Frame.FM chatted with Bill Wise about what he’s learned running Mediaocean, the $400-million-in-revenue adtech company he calls a 56 year old startup, through multiple acquisitions, the COVID-19 pandemic, raising a family, and, now, the AI boom.
Leadership isn’t a sprint or a marathon— it’s a relay race.
When Wise’s company MediaBank merged with Donovan Data Systems, the different employee populations didn’t suggest an easy or natural integration. MediaBank was predominantly staffed by young techies hungry for growth, at the vanguard of the digital movement. Donovan Data Systems, despite its sustained success, was a legacy player with legacy attitudes, says Wise. You might think the young techies would take the upper hand, cajole the oldies into relevance, shed whoever couldn’t keep up, as is the way of history.
Wise, beloved for his uncommon emotional availability as a leader, knew this would at best produce a stilted peace— serviceable but not totally integrated. We needed a third group, he said. People from outside of both companies gradually came to comprise a third of the employees. That’s when things really clicked, said Wise.
It’s not a sprint, and it’s not a marathon, says Wise, correcting the cliche. It’s a relay race. You have to pass the baton to the right people.
Maintain direct and honest lines of communication, and don’t let uncertainty slow action.
No one could have planned for the COVID-19 pandemic. When the world retreated to their homes, Wise didn’t pretend to have all the answers. Leadership case studies about empathy and vulnerability have become standard-issue MBA content. HBR’s pages burst with trust and meaning how-to’s. For Wise, perhaps due to his humble upbringing, caring deeply about other people just seems to come naturally.
So when he began weekly YouTube updates during COVID, nominally the idea was to keep people updated about what was happening. But because of Wise’s genuine care, this was a way to keep the company authentically connected.
When the Black Lives Matter movement became a topic of national concern, Wise admits he was helpless to confront the scale of tragedy at hand. I broke down on the call, he says. I didn’t know what to do.
But the overwhelmingness didn’t prevent Wise from immediately enacting changes to Mediaocean’s recruiting and hiring processes to remove as many biases as possible. Wise’s general philosophy is one that favors action. Whatever incremental improvements can be made immediately, should be.
Invest flexibly in your people.
About 30 people on staff when COVID hit were office managers. The private equity firm part owner of Mediaocean sent instructions about how to furlough. Absolutely not, said Wise. He wasn’t going to abandon anyone at this extraordinary time, it was out of the question.
Instead, he had them retrained for executive and customer support. The idea of managing the crisis from a cost savings perspective was abhorrent to Wise.
He described being rejected by an accounting firm he’d interned for in college. It was the kind of situation in which the internship essentially guaranteed the offer. But Wise was a young man raised by a single mother in Long Island. His manager didn’t think he was sufficiently polished for the job.
Rather than letting the rejection become defensiveness or insecurity, Wise built his own company around generosity and trust. Later, the same manager ended up pitching him.