MediaMath GC Brian Miller on dividing labor, multiplying opportunities and always encouraging communication
The division of labor at most companies is rather cut-and-dried: The boss gives you an assignment. You complete it. End of story. But Brian Miller, General Counsel (GC) of MediaMath, leading provider of digital media trading technology and services and inventor of the demand side platform (DSP), chooses to let his legal team members pick from an array of opportunities.
“It gives my staff a sense of ownership,” he said. “People perform better when they have a vested interest and when they’re excited about their work.”
Of course, the process isn’t 100 percent self-selection. Otherwise, the more humdrum tasks might get overlooked.
“Some projects are more routine and less appealing,” Miller acknowledged, “so I’ll suggest who should handle each one. It’s a way to expose them to different parts of the business, and helps them develop different skill sets.”
As an example, he points to a team member who went through a grueling negotiation with an outside attorney. “She learned a lot from that experience, and she’ll be better prepared the next time,” Miller said.
The arrangement works well at MediaMath because there’s open communication within the legal team. Everyone’s aware of what the others are working on, providing flexibility for a shift in workloads—during vacations or unscheduled absences, for instance.
Miller also schedules daily check-ins with his staff, noting: “Sometimes we discuss upcoming strategic initiatives or new products; at other times, tactics and negotiation techniques. If someone’s facing a particularly thorny agreement, we can do a ‘cold read’ of the document to make sure everyone’s comfortable with it.”
Private-Practice vs. In-House
Although he offers plenty of private-practice and corporate experience (GC of EducationDynamics LLC; Senior Corporate Counsel at LivePerson; and positions at law firms Gunderson Dettmer and Debevoise & Plimpton), Miller derives the most satisfaction from in-house work.
“The biggest distinction is that you can get to know the business in depth, maybe over the course of years,” he said. “You can see every detail—its IT [information technology] structure, payroll processes, sales team training and negotiation tactics. In private practice, you might help close a major deal and then just move on to another client. But when you work in house, you have many chances to see how your work directly benefits the company.”
The in-house environment is rewarding, too. “In a law firm, you often must stay until the work is finished, even if it takes until 3 am. With an in-house practice, that’s the exception. You put in fewer hours, but they’ll be intense—lots of smaller, but still pressing, projects. You also find yourself interacting with people that don’t share your education and background—engineers, accountants, salespeople—so your overall knowledge of the business will broaden.”
Clear and ongoing communication throughout the company is essential. “Our summaries and analyses for executives must be succinct and in plain language,” Miller said.
That derives in part from his department’s status as a “cost center.” Much as in the advertising field, it’s difficult to evaluate legal advice in dollars-and-cents terms.
“When you’re in private practice,” Miller explained, “people will seek out your firm because they understand the need for your advice. But in house, we have to explain the issues and their operational impact in ways they’ll readily understand and adapt.”
Striking a Balance
The relatively fewer hours can enable a better work-life balance than you might find in a high-pressure law firm.
“My wife is in private practice, so we both have demanding schedules. For us, morning is the most important time to share with our two-year-old daughter,” Miller said. “We’ll make coffee together, and she’ll ‘read’ the newspaper with us. We’ll also make time to read to her (the Mo Willems’ Knuffle Bunny books are currently in heavy rotation) or play with her Lego sets, before our workdays begin.”
During the workday, Miller and his wife communicate regularly, whether just to check in or to adapt to unexpected schedule changes (they use a common calendar to track their obligations). After work, the Millers focus their attention on their little one until her bedtime, and spend the rest of the evening getting caught up on work and unwinding.
For eight years Miller has served on the board of MOUSE, a nonprofit organization that empowers underserved youth to learn, lead and create with technology; for the past six, he has served as Chairman.
“MOUSE was a pro bono client at Debevoise & Plimpton, and I was interested in community outreach,” Miller said. “My mother was a teacher, and I always thought it to be one of the more rewarding activities you can do. MOUSE started in 1997 as a way to get underserved schools online. It’s evolved into an organization that teaches students hard skills in technology—such as in 3D printing, robotics, game design and other commercial applications—while developing their leadership skills.”
The program has helped more than 23,000 students sharpen their tech skills; these students, in turn, support nearly 2 million fellow students, teachers and administrators in their schools and communities.
“It really gives the kids a chance to shine,” Miller said, “and it’s resulted in higher rates of attendance and graduation. At least 65 percent of the students at most schools that MOUSE serves are eligible for free or reduced-rate lunches, so these are opportunities that the schools themselves probably couldn’t afford to provide.”