Ad Giant WPP Leads $4.4M Round In Muzy, A Mobile Microblogging Startup With 20M Users

Advertising giant WPP is taking another step into the world of startup investments, this time specifically in mobile and social media. WPP Ventures, a new investment arm of WPP Digital, today announced a stake in Muzy, a social media platform that presents its content arranged in a Pinterest-style grid layout. The site, in some regards, has flown under the radar, but it has some 20 million users and is adding 1 million each month. Terms of the investment were not disclosed but we are trying to find out. It is angel-backed by Marc Andreessen and Ben Horowitz, and we’ve found out that the total size of this latest round is $4.4 million.

That growth, made so far without any marketing, promotion or distribution partners — and the facts that Muzy is social and mobile — are three possible reasons for why WPP took an interest in the site. Another is how WPP Ventures was first introduced to the company. “I met the Muzy founders through a friend at Andreessen Horowitz,” Tom Bedecarré of WPP Ventures told TechCrunch in an interview while he was in Cannes for WPP’s Stream event. Marc Andreessen and Ben Horowitz were early angel investors in Muzy.

Founded in 2011 and based in San Francisco, Muzy is led by co-founders Andrew Chen (CEO) and Matt Rubens (CTO). Chen had also held positions at Mohr Davidow Ventures and Revenue Science, while Rubens, an engineer, has worked at, among other places.

According to a release, the company will be using the funding to staff up — it currently employs less than 10 people — and “build out the suite of creative publishing tools for the Muzy platform.”

At the moment, when you go to the site, you can choose from some 50 widgets to publish content into your page, with a particularly strong emphasis on photos but also incorporating text, games and other content. It the app-within-app facility that sets Muzy apart from other platforms focused on content creation and self-expression, and could be one way for the company to differentiate longer term.

It could also be a way for WPP to look at ways of monetizing. You can imagine, for example, widgets or channels getting sponsored by brands, not to mention pages themselves. In an age where users are getting increasingly desensitized to display advertising online, you can see how new formats like these will continue to be tested out as ways of getting users to engage with marketing and as a way to create business models around sites like Muzy.

WPP has developed something of a track record in making strategic investments into digital, specifically mobile and other emerging areas, as a way of shoring up against larger trends in the industry away from more traditional forms of media like print.

Following where the consumer masses (and their eyeballs) are going, WPP has taken stakes in e-commerce sites like MySupermarket ($10 million in April 2012); and more straight media plays, such as yesterday’s news involving a stake in Fullscreen (undisclosed amount), stakes in Buddy Media (sold to Salesforce), Omniture (sold to Adobe) and more. One the biggest of the biggest investments made by WPP in digital was the company’s own acquisition of digital agency AKQA (June 2012, reportedly at a $550 million valuation).

It’s the AKQA deal that has provided the engine to today’s news around Muzy. The investment is being led by WPP Ventures, a Silicon Valley-based operation for WPP’s bigger investment efforts. Bedecarré, WPP Ventures’ president, is also chairman of AKQA (and, apparently, “Silicon Valley’s favorite ad man.” This is WPP Ventures’ first investment.

The timeline of when WPP may start to leverage Muzy is not laid out but it looks like it will be happening fast.

“WPP clients are looking for access to the next new social platform, the next big mobile app,” Bedecarré told TechCrunch. “I can’t wait to introduce Muzy to our clients and experiment with using their content publishing tools to create brand engagement. As an avid entrepreneur, I also want to help advise the Muzy founders on marketing and promoting their business, which has been operating in stealth mode to this date. I think we can significantly help them boost their growth and global distribution.”

WPP, one of the world’s very biggest ad agencies, says that in 2012 its digital revenues were over $5 billion, some 33% of its total revenues of $16.5 billion. It’s long been pursuing a target of getting 40% of its revenues coming from digital by 2018.

(Updated with comments from Tom Bedecarré.)