Verklin's Impassioned Vision Not Enough to Fill Leadership Void

By Published on .

Will someone other than David Verklin please stand up?

I mean, really, is there a single other human being who has been as much of a leader, visionary, a force for change and a voice of optimism in the marketing and media industries over the last 15 years? The answer is no, and that's remarkable, as a statement on Verklin's talents and as shameful commentary on the leadership vacuum.

I've heard many executives articulate the challenges facing their industries and offer daring, innovative solutions one-on-one. But most of them don't have the guts or willingness to take a public stand, because corporate won't let them or the industry wouldn't rally behind them or rivals might twist their words to gain competitive advantage. The ideas go nowhere-or, worse, are voiced only in the confines of trade-association boardrooms, where they die with a muffled whimper.

Then there's David Richard Verklin, who still looks 35 even though he turns 50 next year, and whose devilish smile, radio voice and urgent delivery have captivated audiences for most of his career. On some level, he plays the role of leader to gratify his ego-he's always had big ambitions-on another, to grow his company by crafting an image as an innovator, a strategy that has worked well. There are critics who carp about grandstanding, but their complaints smack of jealousy, and in any case he has many more admirers.

What motivates him is beside the point. What's indisputable is that the marketing and media industries have moved forward powered by his inspired calls to action.

Witness his most recent speech, the highlight of an otherwise mediocre Advertising Week. Ad Age labeled it "eloquent and spirited," descriptors that were hardly needed. At a time when most executives are frozen with fear, Verklin painted a picture of how competing industry stakeholders could come together to define new models for a digital-media age in which he predicted $40 billion will shift from TV advertising to alternative disciplines.

"We've moved from the passive era of television to a more participatory medium. . . . We will have to be invited into people's living rooms."

Oh, wait. He didn't say that last part last week; he said that in a speech 11 years ago. Getting the picture on how good he is?

I remember having breakfast around 1989 at the Grand Hyatt with magazine sales guy Pete Hunsinger. I was new to the publishing beat and looking for sources. Pete, himself a kid, told me about this young media director out of San Francisco, David Verklin. Told me he was so good he might rise up to take over his agency, Hal Riney & Partners-an unheard of career path for a media wonk in the days of the full-service shop.

Verklin, who started in the media department at Y&R at 21, landed at Riney in 1987. Two years later, age 33, he ran a Media Futures group that experimented with interactive kiosks and online ads via Prodigy. He won kudos for his innovative use of media to launch the Saturn car.

As recently as 1994, Verklin was a proponent of the full-service model. But he always wanted to run his own company, and in 1998 he was hired as CEO of Carat's North American operations. It took a while to get it going, but Verklin's persistence paid off, and billings grew from $600 million to $5 billion. He has presided during a time when media operations grew into sophisticated planning, buying and research organizations that gained client respect for their strategic insights.

But this isn't about his career; it's about the man. He's a leader, and we need to recruit a few more just like him, explorers to map the way forward. Who's signing up?

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