Seeing CES Through the Eyes of Group M's Irwin Gotlieb

Chairman Is Also a Tech Nerd Who Pioneered the CES 'Floor Tour'

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The sheer scale of the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas makes it nearly incomprehensible for the uninitiated, which explains the rise in popularity of the floor tour. Spend any time on the floor of CES and you'll see dozens of groups attempting to navigate the glittery chaos en masse, hooked up to wireless headphones and following a giant hand-held sign through the crowds.

Agencies, startups, media companies and even Facebook have all led tours with sometimes obscure angles to make sense of the dizzying array of screens and devices on display. But one tour stands out for its longevity, as well as for the man who leads it: Irwin Gotlieb, the chairman of Group M, the largest buyer of media in the world.

Irwin Gotlieb at CES
Irwin Gotlieb at CES

You might not expect the kind of encyclopedic knowledge of electronics to come from a guy who sits atop a giant ad-buying firm, but then you wouldn't know Mr. Gotlieb, who started coming to CES's predecessor, Comdex, in 1979, decades before the media and advertising worlds started to consider it relevant. "I'm such a geek because I like hardware and gadgets and video and photography and all this stuff," he said. "I mean, I don't consider this work."

Mr. Gotlieb knows the tech. He built and wrote the software for his own "smart home" more than two decades ago, and as you might expect from a guy who directs billions of ad dollars to screens around the globe, it is equipped with the most-advanced home theater technology can offer.

For years, Mr. Gotlieb said he didn't even expense his annual pilgrimage to Las Vegas "because there was no business reason for it." That changed a decade ago when WPP got its first tech clients. Mr. Gotlieb started bringing his top deputies with him, but realized that for those outside the industry, the event itself was almost impossible to grasp without some sort of curation. Mr. Gotlieb started his first floor tour in 2003 at the Sony booth.

A few years later, non-tech brands started to pay attention. "Then all of a sudden marketers discovered correctly that media and tech have fully converged and that you can't distribute your messages unless you understand the technology," he said.

Giant support structures indicate that a TV is not ready to hang in a real home.
Giant support structures indicate that a TV is not ready to hang in a real home.

This year he gave six tours of 40 people, mostly big advertisers hoping to understand the changes afoot and how technology is changing the way consumers live -- and the way they receive and interact with commercial messages.

On the floor, Mr. Gotlieb cuts the figure of a wizard, winding his way through the crowds and throwing out words such as "quantum dot technology" and "gallion phosphor." The tour starts at Sony, moves along to Samsung, LG, Panasonic, Dish Network and finally Intel, which is about to become a big player in TV when it rolls out its planned web TV service.

Along the way, he offers unvarnished opinions:

On Sony: "The last major innovation out of Sony was the Trinitron and the Walkman."

On connected cars: "The automakers aren't the best guys to be making consumer interfaces."

On Microsoft (a client): "Clearly Windows 8 is a disappointment, but it is not a disappointment because of lack of innovation."

On Qualcomm: "The smartphone you buy in the next few months is going to be more powerful than the laptop you bought last year."

On LG's 55-inch OLED TV: "The best screen you can buy for your home."

On reading the tea leaves: "CES isn't only about what's here, but the signals sent by who isn't here."

Given Mr. Gotlieb's interests, and his profession, the tour is heavily skewed toward TVs; that $10,000 LG will be $1,000 within a few years. The giant demo models that cost millions and weigh tons today will be in households tomorrow. Want to know how close a demo TV is to a model you can hang on your wall? Mr. Gotlieb's tip: look at the supporting structure --if it's big, it means it's going to be a while before it won't collapse your house.

Mr. Gotlieb will be the first to tell you that his 90-minute tour only scratches the surface. That's why he gives homework, specifying things tour-goers should come back to. He jokes that Group M has set cookies on their headsets so they know if they've done their assignments. "If you don't do your homework, you will hear from us," he says, mostly in jest.

Mr. Gotlieb also happens to be the most-enthusiastic consumer of cutting-edge technology. His next TV? A 4K Sony projector. For his house, Mr. Gotlieb wants the LG closet that steam cleans clothes and shakes them wrinkle-free. "I want this in my home but they won't ship it to the U.S."

As always, Mr. Gotlieb wraps his tour at the entrance to the center hall of the Las Vegas Convention Center where, for as long as he can remember, two titans of tech -- Intel and Microsoft -- had dominant positions at the entrance to the show.

This year, that entrance signals another changing of the guard. Intel is still there, but Microsoft is gone. In its place is HiSense, an electronics company run by the Chinese government. Mr. Gotlieb says they actually do a good job of building decent equipment but for half the price of their competitors. They remind him of a once-unknown Korean company that now dominates the show.

"This is a company no one has heard of," he said." "They don't know what branding is. They look like Samsung 10 years ago."

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