Irwin Gotlieb

When Fox hosted its annual upfront advertising presentation in New York last spring, it proved to be an unruly affair with too many media buyers trying to cram into too little space. The network’s ushers were even forced to bar some ad execs from admittance. As it turned out, they detained one ad exec too many: Irwin Gotlieb, CEO of WPP Group’s burgeoning GroupM empire. Gotlieb, certainly the most powerful media buyer in the business, threatened to never attend a Fox presentation again.

Fox survived the incident, and chances are, Gotlieb will turn up at the network’s events in the future. And next time, no doubt, he will be given kid-glove treatment. But the anecdote says something about Gotlieb’s unassuming manner, even though he oversees an organization that buys more than $60 billion worth of media annually, making him a good 25% bigger than GroupM’s closest competitor, Omnicom Media Group.

Unlike colorful industry players like Omnicom’s Joe Uva or Carat’s David Verklin, Gotlieb prefers to operate in the shadows. It’s part of a Zen-like mystique that fuels his reputation for being the industry’s ultimate strategic thinker.

He also avidly follows television programming as a viewer, and his insight on casting and plot lines gets the attention of networks.

Says Gotlieb, “One has to understand that it doesn’t say in Genesis that on the third day, God decided that the studios will produce programs and sell it to a network and the networks will sell GRPs to a media agency.”

“He plays chess while everyone else is playing checkers,” says Michael Lotito, CEO of Media IQ and a protégé when Gotlieb ran the buying department at Benton & Bowles. “Irwin has always been the best negotiator because he thinks three steps ahead,” says Lotito, who also marvels at Gotlieb’s “almost inhuman” abilities, such as his photographic memory. “He has a phenomenal recall for detail.”

Even if he did not have that kind of recall, it wouldn’t be hard for Gotlieb’s agencies to confirm such details. His shops have always had the best computer systems for keeping tabs on their media buys and forecasting the supply and demand of the advertising marketplace.

That’s because Gotlieb developed them personally, writing them from rudimentary programming languages. He created his first in the 1970s while a buyer at SSC&B, an agency that was later absorbed into the Interpublic Group of Companies.

In 1977, Gotlieb moved to the media-buying department of Benton & Bowles, which evolved into TeleVest and ultimately MediaVest (now part of Publicis’ Starcom MediaVest Group), where Gotlieb created technology that gave his agencies a legendary ability to model the marketplace, long before other agencies were doing so.

“The most amazing thing about Irwin is the range and breadth of his interests,” says ad-industry consultant and publisher Jack Myers. “In addition to being the acknowledged dean of the media industry, he’s a technological wizard.”

A self-described “technogeek,” Gotlieb is known for applying his technical skills to his hobbies, as well as to business. Away from work, he has built his own racing bikes from scratch and has built a state-of-the-art audio system. He has even designed his own “smart house.” He played the piano as a child and then began again in his late 40s. Once, after an industry conference at a hotel, he gave a few friends a virtuoso-quality performance.

His greatest skill, however, is in the media marketplace, especially during the upfront season. But smart thinking and smart systems will take you only so far these days, says Gotlieb, asserting that “scale” is just as much a factor in leveraging good media deals with big media companies as a media buyer’s acuity. That’s why, shortly after joining WPP Group, he created GroupM, the first and biggest of the agency-holding company’s media-services operating units.

GroupM, the parent company of MindShare, Media edge:cia, MediaCom and Maxus, dominates in a field of increasingly consolidated media-services agencies. And although it controls 17% all global ad spending, Gotlieb says its market clout is actually even more significant when looked at in terms of the national and global media that matter most to big advertisers.

“There are aspects to WPP’s business where scale is either of minimal relevance or doesn’t contribute to effectiveness,” says Gotlieb. “Media is not one of them. Scale is quite important in media.” But GroupM doesn’t stop there; Gotlieb also makes sure it comes up with great ideas to maximize that market power.

“I would go much further than ideas,” Gotlieb says. “I think we provide the foundation discipline in the analytics that informs strategy and the insights that guide idea generation, and the disciplined follow-up and stewardship that ensures delivery.”