Q&A: TME’s Beth Gordon

She loves the sound of laughter at the office. It reminds her that while advertising may be aided and abetted by computers, it remains a human endeavor. And although she now holds the top post at The Media Edge, a global agency with 2,000 employees and $10 billion in billings, Beth Gordon remains warm, personable and unassuming.
Gordon, who cites Young & Rubicam Inc.’s Peter Georgescu, Linda Srere and Ed Vick as role models, assumed the top job of chairman and CEO worldwide last November, when TME combined its North American and international operations. Her mission, along with that of vice chairman and chief strategy officer Paul Woolmington and president of North America Mitch Burg, is not only to continue to grow but do it in a way that embraces new technology.
A recent example: a “global technology partnership” with Mediaplex, a San Francisco company that, with proprietary tools, can modify Web ads in real time to meet individual needs. The partnership, struck by parent Y&R Inc., will chiefly benefit The Media Edge’s Web spinoff, The Digital Edge, which illustrates TME’s dedication to new media.
Indeed, TME has come a long way from its launch in 1994, when Gordon and seven colleagues from N.W. Ayer’s media department branched off to create a separate brand–something commonplace today but radical back then. Within two years, Y&R had purchased TME and by 1997, all media buying for Y&R and Wunderman Cato Johnson had been consolidated there.
Gordon, 50, who lives in Greenwich Village with her husband, Glen, recently took a breather from a hectic travel schedule to reflect on TME and broader trends within the industry. Over a bagel at the Charlotte Hotel in midtown Manhattan, about 10 blocks from TME’s headquarters, she chatted with Adweek senior reporter Andrew McMains. Here are the highlights:

Adweek: In the late 1990s, unbundling was a big trend. Media consolidation was another. What new trends do you expect to see in the next five years?
Gordon: I think we’re going to hear a lot more about interactive television–tests, what people are getting into and what it’s going to mean to them. And [along with that] a question about who’s going to be controlling the consumer. There’s going to be a lot of issues, I think, on the interactive side about privacy.

Adweek: What are those issues?
Gordon: On the one hand, everybody is getting excited about one-to-one communications, addressable television. You know, “I can talk to somebody who’s got a dog that weighs 60 pounds.” On the other hand, [there are] consumers who may not want you to have that much information about them. The government will probably side with the consumer. And then, as we all get excited about what the potential is, will there be government interference or government regulation about how close we can get to them?

Adweek: What other trends?
Gordon: Because people will be barraged by dot.coms for the foreseeable future, there’s a lot more clutter out there. One of the things clients are going to start getting intense about is, “How are you going to showcase my advertising? How am I going to stand out?” The more concerned they get about that, the more interested they’re going to be in programs that are holistic.
I’m not saying we’re going to be doing everything from public relations to event marketing. But I think the ability to work with the PR people, the ability to integrate event marketing, the ability to do something with databases are going to be part of what media companies do.

Adweek: Can you describe The Digital Edge, the premise behind it and why you thought it was important to have a separate entity to handle that?
Gordon: Well, I don’t want anything too separate. I wanted to make sure that, whatever our focus, we had people who dedicated 100 percent of their time to it. They have two missions: One is to learn as much as they can and begin to forecast what’s going to happen. The other–just as important–is to educate everybody else.
So what we have going on now are weekly–or more than weekly–sessions with the planning people and the buying people, talking about what’s happening and how it’s going to impact them. If you look ahead a couple of years, I don’t know if this group is going to be separate or
re-integrated. On the other hand, they’re now pitching business that is online and offline.
Adweek: How would you distinguish between a Digital Edge and a Media Edge client?
Gordon: Right now, most of the interactive work at TME–not all of it but most of it–is being done through The Digital Edge. So what you have are teams of people working very closely working on, say, an AT&T or any piece of business that might have on- and offline [needs].

Adweek: So, a Digital Edge client is a company with some kind of presence on the Net, which buys media either on the Web or in traditional outlets?
Gordon: Yes.

Adweek: Ad spending forecasters seem optimistic that this growth pattern will continue. How long do you think it
will go on? Are there storm clouds on the horizon?
Gordon: If I could predict that, I’d have a much better fix on the stock market! I don’t know. Every single year, people [say they] are optimistic for the next three years. I don’t know what’s magic about three years. I’m sure there’s something. As a forecaster, I’m good for about six months. I think we’ll see a real healthy 2000. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t. Beyond that, I don’t know.

Adweek: People seem to be saying, “By the end of the first quarter, dot.coms are going to try to refinance and many will not get the money.” Which companies will survive and which will go by the wayside?
Gordon: If you look at the dot.coms–I don’t know how many segments you can break them out into–but you’ve got the established companies, the Yahoo!s and the AOLs, which have been around for a while. Their stocks, although going up and down a little bit, are stable. They’ve got smart marketing people. Plus, you have a second group that has had an infusion of capital that seems to be doing well.
The big questions will be the advertising may be really clever, but what does it mean? Can you associate it with anything? Does it drive you to the Web? What is it doing, other than doing something with the stock price?

Adweek: What are your thoughts about buying time during the Super Bowl?
Gordon: To the degree that people always pay a premium, it’s a high event–and you’re going to pay for a big event. One interesting note: The Super Bowl is probably the only event where the commercials get as much play as the game does. There’s some value in that.

Adweek: Sometimes they’re more interesting!
Gordon: Oh yeah. Then there’s Monday-morning quarterbacking about the advertising. You watch the Today show the next morning and nobody’s talking about the game anymore; the game is over and it was what it was. But they’re talking about Apple. From an advertising perspective, it has become a real phenomenon. If you go back and look at the studies that were done on the recall of things, [Super Bowl advertising] is higher.
I think what’s happening now–and this is another phenomenon of the dot.coms–is the [charging of] steep premiums. The prices they’re paying are bordering on the insane. I wouldn’t say that long-term advertisers who’ve been in there and who’ve been buying it from year to year are paying rates anything like that. They’re not. So the question is, are they going to come back next year and start
the game at $3 million and see how many people bite?

Adweek: How has technology changed your job? Compare the way you worked 10 years ago to the way you work today.
Gordon: You know if I could add up all the weeks and hours I spent as a younger person doing stuff that machines are doing now, I figure I’ve wasted about 10 years.

Adweek: For example?
Gordon: Big green spreadsheets. You’d put all the markets on one side, all the marketing factors [on the other] and then you started weighing things.
People did it all manually for 211 markets. And then you had to re-add them
to make sure you didn’t screw up somewhere. Computers have done phenomenal things.
We were asked by a client to do a project, and we estimated how long it was going to take and the client kept throwing additional brands in there. From the time we started–it was going to take about three weeks–to the time they started adding brands, this could have potentially taken six weeks. Then one of the kids came in–this is somebody who’s comfortable with computers–and he said if I do this and this, I can marry two different databases. And he spit the information out in 12 minutes. Twelve minutes. Unbelievable. It’s great.

Adweek: Talk a little bit about your management style and whether you’re going to have to tinker with that as the CEO of a global entity now.
Gordon: When we were a smaller company, it was easy to stay close. I always thought my strength was, sort of, interpersonal. I like people. I’m almost empathetic to a fault. And I love to see people happy. I love to hear people laugh. But it gets harder as you get bigger and you don’t know what’s going on. Take that global, and it really is hard.
Talking to somebody the other day, I said, “I’d love to know [which CEOs do] well and how they do it.” You hear stories about somebody, like a Jack Welch [chairman and CEO of General Electric], who answers every phone call. Isn’t that amazing?
One of the things I’ve liked about the Y&R experience is I had a clear sense of what [former Y&R Inc. CEO] Peter Georgescu stood for. And I liked that, personally. I think it’s important to understand what the leader of a company stands for. Someone you can fall behind, even if you don’t know [him or her]. I didn’t know Peter well when I joined the company, but I had a clear idea of what his values and vision were. That was important.
There are 2,000 people at The Media Edge around the world. If I could do nothing else but at least explain what I think the vision of this company is and have [the employees] feel good about that, then that’s a step.
Adweek: What is that vision and what are the core principles?
Gordon: It is a creative discipline. It is a future-focused discipline. We don’t spend too much time looking back. It is anything you can define it as.
I mean if you’re trying to communicate with somebody, you have to figure out where they are–and they’re not always in front of a television set. So you spend a
lot of time trying to figure out how do you get to these people and do it in a way
that will be memorable. It’s not just the message.
Hopefully, you have a great creative line and you have a great creative message. But how are you going to make that more impactful? That’s something we’ve been saying for a long time, and I think it has finally caught on.
It’s [also] making sure we hire people who have different talents than we had before. We’re probably going to be hiring people who are more research oriented in a way that allows us to make different types of decisions. We’re going to hire more technology people. You know, a couple of years ago we had one [tech person]. Now we have 15. So things will be more sophisticated, hopefully, and people will be more excited about it, because we’re going to be answering questions.
[Finally] ROI–clients should know that. They want to know what the return is [on their investment]. I can’t tell them what the impact of their commercial is, but maybe we can get closer to it.

Adweek: Who are your role models?
Gordon: Originally, [Y&R Inc. chief client officer] Linda Srere. I adore her. She’s so real–a warm, caring person. She’s the best team builder I’ve ever seen. People want to work with her. I’ve never seen a woman get up and say, “OK, we’re going to march off the cliff now.” And [her staff members] say, “Let’s do it.” Peter [Georgescu], because of his strong sense of values. Ed [Vick], because I love him to death.

Adweek: Is there much interplay between TME and Y&R when it comes to new business? How often do you work in conjunction?
Gordon: Y&R’s pitches tend to be more traditional. The focus is on creative. So usually what happens when a client is looking for an agency, they’re looking for creative. Sometimes these things surprise you. I’ve heard this a couple of times–it’s a three-hour presentation, you’ve got an hour and a half for creative, an hour and a half for media. But it’s usually clients looking for creative.
Media-only pitches some are three hours long or an hour and a half long, but you really get to focus on you. If there’s music playing, it’s your music. It’s a different feeling for me. I would love to see everybody be successful, [whether it’s] Y&R or The Media Edge. But when they’re full-service pitches, the focus is usually creative.

Adweek: What’s your mission going forward, compared to that of Paul Woolmington, your chief strategic officer?
Gordon: I think we have to feel our way through. I think we have a lot to teach each other. Oftentimes, people naturally fall back on what they do best, and what they do best is what they tend to like. Paul loves speaking to crowds. He likes being an outside person. I don’t. I would expect for him to be doing that. K