Kirshenbaum’s Steve Klein brings media expertise to the Net.
Steve Klein, a 38-year-old cyber ad man, is dressed on a recent afternoon in a gray-blue wrinkled T-shirt, khakis and dirty-white Keds. The look befits the two worlds that Klein works in: the youth culture of downtown ad agency Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners, where he has served in various media capacities since 1989, and Silicon Alley, New York’s new media hotbed, where most local interactive advertising executives spend much of their time.
But if Klein’s career at Kirshenbaum has leaned increasingly toward marketing’s digital future, his office betrays his entire career. In addition to being filled with gee-gaws such as a beach ball, a yo-yo and a red toy tractor, under his desk lies a clue to his buttoned-up past: a white notebook titled “Media Module” from Grey Advertising, where Klein received an immersion in media from 1981 to 1986.
Although Klein worked in media planning there on such accounts as General Foods, he
distinguished himself by writing memos that recommended the agency put a computer on every desk. Perhaps the early interest in computers is to be expected from someone who grew up in the engineering-oriented community of Allentown, Pa, close by Lehigh University. But the suggestion, like many that Klein has come up with since, was before its time. “At Grey, the agency was like, ‘What do you want a computer for?'” he recalls. “I remember the first year of MTV I recommended an $80,000 Panasonic promotion for Christmas. The next year that same package cost $400,000.”
That sort of experience, and the corporate politics of the agency business, drove Klein out of advertising in the late 1980s, during which time he worked in the movie industry. After coming to the realization that “there was a lower life form than the ad business,” Klein hooked up with agency founder Richard Kirshenbaum, becoming a media director at the shop in 1989.
Although it took time for Klein’s interests to crystallize into his new media specialty, there were signposts all along the way that such a career shift was inevitable. He has been pals with Halsey Minor, chief executive of CNET for years, and has sometimes played the role of digital missionary. Among his converts is Scott Schiller, vice president of advertising and partnership marketing at Sony Online Ventures, a Kirshenbaum client. “Steve believed in interactive before cable emerged as a viable medium,” says Schiller, who spent much his career working in ad sales at MTV. “He’s one of the few people with the grounding in traditional marketing but a full understanding of technological and intellectual necessities of digital media.”
Klein didn’t think of his return to the agency business as a return to advertising, per se. “It’s a culture of pushing it,” he says of Kirshenbaum. “This place is very competitive about beating other people’s brands and not just buying media.” Recently, Klein has begun to push his way beyond Kirshenbaum, starting a spinoff company, iballs, that aims to provide inter-
active media planning, buying and measurement. Klein is still mum about the company’s details. Although, with Kirshenbaum taking only a minority stake in iballs, Klein will retain his duties at the agency.
The decision by Klein to keep a foot in both camps underscores that he still sees room for innovative interactive thinking within Kirshenbaum’s client base. He urges clients to “not necessarily use [the Internet] to advertise. Use it to transact It’s a whole new way to do business.”
The agency’s early interactive projects have reflected his beyond-the-banner mind. An adherent of building online communities, Klein and company built a site two years ago for former client Snapple which focused on that concept. “There were all these letters that people wrote to the company,” he says. “We built this thing so people could express their feelings publicly.”
For SonyStation, the ambitious gaming site, Kirshenbaum played a key advisory role. The agency did brand planning and conducted focus groups to gauge reactions on effective online advertising.
As for his future plans, Klein won’t divulge details, but it’s obvious he expects to push the boundaries of what agencies and clients perceive as the utility of interactive media. “The next may not come out of Silicon Valley” is all he’ll say. “It may come out of Kirshenbaum.” — Anya Sacharow