Horizon Media founder Bill Koenigsberg on why nothing, and everything, is changing
Bill Koenigsberg founded Horizon Media just over 30 years ago. Today it is the largest independent media agency in the world. What clients want three decades on, he says, is no different than what they wanted in 1989. It’s how he—and his peers—have been able to serve them that’s changed.
“Thirty years ago clients came to me and my competitors and agencies for positive business outcomes,” he says. “Thirty years later, they’re actually still coming to us for the same thing: positive business outcomes. How you derive those positive business outcomes are night and day from where they were 30 years ago because of data and technology.”
Koenigsberg is the latest guest on the “Ad Lib” podcast where we take a look back on a career that grew up right in tandem with the rise of the modern media agency era. It’s a career that could possibly have never happened: Koenigsberg could well have become a pro tennis player had it not been for a stupid college injury. Now, in 2020, in an industry where CEO tenure is seldom longer than five years, Koenigsberg is an anomaly.
“Being CEO for the company for the last 30 years and having a long-term vision is an enormous competitive advantage, because when I look at my competitors—and I don’t want to go back 30 years, let me go back 10—there have probably been 100 different CEOs at my competitor agencies,” he says. When a new one comes in, they feel the need to shake things up and leave a mark, he says. “There’s an inconsistency in where they’re going. For me, I’ve had a much longer runway and an ability to drive the business forward with this long-term vision.”
On the podcast, Koenigsberg breaks down that vision, which has recently included leaning into content, creative and experience. Where the big holding companies have bought large data shops, Horizon has opted to rent. Being independent and privately owned has allowed Koenigsberg a fair amount of flexibility on that front. But being independent also comes with downsides.
“I’m not as strong globally,” he says. “The other downside is … the fact that I don’t have publicly traded currency sometimes has hurt me.”
We also look at the streaming wars and explore whether Netflix and other new entrants to the space, like Disney+, will ultimately be brand-supported (he thinks so). “If they go that way, if they will be able to allow us to unveil the walled gardens and provide data back, then that’s an enormous competitor to the Facebooks and Googles of the world in terms of the audiences these platforms are going to attract and our ability to engage with them,” he says.
About those Facebooks and Googles of the world: “They’re wolves in sheep’s clothing, he says. “Most of them feel they don’t need us and they can go direct to our clients. I don’t necessarily think that’s true. Our clients need an independent voice, someone who is not self-serving when they come in and are talking to you … For the short term they’re going to continue to take a huge chunk out of every advertising dollar. But as privacy concerns come a lot more front and center,” that will likely change, he says.
We talk about Horizon's loss of Disney as a client last year and what may have gone down during its $2.2 billion global media review. Ad Age reported on allegations around winners Publicis Media and Omnicom Media Group agreeing to “share shifting,” essentially increasing buys from their other clients across Disney’s array of properties. Koenigsberg declined to comment at length.
“If I was a client, I might check what my spending was year over year on those entities,” he says. “It’s just bad for the industry if something like that took place.”
We get into all that, plus culture and talent—and under what circumstances he'd ultimately sell, if ever.
“It’s got to be good for my clients, got to be good for my employees. Most importantly, it has to be a revolutionary step forward in terms of where the world is going,” he says. “I’m constantly evaluating the landscape of where the tides are changing and where the world is going. … There are some really interesting outliers out there today.”