Koenigsberg keeps options open, expands his Horizons

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Sitting in his sparsely decorated office on New York's Third Avenue, Horizon Media's founder and president-CEO, Bill Koenigsberg, carefully mulls questions about whether he'll ever sell.

It is clear he'd rather talk about how his self-built media agency has a billion dollars in billings and what it will take to keep business growing. Asked to recall some of the best moments during his career, he said, "I think it is now. It's the first billion and we're expanding in Europe."

Ultimately, Mr. Koenigsberg comes back to the question of a sale with comments that would indicate some interest in the subject.

"Never say never," he said. "I need to do what's best for the clients and what is best for me personally. I would always seek out some opportunity that may make sense."

That doesn't satiate agency watchers, however. Speculation is rampant about who would make the buy. Canada's MDC Partners paid him a visit recently, though some suggest a merger with Carat would make more sense.

smaller version?

"Carat needs a second network. Vizeum [its recently launched sibling within Aegis Group] doesn't exist" in the U.S., said one media executive. Carat CEO David Verklin and Mr. Koenigsberg are good friends and generally root for each other in major pitches. Others suggest Horizon would be a good shot in the arm for Interpublic Group of Cos.' Initiative Media.

"Are they just a smaller version of the big guys?" asked one competitor. Horizon needs a better definition of what it offers, beyond merely being independent, said this executive. "I think they are solid performers ... the business clearly makes money. But they are not there to sell tools and technology," he said.

Whatever the speculation about a sale, Mr. Koenigsberg is still relatively young-he's 48 years old-and firmly engaged in the business.

The native New Yorker certainly has all the qualities required of a good agency executive. He's down to earth, available and easy to chat to. As others point out, his staff is extremely loyal.

When Mr. Koenigsberg started out, he thought he'd become a professional tennis player. After studying business at the University of Miami, he expected to enter advertising as a creative or an account planner, but he explains he had neither the portfolio, nor the M.B.A. for either career, and so he forged ahead in media.

When asked about some of the lows he's faced, Mr. Koenigsberg recounts the disturbing moment post-Sept. 11. A New York-based client was irate that its advertising was being pre-empted by coverage of the disaster and wanted major concessions by stations that dropped commercials. "They were the first and only client I've ever resigned," he says.

When asked about the specific issues faced by the industry and his agency, Mr. Koenigsberg conceded that the cost of research has ballooned.

"The investment needed to stay competitive is critical," he said. "The challenge is to continue with clients that understand the value of what we provide. We've seen significant pressure from global entities who, in order to keep the creative piece, shortchange themselves on media."

Media agencies are, however, a lot nearer to becoming the advertising engine that he predicted back in 1989, when he launched the company with seed money from his former employer, Media General, a publishing and TV station group.

"You had two things coming together, the enormity of media fragmentation and the availability of consumer research. That is where media companies took the lead role in analyzing that," he said. "It really accelerated the process."

Mr. Koenigsberg said Procter & Gamble Co.'s recent decision to hand Carat some of its communications-planning business was the "coronation of that" process. Among Horizon's 80 clients are General Electric Co.'s NBC, Ace Hardware, fast-feeder Jack in the Box and Geico Insurance. Geico is a major direct marketer, a discipline that Mr. Koenigsberg said will be a driver in future years. "We will do $100 million in direct response" this year, he said. "Right now, selling direct to the consumer is becoming more prevalent and we're building those blocks."

Résumé

Name: Bill Koenigsberg

Age: 48

Who: President-CEO, Horizon Media

Now: Speculation is rampant about when he'll sell his self-built company, and to whom. But he'll only say that he's talked to everyone over the years and doesn't see any reason to do it at the moment.

Challenge: "If we are going to become a global entity we need a bigger presence in Europe."

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