Bill Koenigsberg | Adweek Bill Koenigsberg | Adweek
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Bill Koenigsberg

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bill koenigsberg aspired to be a professional tennis player, but injuries while playing at the University of Miami forced him to give up the sport. Instead, he immersed himself in his studies, majoring in marketing. Upon graduation, he jumped on a plane and moved to New York, taking his first job at a media services agency, before landing at Media General, a company he convinced to loan him $10 million to spin off his own media agency, Horizon Media. That was in 1989.

Today, Horizon is one of the only remaining independent media services companies that has not been eaten up by the larger conglomerates. Media billings are in the $1.4 billion range, and Koenigsberg is hoping to hit the $1.75 billion mark sometime next year. Over the past year alone, the company has won close to $300 million in new business. And over the past several years, it has shown consistent year-to-year billings growth of 25 percent to 30 percent.

Among the new clients brought in by Horizon over the past year are Panasonic, Harrah's Entertainment Group, Amp'd Mobile, Webster Bank, Honda Local Dealer Group of Southern California, Telemundo, Lasik Eye Care, Orlando Tourism Board, and Delta Air Lines. In an age when most independent media agencies are a dying breed, Horizon is thriving. Koenigsberg was a pioneer in starting Horizon 17 years ago, and his efforts to keep the agency competitive with the big-boy media agencies over the years, and this year in particular, earn him the 2006 Mediaweek All-Star Media Executive of the Year.

Koenigsberg, who is still an avid recreational tennis player, says he didn't just concentrate on his major after his tennis injuries, he went to work. During his senior year, he won a statewide Florida college marketing competition, creating a public service campaign for the American Heart Association. After interning at a few local ad agencies, both while in college and shortly thereafter, he headed to New York. "It was very difficult to break into the major media agencies in the late 1970s," Koenigsberg recalls. "I went to work for a smaller media service agency, Ed Lebov Associates, which was later bought by Botway, which, in turn, was bought by Initiative, but I was there way before that."

Koenigsberg rose up the ranks quickly at ELA, and by age 28, he was running its entire media operation, managing 150 people. By 1982, Koenigsberg felt a need to move on, and joined Media General.

"That's where I got my first real taste of how a large, public company was run," he says. "I got a lot of exposure to several of its divisions and was made head of its media services division." It was also a place where Koenigsberg was able to see the downside of operating an oversized company playing in so many different arenas, and having to deal with so many different personalities in order for decisions to be made. "There's a lot of baggage that comes with being owned by a large conglomerate," he says. "Corporate issues come up that indirectly can affect the smaller operations."

Following a hostile takeover attempt of Media General in 1989, the company began divesting its non-core businesses. "I convinced them to spin off my unit. I felt the combination of the unbundling of media [separating from traditional ad agencies] taking place in Europe and that trend moving to the U.S., coupled with the beginning of the evolution of new media—like cable—meant there was more of a need for a stand-alone, media services company here," Koenigsberg recounts. "Zenith had come to the U.S. to start a stand-alone media agency and the American ad agencies were starting to embrace the concept."

Koenigsberg formed Horizon Media in 1989 as a small division of Media General, which they then allowed him to spin off, loaning him $10 million to start it up.

"Our first five years were quite difficult," he remembers, "because there was a media recession in the early 1990s, particularly around the time of the Gulf War. There were also a lot of ad agencies starting their own stand-alone media agencies. On top of that, we were hit with a lot of bad debts from clients. I had to use most of my working capital to pay off those debts."

But Koenigsberg persevered through those lean years and kept Horizon afloat, and business began to pick up in the late 1990s. "We got our land legs," he says, picking up clients like Geico and A&E Networks. "At the same time, a lot of my competitors, like SFM, DeWitt and Creative Media, were either bought up by the larger conglomerates or shut down." This provided Koenigsberg and his crew more opportunity to fill the void for those clients seeking a smaller agency that could provide more direct focus on their business.

"We pitched ourselves as quicker, nimbler, where it was easier for us to make quick decisions on a client's behalf," he says. And not standing pat internally, or wanting to sell his agency short in new business pitches, Koenigsberg invested more money in bringing executive talent into the shop, as well as bolstering its research capabilities.

Koenigsberg says over the past six years Horizon's business has "skyrocketed, both with new business and with growth from existing client spending."

And many of his clients, like NBC, are long term, having been with the agency for more than a decade. Most recently, when NBC merged with Universal and consolidated its businesses, Horizon picked up a larger chunk of it billings, which now total over $100 million.

John Miller, chief marketing officer at NBC Universal Group, says, "We've done a couple of new business reviews and Horizon has survived them glowingly. Bill has been a great partner for all those years. The service the agency provides is both responsive and proactive."

Miller recalls that just last month the agency went out on its own to buy NBC some additional five-second radio spots to promote a slogan from its emerging hit series Heroes. "We were using the five-second blinks to promote the show back in August, but we also had this new slogan relating to the show, 'Save the cheerleader, save the world,' that we wanted to use," says. Miller. "Horizon proactively in October got us some five-second spots to do that. We also need to change our radio buys right up until airtime, and they have been able to do that for us. It is this type or service and the extra attention that makes them a great partner."

Horizon's partnering is not limited to its clients. Within the agency itself, Koenigsberg's role as leader has helped keep many of the agency's top executives with the firm for long stretches, in a business where job jumping is the norm. Brad Adgate, senior vp and director of research (and this year's Research All-Star), joined Horizon in 1998, when Koenigsberg decided to start a formal research unit within the agency.

Adgate marvels at how accessible Koenigsberg is with all the balls he is juggling as president and CEO. "It is not that common to see someone who is a busy entrepreneur like Bill, out pitching new business, evolving the agency internally, who has an open door policy, that you can go to at anytime for advice and counsel. He is very hands-on and he is always available to listen. Bill is a good people person who cares about his employees both professionally and personally," he says.

Koenigsberg says he has tried to create a work environment in which people can feel comfortable being who they are. "I want to make sure there is full access at all levels and that everyone has input and can express their point of view. There is something empowering in that," he says.

Praise for Koenigsberg comes not only from his own employees but from the TV networks with whom his agency negotiates. "ABC Sales has a great working relationship with Bill, who is an incredibly innovative and talented individual," says Mike Shaw, ABC sales and marketing president. "Under Bill's longtime leadership, Horizon has done a terrific job for all of its clients."

Not content to rest on the plaudits, Koenigsberg continues to invest money into the company to keep it on par with some of his larger competitors. Horizon now has nearly 500 employees, 80 clients and offices in New York; Los Angeles; Atlanta; Orlando, Fla.; and Amsterdam, Netherlands.

Koenigsberg is also one of the founding members of Columbus Media International, the agency's global media partnership formed this past summer. He has forged a partnership with other independent media agencies, Cossette Media of Canada and U.K.-based BLM Group, to form an independent global media services unit that will do business across 18 territories, including North America, Russia and Asia Pacific. BLM chairman Nick Lockett is chairman of Columbus, while Koenigsberg is vice chairman. "Horizon was looking for a viable path into the global media arena for years," Koenigsberg says. "Columbus provides the ideal solution for our clients."

The success of Horizon as an independent has resulted in Koenigsberg receiving numerous offers to sell, but he has resisted the temptation so far. "Five to 10 years ago, I felt we were nowhere near where we could be as far as growth and the value I could get if I sold," he says. "Now we are at a point where we can effectively compete with the larger agencies for business, so I am in no hurry. It doesn't mean I never will, but now is not the right time.

"My goal is to never sit back and be content, to always offer a fresh perspective and figure out new ways to move forward." John Consoli is a senior editor at Mediaweek.