’t always clear how much leverage Xandr had won in the market. Some ad buyers charged that the company was slow to ramp up and spent a lot of time digesting a spate of acquisitions. Xandr saw revenue rise 16% in 2019 to $2 billion, but saw operating profit slip.
Many eyes in the advertising world were on Lesser because he arrived at AT&T with a top pedigree. He helped launch Xaxis, a platform for so-called “programmatic” buying that helped ad giant WPP make its way into that once-nascent market. Within a few years, he was made CEO of the North American operations of GroupM, WPP’s giant consortium of media-and-ad buying operations.
Lesser no doubt has another act waiting in the wings. In the meantime, possible candidates to take over his role at Xandr might include Kirk McDonald, the unit’s chief business officer, who previously worked as its chief marketing officer and was expected to be one of the faces bringing Xandr and WarnerMedia to clients in the coming upfront. Mike Welch, Xandr’s executive vice president of product and business development, meanwhile, has been instrumental in getting the company’s data and assets together and bringing clients on board in deals like the one announced earlier today.
Lesser’s departure is the latest in a parade of senior executives who have left AT&T since the WarnerMedia purchase. He follows a line that includes Speciale, the former ad-sales chief; David Levy, the former Turner president who had deep ties with sports leagues, distributors and advertisers; and Richard Plepler, the former head of HBO. Lesser wasn’t as well-known as those people. But he was poised to be – and may again, in quick order.