IRWIN GOTLIEB: Lunch at Michael's with Media's Most Powerful Person

By Jack Myers ThinkTank Archives
Cover image for  article: IRWIN GOTLIEB: Lunch at Michael's with Media's Most Powerful Person

On Tuesday October 21st, media industry legend and all-around good guy Irwin Gotlieb will be honored by the IRTS at the Hall of Mentorship dinner, along with BET Chairman/CEO Debra L. Lee. I first met Irwin when he was at Benton & Bowles in the early 1980s, and I'm proud to have him as a friend. In 2005, Irwin and I met for Lunch at Michael's. My commentary is below. Tomorrow, we'll republish Irwin's future-looking business observations from 2005. For details on attending the IRTS Hall of Mentorship, which I highly recommend, contact Joyce Tudryn at or

Many, many years ago, Grey Advertising executive Dr. Larry Dekkinger was reminded of a riddle: "There are twelve balls. Eleven have the exact same weight and one is a different weight. How do you identify that one ball in only three moves?" Dekkinger, unable to recall the solution, called his agency colleague at SSC&B Advertising, Hal Miller, who turned to his young associate, Irwin Gotlieb, and instructed him to solve it. It took nearly a full day, but Irwin finally came back with a solution to the near-impossible riddle. The story tells a lot about Irwin, but it's even more telling that he still carries the solution in his wallet just in case someone poses the riddle again. That's classic Irwin Gotlieb, who controls $54 billion in global advertising budgets for WPP's GroupM and is arguably the most powerful man in television and advertising.

Remember the television series The Naked City? Each episode ended with the statement: "There are eight million stories in The Naked City. This has been one of them." Irwin Gotlieb has at least eight million stories that could easily be compiled into a history of the ad business. This is just a few of them.

Irwin is a graduate of the most distinguished training ground in the ad business: the old Benton & Bowles ad agency media department, whose alumni represent a who's who of legendary industry characters. Irwin tells the story of the late Peter Hyman, who had a reputation as an uncanny analyst of network TV ratings. Hyman, Irwin explains, was in a secret relationship with the secretary of then-NBC programming chief Fred Silverman. Every day at 6 AM, Silverman's secretary, through a source at Nielsen established by Silverman, would receive early Nielsen ratings from the previous day and then call Silverman with the information. She would also tell Hyman, who would lay bets on the previous days with network salespeople, gaining his reputation as a ratings guru.

Meyer Berlow, another B & B media executive, went on to gain fame as head of the America Online sales team that generated billions in revenues during the go-go years Internet boom. His no-holds-barred style was evident, Irwin recalls, one late, cold and snowy winter night in the 1970s when he and Berlow left the office with Marc Goldstein and the more junior Steve Farella. There were no taxis available and Berlow suggested a simple strategy: throw Farella in front of a taxi, forcing it to stop and then taking-over the taxi to deliver Farella to a hospital and the others to their homes.

In the 1970s, Irwin was working at SSC&B, which desperately needed a computer system to compete in the network TV media planning and buying business. Irwin spent two days discussing the requirements with the company's computer consultants, who proposed a four phase delivery process taking three or more years for completion at an "obscene" cost. Frustrated, Irwin found the Fortran manual and began working on the system at noon on Friday. By noon Monday, phase one had been completed and two weeks later, the full system was built. When he decided to re-implement the system in a newer, easier to maintain programming language the process took seven months but, Irwin laughs, "I also had a day job."

Irwin misses the ability to "start a project, work on it, and see it through to completion. It's a trade-off," he says. "If you want a scalable business you need to be able to delegate and rely on people." Ironically, expanding to a global $54 billion empire with 12,000 employees was never Irwin's goal. In 1985, when Benton & Bowles merged with D'Arcy, MacManus & Masius Agency, combined TV billings were less than $250 million and there were 30 people in his national broadcast department. Even today, though, Irwin tries to enthuse his staff with the same attitude with which he attacked the challenge of building a computer system from scratch. "I operate on the premise our administrative jobs are done on down time. During business hours, our job is figuring out how to innovate and position ourselves and our clients for the next five years."

It's not just the deep intelligence, the Zen-like cunning from his Japanese upbringing, the technological wizardry that would make him the perfect Harry Potter character, but it's his self-deprecating humor blended with appropriate hubris that make Irwin such a compelling industry character.

It wasn't easy convincing Irwin to lunch at Michael's because he "likes to go where others don't" and because he's an admitted sushi addict who requires the raw fish "often enough so I don't get the shakes." After lunches at Kuruma Zushi on West 47th Street and Milos Restaurant, we finally made it recently to Michael's (but be warned; Irwin rarely smiles for photos. "I need to look demonic," he points out.)

Irwin's favorite anecdotes are about the people he has grown up with in the ad business, and at the top of the list is his mentor, Werner Michel, the longtime SSC&B and Bozell Advertising executive who admits to being 95 years old but has most likely crossed the century mark. Michel is a doctor of musicology who conducted a Vienna orchestra; is an Austrian Jewish national who became head of the Voice of America; worked for Dumont, CBS and ABC networks; launched The Edge of Night; and worked closely with William F. Paley, Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite's and remains one of Cronkite's best friends. Irwin and his wife Liz recently had dinner with Werner and Rosemary Michel, but Irwin asked if they could make it an early evening since the Gotliebs were jet lagged after two weeks traveling in the Orient. Rosemary agreed to accommodate the "young folks," pointing out she and Werner were feeling fine after two weeks exploring the Balkans. "He could always one-up me," Irwin says offering one of his rare smiles.

To contact Irwin Gotlieb, send an e-mail to and it will be forwarded

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