Big changes for Federated Media: Deanna Brown is out, Battelle is back in

By Sarah Lacy , written on February 28, 2013

From The News Desk

Big news at Federated Media today, founder John Battelle is stepping back in as CEO after two years of not running the company day to day. Deanna Brown will be stepping down.

The company offered the usual boiler plate statement on the move: How great everything is, that Battelle is excited to take a more active role, thanking Brown for her contributions, etc. Battelle wrote a bit more about the move here. From that post:

FMP has grown dramatically, but it’s also had its challenges. Last year, for example, we made the difficult but important decision to rethink the company so as to lean into our two most promising lines of business – content marketing (which we lay claim to inventing as “conversational marketing” some seven years ago) and programmatic marketing (which we invested in heavily last year, after acquiring a very fast growing business in Lijit Networks in Fall of 2011). It meant stepping back from something we had been doing for some time – directly selling standard display banners  -- but it proved to be the right choice. FMP is having a great first half of 2013, and I couldn’t be more excited about our roadmap and potential for the rest of the year and beyond.
It's hard to know from the outside how well Federated has been doing. I've heard mixed things from investors and others close to the company. Federated had had a rocky road over the last year -- as Battelle alludes below -- between moving offices, making big changes in these staff, and expanding and changing the business model. Some have surmised that Brown was simply burned out (which Battelle seems to back up in his post).

Others saw this as an encouraging sign that Federated might be going back to its original vision of smart integration of branded content with high profile publishers. You could argue that's more relevant today than it was in the mid-2000s with the interest in sponsored content, native ads, and in stream advertising.

It was an iconic company of the early Web 2.0 movement, when companies like Digg were seen as lean experiments, and everyone was loathe to take on too much venture capital. Federated gave companies like Digg and TechCrunch a way to get instant revenues without building out their own sales forces. The trouble is the more high profile companies typically outgrow them. Meanwhile the second generation of blogs (including us) have soured on the ad network model, preferring instead to own their (our) own inventory.

That said, Federated has expanded its business over the years and has put on stellar industry events, which can be strong revenue generators. Events are particularly Battelle's strong suit. He's an ace moderator with connections to book some of the biggest names in tech.

It was a shock last year when we broke that Battelle was scrapping the annual Web 2.0 conference after eight years to focus more on his book. It was one of the must-attend events of the year.

My first thought was that, perhaps, now that he's leaning back in at FM, a big three-day conference may be back in the works? Here's what he said on his own blog a year ago. (Emphasis added by me):

For the most part, it has to do with my book, the subject of which was outlined in my previous post. As the person who focuses on the core product – the programming on the stage – I just could not pull off both writing a book and creating a pitch-perfect onstage program. It takes months and months of hard work to execute a conference like Web 2 (and not just by me). My partners at O’Reilly and UBM TechWeb are full to the brink with other conferences, and after months of discussions about how we might route around this problem, we all agreed there really wasn’t a way to do it. It’s not fun being the guy who stops the party, but in this case, I have to step up and take responsibility.

That’s not to say we won’t be back – we’re keeping our options open there. For now, the Web 2 Summit is on hiatus. Each of the partners will continue to produce conferences (I am doing five for FM this year alone, and have ideas about others in the works). We’re just letting the Web 2 Summit lay fallow for a year. But it's clear any new undertakings would have to fit with FM's new strategy. Battelle vowed in his post that his going to cut out other activities as a result of making this move -- including the book that he quit the Web 2.0 Summit to focus on:

I agonized about leaving the CEO’s chair, and I’ve spent the two years since then convincing myself (and many of you) that the right path for me was writing a book , running various conferences, and ruminating on what the “next big thing” might be.

But I’ve come to realize that it’s OK to change your mind, as long as you are following your heart. I love the book I’m working on, and I don’t plan to abandon it (I’m bringing on a co-author). And I love the conferences I do, and I’ll still be doing them (though I’ll be hiring someone to run them full time). The company wouldn't comment further, saying Battelle and Brown would be heads down during this transition, but offered up an interview in early April. We'll try to uncover more details between now and then.

Personally, I'm rooting for Battelle to make Federated a more relevant company to where media is going. Love him or hate him (and people do both), Battelle is a unique guy with disruptive ideas and a forceful personality, and the Silicon Valley media ecosystem needs more of those. While we chose not to go the ad network route, content creators can always use more ways of generating revenue, and Battelle has long been a thought leader on the space.

[Image courtesy wikimedia]