Media All-Stars 2003: Media Executive of the Year – Irwin Gotlieb

After 30 years in the business, he continues to stay on top by going into the trenches.

Irwin Gotlieb loves television, and he’s not afraid to admit it. In fact, one of the downsides of his 9-month-old post as CEO of newly created Group M, where he oversees WPP’s media buying agencies MindShare and Mediaedge:cia, is that he does not have time to watch as much television as he once did. “There are a lot of people who consider TV to be low-brow, but I actually enjoy it.

“I guess I have simple, low-brow taste,” he concludes with a chuckle.

Although his TV-viewing time is down these days, he still tries to tune in as much as possible—broadcast, cable, everything. With a dozen TV sets and “six or seven” VCRs or DVRs in his house, Gotlieb believes that if he’s going to buy TV ad time for clients, he has to know what’s on TV. “I watch everything I can,” he says. “Content. When I go into the bathroom each morning, the TV [in there] goes on.”

And that’s just one of Gotlieb’s commitments to his advertiser clients. The other is staying active in media buying negotiations, even though he is now high enough on the corporate totem pole that he could divorce himself from that role. “My job is to look after my clients first and to run the business second,” he says. “If you do the opposite of that, you won’t have a business to run.”

Gotlieb believes that keeping current clients happy is the most important thing a media agency can do. “I tell people in our organization that I never want to be in a client review that is triggered by dissatisfaction with our performance,” he says. “I don’t ever want our clients to feel that the grass is greener somewhere else.”

That philosophy has worked for MindShare, where Gotlieb served as CEO for four years before moving up to head Group M earlier this year. In a marketplace punctuated by client reviews, MindShare is notable in that it has not lost one client in a review this year. At the same time, it picked up nearly $1 billion in new business, including Burger King, DuPont and Nextel.

While working hard to keep his clients happy over the past 30 years, Gotlieb also has been an innovator, trying to get every edge he can for those clients. It was Gotlieb who—along with Marc Goldstein, now MindShare North America’s president—started the practice of extending media-buying negotiations during the upfront into the wee hours of the morning. This was back in 1978, when he and Goldstein were part of the national broadcast team at Benton & Bowles.

“In those days, the buyers used to visit the networks in person to negotiate, since there were only the three broadcast networks,” he recalls. “We finished up with NBC by about 6:30 p.m. and decided to walk up the block to visit CBS. It was in the best interest of our clients to get our money down quickly. We wound up leaving there at 3 a.m.”

At the time, Gotlieb recalls, Benton & Bowles had a national TV ad budget of about $20 million. Today, between MindShare and Mediaedge:cia, Gotlieb oversees $31.5 billion in ad budgets.

Gotlieb began his career in 1972 on the TV buying side of SSC&B as manager of network relations and had advanced to vp of network operations five years later when he left to become associate director of national broadcast at Benton & Bowles. The agency later merged with D’Arcy Masius, and Gotlieb remained there until 1993, when he founded TeleVest, the unbundled media buying arm for D’Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles. Gotlieb also was the driving force behind the launch of MediaVest Worldwide in 1999, which combined TeleVest with the media operations of its parent company, MacManus Group. Six months later, he left to join WPP Group as chairman/CEO of MindShare Worldwide, where he created MindShare North America by combining the media operations of WPP’s Ogilvy & Mather and J. Walter Thompson.

It was Gotlieb’s early years at Benton & Bowles in the late 1970s that put him in contact not only with Goldstein but also with Rino Scanzoni, now broadcast president at Mediaedge:cia and a former Media All-Star for National TV/Cable. When Gotlieb started TeleVest in 1993, Scanzoni joined him him there, as did the late Donna Salvatore.

Other current top media-buying executives who worked with Gotlieb at Benton & Bowles include Rich Hamilton, who is now CEO of Zenith Media; and Mel Berning, former president of MediaVest, who just left to join A&E Networks last week.

“I was incredibly fortunate to have worked at a place like Benton & Bowles in the late 1970s where my colleagues were some of the most talented people in the business, several who are still working with me today,” Gotlieb says. “It was a very special place to grow up in.”

With the media-buying business having changed so much over the years, Gotlieb is thankful to have some of those longtime colleagues still with him. With six broadcast networks and several hundred cable channels, and each client spending millions more dollars, it has become harder for him to stay on top of every aspect of the business. “You used to have to keep track of a couple of thousand spots per quarter. I used to be able to have my finger on everything. Things have changed. Today, you have to rely on good people who are part of the team.”

Gotlieb says he misses being the one who is in the trenches, working the phones, negotiating the deals directly. But he shuns the analogy that he is like a former baseball player who now manages the team. “The baseball player retires because he is too old to swing the bat like he used to,” Gotlieb says. “You never get too old to negotiate. I think all of us who get out of the trenches not only need to remember what it was like in there, but we need to get back in regularly so that we remember what it was like. Otherwise, we will lose touch with the business. Let’s just say I am in the trenches enough to still get my hands dirty.”

According to Goldstein, that’s no lie. “Irwin still very much loves the negotiating part of the business,” he says. “During this past upfront, Irwin was in the office until 5 a.m. He wasn’t on the phone negotiating directly. But he was here, as a resource, to be part of the process, and we were glad he was.”

In his role as head of Group M, Gotlieb has much more to do than negotiating ad buys with the networks. But Goldstein says Gotlieb “will be as involved as he has to be in that process, and we will welcome him when he does.”

Gotlieb says he’s hoping he will be as much a part of Mediaedge:cia as he has been at MindShare without making one or the other agency feel left out. “When we consolidated the two, I told people that I was not leaving MindShare but was joining Mediaedge:cia as well. I have purposely not set up a separate layer of management between me and the two agencies. I have kept my old office at MindShare. I just spend some of my time at another office at Mediaedge:cia. At MindShare, I am still on the 26th floor, the national broadcast floor, so I can stay on top of things.”

John Consoli covers the broadcast networks and media agencies as a senior editor for Mediaweek.