MBPT Spotlight: Assembly CEO Martin Cass Is Ready to ‘Outflank’ Those Large Media Agency Holding Companies

Martin Cass, CEO of the recently created media agency Assembly, has a lot of respect for the large media agencies and holding companies he’ll now be competing against, but he says they’re all “vanilla.”

The man who spent almost 20 years at media agency Carat and rose to become its U.S. president before departing in January 2013, believes the big agency holding companies have been unable to change quickly enough to adapt to shifts in the marketplace both digitally and technologically.

“The major agencies are still built primarily to buy television for their clients,” he says. “That’s still the heart of their business. A structural change is needed in the media agency business. Something new needs to be built, something legacy-free that can adapt to the new media marketplace.”

Cass believes that new model is Assembly, which was formed when MDC Media Partners’ media agencies TargetCast and RJ Palmer formally merged last week. “We merged two solid existing media agencies. We’re not starting from scratch. We have a strong client list and we are solidly funded.”

Cass says the goal of the newly merged agency is not just to buy media for clients but to make more creative buys combined with the technology developed by sibling company Varick Media Management, which is MDC’s media trading desk and tech platform.

“We’re not just going to be an ad placement agency,” he says. “Some clients are being sold short by their agencies who are simply buying media. We want to do it differently. We want to make brands come to life with different ways to creatively buy and use media. There is a dearth of that in the agency business today.”

Cass had a mighty successful run at Carat, where he was among those who successfully brought the $3 billion General Motors media account into the agency in 2012.

However, in early 2013 he left the agency and eventually enrolled in the Advanced Management Program at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business.

“I had a fantastic time there but it was just time for me to move on,” he says. And what the five-week program at Wharton taught him excited him about pursuing business moving forward in new and different ways.

While at Wharton, he met an acquaintance of MDC Partners’ CEO Miles Nadal, who introduced them. “We met and talked, and to me it became obvious about the entrepreneurial freedom that Miles encouraged at the MDC agencies. It made it clear that we could do something special and that’s how the idea of merging the two agencies started. We started planning the merger around October and worked on it until we announced it [last week].”

While the two smaller agencies were merged into a larger one, creating more scale so that the new one could compete more effectively for new clients, Cass believes the MDC management philosophy will enable Assembly to still “move quickly and outflank the bigger agencies.”

“The larger agencies in holding companies aren’t very nimble,” he says. “Change doesn’t come easily and it happens slowly.”

One indication of Assembly’s approach to creativity was not only the hiring of digital agency Isobar’s former chief of strategy Mike Nicholas, but the title he’s been given—entrepreneur in resident, chief experience officer.

“It’s a title that is used at venture capital companies,” Cass says, “for someone who is looking out for entrepreneurial opportunities.”

Like Cass, Nicholas is a former Carat executive and also worked for Carat parent Aegis Media Americas and at Isobar, which is under the Aegis umbrella.

“The entrepreneurial function at the media agency holding companies has been bleached out,” Cass says. “For Assembly, Mike Nicholas will be looking for the next big thing. He is in charge of bringing new thinking and new ideas to help us move ahead of our competition. What we are today is not what we will be 18 months from now. The media agency business is constantly changing. He will map out what we need to do moving forward.”

While the formation of Assembly was just announced last week, the agency has been working behind the scenes for a few months. “We are up and running now, but have been working together for months,” Cass says. “We are already participating in pitches.”