McMahon Makes Barter Grow at Orion

May 6, 2009  •  Post A Comment

Instead of going into the secretive world of the CIA, Brian McMahon wound up in the mysterious world of media barter.
Mr. McMahon, CEO at Orion Trading, part of Interpublic Group’s Mediabrands unit, says barter is a service that many clients like as a way to lower the cash costs of media. And they keep on doing barter deals even though, according to Mr. McMahon, most barter companies have been “long on promises and short on delivery.”
Because clients want the service, Interpublic set up Orion, one of the few barter companies owned by an ad agency group.
“We’re going into our 13th year,” Mr. McMahon says. “We’re global now. We’re in eight different countries and clients like what we do.”
One of the things Orion does is fix barter deals for clients that other barter companies not aligned with media buying agencies have messed up. If the media acquired through barter isn’t right, “we’ll go in there and we’ll replace the credits and we’ll run it exactly as the client ordered” by working with one of the Interpublic agencies, or with an independent agency, if that’s what the clients want.
In barter, a client is able to give some of its unwanted assets to the barter company, which sells them off and exchanges the proceeds for media credits that usually are worth more than the value the client could get for those assets by themselves.
In one recent case, Orion exchanged a 767 aircraft for about $35 million in media credits for a client in the freight business that Mr. McMahon declined to name. The client used the credits to buy national cable, spot TV and Internet ads in the U.S. and the United Kingdom.
In another deal, Orion unloaded eight MD-80s. It also has been involved in real estate and other complicated financial transactions. In all, it does hundreds of millions of dollars worth of deals annually.
Mr. McMahon says barter is a particularly useful service with the economy in its current state.
“It’s a great Mediabrands solution,” he says. “Agencies right now are looking at how we can help the client’s bottom line. Well, Interpublic’s been doing that for 12 years. That’s what our unit has been specifically structured to do. We go in and we look at ways that we can work with the client and take assets that are impaired on their balance sheet and use that to partly fund their media. And clients love it.”
Mr. McMahon, who grew up in Potomac, Md., just outside Washington, D.C., got into the trading business right out of college.
He had an affinity for languages—he speaks four—and was recruited out of Keene State College in New Hampshire by the CIA. (At one point he was pre-med, but fainting at the sight of blood during a caesarian section prompted him to change his major to finance.)
He met his wife just before he was to attend the agency’s Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif., and she didn’t want him working in the spy business.
He ended up instead with a trading company in Paris that was looking for someone who spoke French and understood finance. From there, he helped start the barter firm Ikon. He later started his own company in London and then was hired by Interpublic.
Mr. McMahon and his wife have three sons, two in college and one still in high school.
“I think the best way to describe me as a person is I look at my family as my job, and my work here is my hobby,” he says. “I think if you go through life like that, you really enjoy what you do on a day-to-day basis. You look at your corporate environment as your hobby and you damn well better like it. But your real raison d’etre is your family.”
The three boys are all heavily involved in sports. His oldest is 6 feet 9 inches tall and plays football at Hobart; the middle son is a four-time state champion skier; the youngest is a state champion in lacrosse.
He credits their mother.
“I’m the cheering father in the stands. They get their genes and their looks from her,” he says.
Who knew?: Mr. McMahon says his secret passion is gardening: “I love finding an interesting plant and bringing that seed into its next stage of life.” He has a quarter-acre garden at his home, a farm built in the 1790s that he figures has been cultivated since the days of Napoleon. Recently he was splitting hosta plants. “It’s like splitting a potato. You cut a piece off, stick it in the ground, and out comes a beautiful plant,” he says. “I’m fascinated by the peacefulness of what gardening brings to you.”


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