Alan schanzer was digital when everyone else was excited about just getting their feet wet in interactive.

Around 1999, Schanzer, managing partner, MEC Interaction, North America, was given the opportunity to write a mini-business plan for a digitally focused media division that would live within The Media Edge, a traditional media shop. That business plan, authored by him and under the direction of boss Steve Lanzano (now an executive vp, general manager at MPG), produced The Digital Edge, one of WPP Group’s first major plays in the fast growing space.

Thankfully, one of The Media Edge’s top clients, AT&T, was an early Web adopter, providing the new group some built-in business. Still, things started out modestly. “Back then, The Digital Edge was very entrepreneurial,” he recalls. “I remember when Steve and I were constantly backing into each other’s chairs in a tiny office.”

Still, it was there where Schanzer, Mediaweek’s 2006 All-Star in interactive, laid the foundation for what would become an impressive career, during which he has become someone who is considered consistently ahead of the digital—not just the interactive—curve.

“At The Digital Edge we did two things very early on that were unique,” says Schanzer. “We considered interactive advertising to be beyond the Internet. And two, we built this business within a traditional agency.” Those decisions set up Schanzer, and MEC Interaction, for success in a medium that is increasingly multiplatform in nature, and increasingly planned in conjunction with traditional media.

Within the sales community, the outspoken-yet-understated Schanzer is known as being rather frank, but in a good way. Among top portals like as AOL, MSN and Yahoo, he’s known to give feedback in the form of a report card. “Alan is very vocal about what works and what doesn’t work,” says Wenda Harris Millard, Yahoo’s chief sales officer for North America. “I use him as a sounding board for ideas. He’s very driven by what is going to move his clients’ business forward.”

He’s also given a lot of credit by many for being more than a digital guy. Several colleagues point to Schanzer’s early experience in traditional media (at DMB&B and Foote, Cone & Belding) and his department’s commitment to thinking beyond just the Web page as what provides him with a leg up on competitors. “As digital has shifted from being apart from media planning to being a part of it, Alan’s right there,” adds Millard. “To understand how that works, how digital fits into the big picture—that’s very advantageous.”

Schanzer remembers quite well when digital media was planned separately from the big-money activity. Like most in the media business who worked through the late 1990s boom and the early 2000s bust, he’s got stories. Soon after The Digital Edge was formed, just as in most interactive agencies, the phone was constantly ringing. “You’d get these calls, ‘Hi, my name is Joe from Joe’s dotcom, I just got a round of funding, can you spend it for me?'” recalls Schanzer.

Pretty soon The Digital Edge was working with tons of Web companies. The staff went from four people to 60 in six months. “We had a lot of clients with no business plans,” says Schanzer. “There were those who thought you could spend $15 million one year and become Nike in your second year.”

Things decelerated just as quickly. “In 2000, the market blew up, and we blew up along with it,” he says. The agency was never at risk of going under, and didn’t have to completely purge staff the way many others did. The comforting thing for Schanzer during those dark advertising years was that the Internet as a medium was only becoming more popular. “Consumer adoption of the Web wasn’t decreasing,” he says. “The Web was getting better.”

During the next few years, Schanzer’s team continually pushed to pioneer the Web space. Schanzer says the agency pushed a lot of clients into advanced television opportunities, such as video on demand and even failed interactive television platforms. They built a tricked-out room that featured big-screen TVs with everything from TiVo to satellite television, where they could demonstrate emerging tools to clients. A second digitally dedicated room is in the works, this time a dorm room of the future loaded with various gaming consoles.

That’s not to say that Schanzer has ignored standard Internet advertising. In fact, he’s advocated for more traditional packaged-goods brands, such as Colgate and Cadbury, to make early aggressive plays on the Web. “The thing that stands out about Alan is that he has total, total commitment, to the point of irrationality at times,” laughs Rob Norman, global CEO, GroupM Interaction and Schanzer’s current boss.

Last year, when WPP group created MEC Interaction, merging together Mediaedge:cia, The Digital Edge, search specialty shop Outrider and Wunderman Media, Norman said that the potentially awkward melding couldn’t have gone better, thanks in part to Schanzer. “Alan’s vision and my vision created MEC. We absolutely needed to integrate different cultures. And we’re still together, so that’s a good thing.”

Schanzer admits that running this sort of multifaceted media group in a marketplace that is going through hyper-growth is sometimes quite challenging, particularly with two young children at home. “There definitely have been some sacrifices,” he admits. “But this business makes me very happy.”

The toughest challenge lately, says Schanzer, is to maintain rationality amid the exuberance; particularly among several anxious clients who question, on a daily basis, whether they need to advertise on podcasts, or mobile phones, video games and the like. “We need to be able to tell clients [about emerging platforms] before they ask. The hard work is figuring out when to jump in and when to hold back,” he says.

Despite the digital media world’s ever-more-cluttered list of opportunities, Schanzer is enthusiastic about the possibilities, as consumers become more connected in all aspects of their lives. “Advertising on your PC—that’s exciting. But advertising wherever a consumer goes—that is really exciting.” Mike Shields is a senior reporter for Mediaweek.