Irwin Gotlieb: Mr. Madison Avenue Is Happiest When All Sides Win

NATPE 2010: Complete Coverage from B&C

A couple of weeks ago, Simon Clift, chief marketing officer at Unilever, accompanied the head of his media agency to the Consumer Electronics Show and tweeted this gentle observation: "Breakfast in Vegas with Irwin Gotlieb head of GroupM. What a fascinating übergeek he is! And like a pony in clover here at CES."

That would adequately sum up the 60-year-old Zen master of Madison Avenue, who is equally at home talking about the intricacies of shooting in 3D and the future of addressable advertising.

Gotlieb is, for sure, an evangelist of future media. And though he's seen and done it all-from working on Bob Hope shows for Texaco to assembling programs between Noxema and Cybill Shepherd when she was a model-he still gets a kick out of it all. A passionate photographer with a nerdy love of new technology, Gotlieb is, most of all, a media guy.

Reminded that he's being honored at NATPE for all of the qualities that made Brandon Tartikoff an unforgettable TV executive-passion, leadership, independence, vision-Gotlieb unleashes his trademark wit: "I thought they just needed a short Jewish guy." On what there is to see at CES, he talks knowledgeably about the drawbacks of 3D TV channels, which were the big story at the show. He thinks the new format might be good for special events and sports but will not bring a whole lot to regular TV watching, at least not yet.

Ask him about convergence, and he will express his singular views on how the much-discussed digital tablets will evolve. "There's been a huge amount of talk related to tablet PCs and e-readers and new phones," he says. "My own instinct is that phones may become simpler, and I think we'll see the convergence of what we today consider an iPhone or iTouch, a PC and an e-reader. You'll run your apps and browse the Web, and you'll read books and magazines and newspapers, but I don't think you'll use it to talk."

As CEO of GroupM, the management construct that oversees media investment for ad agencies such as Mindshare, Mediaedge:cia, Maxus and MediaCom, Gotlieb is by far the biggest presence on Madison Avenue. GroupM's projected billings for 2009 are $19 billion in the U.S., according to figures from ad tracking firm Recma. Global billings for GroupM were $84 billion in 2008. He was also recently named media agency executive of the decade by AdWeek magazine. And in October 2006, he became the first advertising/ media agency executive to be inducted into the Broadcasting & Cable Hall of Fame.

With a global client roster that is as wide as it is deep and counts Unilever, Kimberly-Clark, American Express and AT&T, the GroupM chief has to deal with any number of marketing dilemmas. His answer to many big questions is to know consumers as well as possible while using data about their media habits to target them for the best effect at the best value. To get there, Gotlieb's GroupM, part of the WPP Group, has consistently partnered with technology companies to help keep clients ahead of changes.

GroupM signed a deal in late October with tech vendor TidalTV; the deal is aimed at tracking the effectiveness of advanced advertising initiatives. In 2007, GroupM invested in Invidi, a targeted-advertising- delivery software maker.

Technology has always been at the forefront of Gotlieb's interests. In the 1970s, he wrote his own computer programs while at agency SSC&B, which was absorbed by the Interpublic Group of Cos. He later moved to the media-buying department of Benton & Bowles, which became MediaVest, now part of Starcom MediaVest Group. He left as CEO of Media- Vest Worldwide before joining WPP in 1999 as chairman and CEO of Mindshare Worldwide. Gotlieb took up his current role leading GroupM in 2003.

Walking the Walk

Not surprisingly, Gotlieb walks the walk. He lives in a house equipped with what he describes as one of the most advanced home theater systems in the world. He is currently replacing the 32-inch television in one of his bathrooms with "something larger." He has 11 television sets and eight DVRs, and is connected via Verizon FiOS, Cablevision and DirectTV. "I like to compare how each is doing in terms of service," he says. Then again, as an executive with a global mandate, he admits he's rarely home.

The highly wired executive does have his limits. "The Black- Berry is not on my nightstand; I keep it a little distance away," he says. How far? Well, 20 feet.

As excited as he is about the future, Gotlieb's grasp on the here and now is as firm as the power he wields with media sales executives. In 2006, he was famously caught up in the scrum to enter the Fox upfront. He complained that the network would have to come to him next time, and not long afterward, he received a lunch invitation from News Corp. chief Rupert Murdoch.

While Gotlieb plays hardball with the best of the negotiators, he also prefers to see everybody come away with a win. When GroupM discussed the possibility of commercial ratings, it showed networks data that demonstrated how the new calculations would work just as well as program ratings for all involved.

And when media commentators talk of Google and Apple taking over the world, Gotlieb sees a rosy future for media owners. "What [big media companies] do is create mass appeal content and sell gross ratings points," he says. "We can slice those audiences into smaller pieces that are highly targeted, and that increases the value. You and your neighbor get different messaging, and that creates more monetization opportunity."