Lessons Learned From 20 Years in the Media Game

Q&A: Horizon's Bill Koenigsberg on Independence, New Business and Musical Chairs

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- With just more than 20 years of experience running independently-owned Horizon Media, Bill Koenigsberg has more tenure than any of his contemporaries. The game of musical chairs that has taken place at the CEO level within the media-agency world has not affected Horizon, the shop that Mr. Koenigsberg founded back in 1989.

Bill Koenigsberg
Bill Koenigsberg
Within the past six to eight months the agency has ripped off an impressive streak of new-business wins totaling more than $600 million, including Crown Imports, Weight Watchers, Dish Network, Friday's and Lifetime, making the agency not only one of the most successful in the industry but the center of possible acquisition talks -- a topic Mr. Koenigsberg never comments on.

Mr. Koenigsberg, who was named chairman of the 4A's Media Policy Committee in May, considers Horizon an island unto itself even though there are other independent shops out there. "At $2.6 billion in billings, there really isn't any other independent shop in the world that's close to us," he said. "So my competitive set is the global holding companies."

He recently spoke with Ad Age about being acquired (sort of), whether he would even like to work for a holding company, what he brings to the table that other CEOs don't, and what's behind the agency's recent run of success.

Ad Age: Have you had any discussions in the past few months with any of the holding companies about a possible acquisition?

Mr. Koenigsberg: I would never comment on that aspect of the company. But maybe one day we will take a holding company private.

Ad Age: I get the sense you really wouldn't like working for a holding company. Is that true?

Mr. Koenigsberg: I have a lot of respect for the holding companies out there. They have built some really good solid organizations and they are very tough competitors. I'd be an idiot to think they didn't have a lot to offer. On the other hand, if I were to ever do anything I would have to be crystal clear as to the benefits of who the right partner is and, more importantly, I don't want to go anywhere; I want to continue to work. But I could work for someone else.

Ad Age: What are the advantages of being an independent agency?

Mr. Koenigsberg: I only answer to our clients and employees. There are no other parents to answer to. Our decision-making process, just by design, is a lot more nimble. And in a world where things are moving faster than ever, that's really important and that empowers a company like ours to give its leadership team a lot of leeway in decision making. Holding companies have built very successful organizations with a lot of good talent and there's an awful lot of smart thinking they are providing their clients. But we can run at a different speed than they can on things like financial investments, hiring and new tool development.

Ad Age: What do you bring to the table other less-tenured CEOs can't?

Mr. Koenigsberg: I have got a really good rear-view mirror that goes back pretty far and helps me navigate the future. I have a really good sense of anticipating client needs and a good sense of where some of the bumpy spots are going to be along the road in the industry and how to navigate them. I have provided our employee base a long-term view of where we're going and I can do that with a lot of credibility because they know I'm going to be here. There has been a lot of churn at the CEO level of some of my competitors and it's hard to gain momentum and traction when there is a "leased mentality" at the CEO level. It takes time, and more than a year or two is required to implement a long-term plan. A good CEO has to be a good magnet for talent, and my tenure in the industry has helped me do that.

Ad Age: So you think the industry has too much turnover at the CEO level?

Mr. Koenigsberg: Being the CEO of a media agency today is challenging and difficult. There is an awful lot of pressure on performance, so you have to perform day in and day out and if not, you're not going to last. And based on the complexities and changes in the media world you're seeing an awful lot of churn over the last two years at some of the holding companies because it is a demanding and challenging 24/7 job. I do believe the holding companies are stocked with lots of good talent, but when you are sitting in the spot of having to make some critical decisions along the way and managing organizations of thousands of people who are in a service business there's an awful lot that could go wrong and an awful lot that could go right and you have to have time to set your vision and implement your game plan. Sometimes the pressures of performance don't allow for that time.

Ad Age: What's been driving the agency's success for the last six to eight months?

Mr. Koenigsberg: There isn't one silver bullet, but there are a couple of things driving it. We have done significant work and invested a lot of money in consumer insights. We have a very sophisticated channel-planning practice where we developed a bunch of proprietary tools that are actionable. We're doing a lot of primary research. And our creative media solutions, where we can activate an idea and amplify the messaging out in the media world from a creative media standpoint and a brand management structure, has an extremely high level of service orientation.

Ad Age: What agendas will you push as chairman of the 4A's Media Policy Committee?

Mr. Koenigsberg: We will take a much more proactive than reactive stance on things such as diversity, privacy, digital measurement and implications of new media and how do we inform the industry in terms of what the risks and benefits are. You're going to see us have a much louder voice in leading the industry. And we are going to try and work more in partnership with Washington to help educate constituencies in terms of where the world is going.

Ad Age: What issues is the industry not doing enough to address?

Mr. Koenigsberg: If you look over the horizon, there are going to be privacy issues that have to be dealt with, with addressable television and behavioral targeting. The industry is trying to do a good job at self-regulation. From a data-management standpoint, we're not making as much headway as an industry as we should and that's a pretty all encompassing statement from how the activation process works to significant data analytics and warehousing of information on behalf of our clients. As an industry we haven't moved as quickly as we should have in the technological world that is in front of us today. And we could be doing a better job at bringing talent into the industry. The media-agency world should be one that students out of the top colleges in the world want to spend their careers in.

Ad Age: What are some of the challenges facing the industry and are they different for independent media shops?

Mr. Koenigsberg: I face similar challenges that agencies at holding companies do. Talent management is high up on the radar. My challenges aren't any different, but I do think that I can think longer term because I don't have to report to stockholders every quarter.

The challenges have to do with the complexity of the changing communications landscape. The landscape has shifted so much in terms of how the consumer uses and engages with media and, whether you are an independent agency or not, navigating that territory is challenging. Significant investments have to be made in consumer insights, data analytics, new technologies and proprietary modeling. You have to make those investments whether you're a holding-company agency or not. A lot of real estate is up for grabs, meaning the lines are blurring between traditional ad agencies, media agencies, digital agencies and PR agencies. And media agencies have an opportunity to grab a bigger piece of the pie.

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