The media maven, whose slight physique and soft-spoken demeanor defy his commanding presence in the industry, led the vanguard by helping in 1993 to create TeleVest via a spinout of national broadcast buying operations from the now-defunct D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles.
Twelve years later, Mr. Gotlieb, 55, is again tinkering with the model for media services. As head of GroupM, he oversees WPP Group's media networks MindShare, Media-edge:cia, Maxus and, once WPP's purchase of Grey Global Group closes, Mediacom, Mr. Gotlieb will have more media dollars under management-$47 billion, per the latest tallies by media-tracking group RECMA-than any of his competitors. (Its closest rival is Publicis Groupe with $34 billion.)
With multiple package-goods giants-Unilever, Altria Group's Kraft Foods and Colgate-Palmolive Co.-all buying media through GroupM's media agencies, Mr. Gotlieb is a powerful force in U.S. and global media, and a formidable competitor in the network TV upfront, the annual springtime frenzy when buyers commit their marketers' fall TV budgets.
Although GroupM's girth from clients' money provides marketplace clout, Mr. Gotlieb insists that size alone is no guarantor of success. The most important thing about scale, he says, is "to know how to use it effectively."
With GroupM, an idea he "strongly believed in," and the support of his boss, WPP Group Chief Executive Martin Sorrell, Mr. Gotlieb is outpacing competitors.
The wins the young unit accrued in 2004 include media-buying and planning duties on the $1.5 billion Nestle account, for which GroupM assembled teams from both MindShare and Mediaedge to win media buying and planning duties. GroupM shares the account with Publicis Groupe's ZenithOptimedia Group. On the Samsung global creative and media account, GroupM will oversee media planning and buying, tapping resources from throughout WPP's global network. "He has a terrific mind," says Rich Hamilton, CEO of ZenithOptimedia and a former colleague when the two men worked at DMB&B. "He surrounds himself with strong people, and he's a very astute user of technology."
Yet for all its success, GroupM's low-profile place in the industry is "shrouded in mystery," says one competitor, tongue-in-cheek; another dismisses it as a marketing ploy to sell WPP's media brands.
And this all plays into Mr. Gotlieb's strategy. He prefers to keep the details of GroupM's offerings and services out of the public's-as well as competitors'-eyes. While rivals might read press accounts of GroupM's account wins, few know about its operations. Depending on the pitch, media shops under the GroupM umbrella might compete for an account individually or be handpicked to work together. By cherry-picking agencies, GroupM says it's able to navigate client conflicts.
No fancy trappings, such as a suite of offices or slick marketing materials, distinguish GroupM from the networks it oversees.
Mr. Gotlieb, who came to the job from MindShare, where he was CEO, maintains the same office he used in his former role.
"Irwin is a chief executive who came up through the ranks. He understands how the business operates on a daily basis, and there isn't any part of the business he doesn't love," says Perianne Grignon, VP-media services at Sears, Roebuck & Co. She first hired Mr. Gotlieb in the early 1990s when he was at TeleVest, then hired him again in 2000 when she was at Sears and he was at MindShare.
GroupM's staff, which Mr. Gotlieb estimates at "well under 100," includes employees in information technology and finance, as well as a smattering of executives who carry a GroupM title, such as Nick Theakstone, managing director of GroupM trading (buying) in the U.K.
GroupM's goal is efficiency. Pre-upfront, for instance, MindShare and Mediaedge national broadcast groups will team up to develop audience estimates for new and returning shows and coordinate strategies. "Scale helps because you have more people and you can delegate," says Jason Maltby, co-executive director-national broadcast at MindShare.
On executive levels, that scale also enables it to lure top-tier players, such as longtime programming veteran Peter Tortorici, now president of MindShare Entertainment Group. Mr. Tortorici in 2004 developed a branded entertainment deal that put client Sears into a central sponsorship role on the "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" TV series.
RESEARCH AND TOOLS
Perhaps the greatest benefit size brings to GroupM and its networks is the ability to invest and share research and tools-the latter includes proprietary computer programs that analyze audiences or determine return on investment or figure out how to spend a client's dollars for maximum efficiency.
One of MindShare's 2004 developments, for instance, is a tool called MindSet, a personal digital assistant used by consumers to record where and when they see an ad.
Indeed, tapping technology to create efficiencies is Mr. Gotlieb's creed.
A self-taught computer geek who was born in China, raised in Japan and never attended college, Mr. Gotlieb made a name for himself as head of network relations at SSC&B in New York, where he wrote a computer program that projected and calculated audiences and also simulated marketplace negotiations.
Today that quest pervades his work at GroupM and even touches his personal life, in which he wrote the software that controls the digital infrastructure on his "smart house" in Westchester, New York, activating lights and other appliances from within the house and even remotely over the phone. His pool stays clean, managed via a computer program he wrote.
And the obsession has served him well. Says Sears' Ms. Grignon, that love of technology "has been very helpful to the building of [Mr. Gotlieb's] media agencies."
CEO: Irwin Gotlieb
Agencies under GroupM umbrella:
MindShare, Mediaedge:cia, Maxus and Mediacom*
Media dollars managed: $47 billion*
Major global account wins:
Nestle ($1.5 billion) MindShare and MediaEdge split. GroupM shares the account with Publicis Groupe's ZenithOptimedia Group
Samsung Group ($200 million) Several WPP agencies will work on the account.
* Number includes Mediacom, once the Grey Global Group acquisition closes
Source: Advertising Age and media-tracking group RECMA.