Initiative Hangs Hopes on Gerster

LOS ANGELES — Finally, something to smile about at Initiative Media Worldwide. After two years of bad breaks and big losses in the U.S., news last week that Alec Gerster was joining as CEO sparked applause both within and outside the Interpublic Group agency.

Gerster, 53, was formerly CEO of Grey’s MediaCom unit. He will join Initiative on April 22, replacing Lou Schultz, who retired in January, and reporting to IPG vice chairman David Bell.

In addition, Marie-Jose Forissier, president and CEO of Initiative Media Worldwide and the network’s European leader, was named chairman under Gerster. Initiative Media North America president and COO Carolyn Bivens continues as part of the management team.

Bell called Gerster “a leader who has stature, accomplishment and integrity.”

“He’s as good as there is,” agreed a rival media-agency chief. “Not just a manager, a real competent media person. Which doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a huge uphill battle, but I don’t think they could have made a better choice.”

Gerster was wooed by IPG CEO John Dooner. The two met 30 years ago as young media planners at Grey Advertising. They had often joked about working together again, and after Schultz departed, Dooner made a serious offer. Gerster, who has spent virtually all of his career at Grey, surprised many by accepting it.

“I thought Alec was a lifer at Grey,” said one executive.

“This was an opportunity to do it in a bigger, different environment,” Gerster explained. “It puts a little spice back in life.”

Initiative handles $20 billion in total billings, making it the world’s largest media-agency brand, according to Paris research firm RECMA. In Europe, it enjoys a reputation “as a planning shop with sexy tools, moving the bar up, all those kinds of things,” said one executive.

In the U.S., though, it retains the buying-behemoth image of its predecessor shop, Western International Media. In the past two years, Initiative has failed in almost all the major U.S. reviews it has entered and lost its two top clients, Unilever and Disney, worth a combined $1 billion. Morale has plummeted as a result.

Gerster may be well suited to address those challenges. His background is in strategic media planning, not buying. He has built and run a global media network, MediaCom, now an $11 billion operation with more than 60 offices. And sources said his management style is the opposite of Schultz’s often blunt, authoritative approach.

“He’s hands-on, he’s fair, he listens, he’s got the perfect temperament for building a successful team at Initiative,” said another executive who knows Gerster.

Even Initiative’s staffers sound hopeful. “The consensus is there is no one kinder or more knowledgeable about media,” said one. “There is a feeling that he is the one who can turn the shop around.”