Media Agency Report: Q&A With Zenith’s Richard Hamilton

Interviewed by Andrew McMains
Simplicity is the elixir of Rich Hamilton’s life–from the “Eight Commitments to Excellence” posted outside his office to his use of a single sheet of paper to work through complex problems. He also embraces research, which he says is the “bedrock” of sound decisions. Tied to that is a hunger for information, the type Michael Douglas’ character sought in Wall Street –one of Hamilton’s favorite movies. “Stop sending me information; start getting me some,” says Hamilton, quoting Gordon Gekko.
Part coach, part professor, Hamilton, 48, juggles everything from client management to new- business pitches as U.S. CEO of Zenith Media, an operation with billings of $2.8 billion and a staff of 369. He leads by example, offering learned advice and seemingly infinite patience. But don’t mistake him for a softy. In fact, worldwide CEO John Perriss perceives a “quiet tenacity” in Hamilton that belies his unassuming appearance. Although he is hands-on, he isn’t heavy-handed, says Wendy Marquardt, director of client services. “You do have the right to be wrong,” she says, adding, “He listens. He is very fair.”
Already, 2000 has been a busy year for Hamilton, who launched Web spinoff Zenith Interactive Services in April and found himself part of a media frenzy in January, when a federal program that credits TV networks for incorporating anti-drug messages became headline news. Hamilton, who was quoted in The New York Times and seen on CNN, came up with the idea two years ago, when the Office of National Control Drug Policy was a client. He recently reflected on that and other industry issues during a two-hour conversation over breakfast in midtown Manhattan.

ADWEEK: Where did the idea for the anti-drug message credit come from?
HAMILTON: We noticed the media was running programs that essentially delivered the message with a lot of power. At the same time, we were asking a lot from the media in the form of this pro-bono match against the paid portion of the campaign. In other words, we were asking the media to contribute dollar-for-dollar values against the paid portion of the campaign–essentially giving the government 50 cents on the dollar, which, in a strong advertising market, is a difficult thing to do. So Alan Levitt, who was our client, and I came up with the idea of allowing some credit for program segments that were able to deliver the message. It was in the spring of 1998 a few months before the national launch of the government’s campaign.
ADWEEK: Were you surprised by the reaction when it went public?
HAMILTON: I was surprised by the magnitude of the reaction, although if you’re asking if I thought there might be some controversy, sure.
ADWEEK: Why is that?
HAMILTON: Because it was a unique initiative that involved an agreement to give credit for program segments that are not traditional advertising messages. It’s important to point out that for years the networks have been producing and airing socially responsible television, not just [about] illegal drugs, but on other subjects.
ADWEEK: Do you see any problem with entertainment intersecting with sales, the demands of one preying on the demands of another?
HAMILTON: No, for the simple reason that participation in the program portion of the pro-bono match was voluntary. We simply said, “If you guys plan to continue to air programming that occasionally contains this message that’s great. We won’t rule out the possibility that some of these program segments could be credited against a portion of the pro-bono match.”
ADWEEK: There’s a frenzy of consolidations going on inside the industry. Does that put more pressure on you to consider opportunities, to look at deals?
HAMILTON: Well, one of the things [Zenith worldwide CEO] John Perriss does is evaluate those possibilities. There are no active discussions along that line currently as it relates to Zenith. But certainly, he has in the past. And he continues to have his eye on that.
ADWEEK: What does Zenith look for in a partner?
HAMILTON: The quality of the people, the client list and the state of the business. We would eventually like to have a second brand in the U.S.–much as BDM has Starcom and MediaVest.
ADWEEK: When I asked Kevin Roberts of Saatchi & Saatchi about the possibility of doing a deal with Grey, his reaction was, “How does that make my company better? I don’t see any value in that.” He did say, however, that media is a different ball game, and that size does matter there. In essence, he doesn’t dismiss the notion of a potential deal with Grey on the media side. Do you see any opportunities there?
HAMILTON: Well, I have a lot of respect for MediaCom and Grey. It’s just speculation. There are no conversations going on. Hypothetically, they would be a good partner.
HAMILTON: They are a very capable organization of a good size. I have reason to think that our respective sizes are comparable.
ADWEEK: Can you talk about where the new talent is coming from and how difficult it is to bring good people on board?
HAMILTON: I think that whole conversation is really overblown. People have been talking about how hard it is to get people into our business for 10 or 15 years. It’s always been an issue. Does it get a little harder each year? Yeah. And the reason for that is the economy is healthy, and the job market is healthy. So you have to create a workplace that people want to work in. It’s up to us to make our career opportunities attractive to young people. I just get annoyed when I hear people complaining about how they can’t get people.
ADWEEK: Well, how is it any different from the upfront, in terms of supply and demand? Is there not a greater supply of jobs out there?
ADWEEK: With fewer people to hold them?
HAMILTON: Yes. OK. We’re all grown-ups. I just think it’s a bunch of whining, to tell you the truth. I prefer not to whine about it. I’d rather go back down there and figure out what we can do to make our environment more attractive to people.
ADWEEK: There are a lot of strong leaders running media agencies, but 10, 15 years from now, will they be as strong? And will there be enough quality people at the entry level?
HAMILTON: My strategy for 25 years has been to build it up from within. That doesn’t mean we don’t hire [outside] people above the entry level. We’ve grown enough over the past three years where we’ve had to hire a lot of people who were not entry level. But what’s going on alongside that is a strategy to bring young, entry-level talent into the business and help them grow with us. My philosophy toward people is a nurturing one. You have to nurture people in order to hold on to them and to build in them a commitment to eventually become one of the senior management [leaders] in the organization.
ADWEEK: Can you reflect on your early years and how that nurturing helped you stay in the business as long as you have?
HAMILTON: There was a guy I interviewed with as an entry-level trainee [when I was] 23 years old. His name is Mike Moore, and he’s now the CEO of MediaVest. He said to me in the interview: “If you came to work for us, what would you do here?” Which I thought was a great question. But I was very immature then. I said, “Well, I don’t know what you do here, but the way I approach my work, regardless of what I’m doing, is based on the idea that when I walk in here, if I walk in here, somebody will tell me to do something. I’ll have a supervisor, and that person will tell me to do something, right?” He said, “Yeah.” And I said, “Well, what I will do is evaluate what’s going on as fast as I can, so that I can figure out a better way to do what I’ve been asked to do, or something additional to do that will add some value.” That’s my philosophy for the workplace: find a superior solution. Then I said to him, “However, you need to know that I’m the sort of fellow who likes to wear a pair of shoes for a couple of weeks before I decide if they’re comfortable. I have to tell you, if I don’t like it here, I’ll be gone in six months.”
ADWEEK: What job was this?
HAMILTON: Assistant media buyer at Benton & Bowles, $7,000 a year.
ADWEEK: What year?
HAMILTON: 1974. So he sat back, looked at me and said, “OK.” Now, what did he mean? He meant the same thing I said to you earlier. It’s up to him to give me–if he thinks I have any talent–the kind of environment I’m going to want to work in. Because people work for two reasons: They work to make a living and because they get a kick out of it, because they like it. You have to make a living, but also people want to go home at the end of the day thinking they learned something. About two months after I got there, I [discovered I] really liked it. And I went into Mike’s office and said, “You know something? These shoes are really comfortable.” I stayed there 22 years.
ADWEEK: Do you think in today’s instant-gratification society it becomes harder to find people with the patience to learn the ropes?
HAMILTON: No doubt about it. When I came into the business, you didn’t think that way. George Simko’s office was in the corner. He was Mike’s boss. What you thought was, “Hey, if I happen to be good at this, and I worked at it and I paid the dues, I could be in that office.” That was the ambition then. There’s less of that now.
My advice to young people is, “Look, I don’t expect that from you. I don’t doubt you’re going to be restless. I don’t doubt you’re going to get offers. But just remind yourself of the opportunity we represent and on the first day you arrive, don’t assume you’re going to leave in two or three years. And by the way, you’ve got to do what’s right for you.” Anybody in my position who says anything different is blowing smoke.
ADWEEK: I think it goes back to what you were saying before about learning things, growing and wanting to challenge yourself.
HAMILTON: Yeah. I feel like I’ve been so lucky because over 25 years, I have seldom felt like I wasn’t challenged. To be able to say that after 25 years is a lot different than saying it after seven years. I think what happens to a lot of people, if not most people, is they get into a sustaining situation and it becomes flat.
In a way, you talked a lot today about how tough and challenging the business has become. The problems are what they are. You could think of them as challenges–they do make life quite stimulating. I somehow managed to pick the right industry for me–and I feel lucky about that.