In the fuzzy and still barely formed world that is the American media industry, Irwin Gotlieb is a sage: a towering figure of wisdom and experience in a market where the learning curve for most is vertical.
When Martin Sorrell wanted someone to kick ass, take shit and wrench media out of J. Walter Thompson and Ogilvy & Mather to launch MindShare in America (oh, and run the entire global network as well), Gotlieb headed a very short list of candidates. So ass has been kicked, shit has most definitely been taken and MindShare US is just about coming together.
It's taken a good 12 months to get Gotlieb out of the backroom WPP office he was initially installed in and into a fully fledged MindShare set-up.
The paint's still wet, the carpet yet stain-free, lots of people are still missing, waiting to be herded-up from various corners of the JWT and O&M advertising empires.
Gotlieb's own beautiful office (New York powerbroker's cliche: the corner setting with a to-die-for view of Manhattan - in Gotlieb's case, embracing the Statue of Liberty) is still a work in progress. His framed articles are propped against the wall and we perch our coffee on our knees in the absence of a table and it doesn't quite have the feeling of a hub of international business yet. But the lilac corporate colours are creeping in - a symbolic blending of JWT's blue and Ogilvy's red livery - and there are specially packaged lilac M&Ms for that peckish moment.
Gotlieb's been here before, in gesture at least, when he forced through the separation of media buying at his alma mater, DMB&B, to form Televest in 1993. The launch of Televest (now MediaVest) and its subsequent success (underlined in 1997 when it won Procter & Gamble's dollars 1 billion TV buying assignment - the biggest account win in the history of media) helped set the pace for the development of the media planning and buying industry in the US.
Yet Gotlieb - whose quiet, quiet voice and gentle manner belie his TV trading background, his cocky confidence and his no-bullshit approach - is not unreservedly proud of his role in shaping the media specialist landscape. 'Understand something: I didn't grow up in a Carat, I grew up in Benton & Bowles, and if you had talked to me 25 years ago about the notion of separating from the ad agency and becoming a media specialist company, it would not have been conceivable. I would not have understood it and I would not have felt good about it. And I can't tell ya, even though I did Televest back in 1993, that I felt particularly good about leading that charge.'
But, hey, don't blame me, Gotlieb says. This whole damn media thing is the client's idea: 'The truth of the matter is that it's not agencies that are unbundling media, it is our clients. What we are doing is nothing more than a reflection of what our clients have mandated for some time, and if we'd been more sensitive to the signals they were sending, we probably would have done it much sooner.'
And resistance is futile, right down to the fact that 'I don't believe you can attract decent media people to an organisation that isn't a media specialist any more.' So two fingers to the creative agencies who want to keep media planning in-house, then?
The politics involved in making MindShare (and almost every other media specialist) happen in America are infamous. The American advertising agencies have fought dirty to hold on to their empires (or should that be their bottom lines?) and pitched battles have been fought over whether media planning should follow buying out of the agency door. Gotlieb skillfully side-steps specific questions on JWT and O&M's resistance (he may have a brash honesty, but this guy ain't reckless), but he's adamant that planning and buying should stick together.
'If you draw a line between planning and buying, you create a rift between the two functions that is not only inappropriate but very counter-productive.
It also focuses planning purely at the brand level. Planning cannot take place purely at the brand level, it has to have some corporate perspective and that can't be done by any of the brand agencies because it's not in their purview: they don't have all the brands in large AOR accounts like media companies do. We work across all brands at the corporate level.'
It's elementary stuff to European media folk, but in the US such issues still sting like a fresh cut. Yet despite his fighting talk and visionary media credentials, Gotlieb remains incredibly respectful of the role of the creative - or as he calls it, the brand - agency. He says, for instance, that he can't imagine a time when media specialists take on the same lead-agency role that the brand agencies now occupy. 'I've heard some media people say that it's not media that's being unbundled, it's creative that's being unbundled. Bullshit. Total bullshit. I don't think it's tenable that media should come before creative, now or in the future. What's the point of us saying that, say, print has to be part of a media plan if the creative shop can't execute it? The day we lose sight of the fact that effective creative is mandatory for the media to work is the day we really lose sight of what it is we're trying to do. We're not just juggling a bunch of numbers, we've got to make the stuff sell, and you can't do that in a media vacuum.
'I don't know ... maybe if I'd grown up in a media independent, I wouldn't feel quite so strongly, but I grew up in a full-service agency and I know what goes on in agencies. I don't think quality agencies will ever be relegated to creative boutiques, there's too much talent and too many skills that live within the highly disciplined and competent agencies for that to happen.'
Such soothing sentiments might frustrate media folk on this side of the Atlantic who have broader aspirations for media's primacy, but don't be fooled into thinking that Gotlieb lacks either confidence or ambition.
A diamond dealer's son whose passion for all things hi-tech would make your average spotty new-media guru look ... well, like your average spotty kid, Gotlieb has a cocky self-assurance - refreshing really compared with some of his more, erm, corporate peers. He was born in China and raised in Japan - fluff and fawning don't figure in the Gotlieb lexicon.
As for ambition ... well, rumour has it that when Burnett and MediaVest's parent MacManus held media merger talks back in 1996, Gotlieb's demands for the top job were one of the key stumbling blocks that dashed the deal.
So Gotlieb's departure to MindShare last year was, so the story goes, the catalyst for Burnett and MacManus to come together to form B-Com3 with Dentsu.
Gotlieb vehemently dismisses the notion. 'I read somewhere that Roger Haupt (Burnett's chief executive) was walking on the beach on Labor Day weekend last year when he heard I was leaving Media-Vest and he thought 'Gee, that creates an opportunity, doesn't it.' I think a very clever PR person came up with that spin. Many people wouldn't mind the notoriety that kind of story can confer but I resented it though, because that's not who I am. It implies that I was the primary obstacle in the way of an agreement, and that is certainly not the case. I'm not at all flattered by that suggestion.'
But it's hard to imagine that if Gotlieb had stayed put he would have been comfortable with the way things have gone for MediaVest since the B-Com3 deal. MediaVest - though, in truth, it was never much of a network - has now been shackled to Burnett's Starcom media brand and the MediaVest name has disappeared in all but a couple of markets. At MediaVest, Gotlieb had led several high-profile defeats of Starcom in US media pitches; it's unlikely he would have quietly suffered his old rivals coming in and taking over the agency he'd put so much of himself into building.
WPP is something of a refreshing change after all that. 'By the end, MacManus was a company dying for a sale. WPP is a publicly held company, healthy, in an acquisitive mode and that has a dramatic effect on the media product.' The MindShare proposition is based on offering clients a house of media, which also provides a gateway to a host of WPP services, from Millward Brown to the Henley Centre and BMRB International.
Nevertheless, MindShare has so far failed to live up to this positioning on an international basis and, although local offices now operate as independent profit centres, the network is still a work in progress.
Having got the US sorted(ish), Gotlieb must now focus on putting together a strong international management team and a clearly defined board structure.
Also top of the 'to do' list must be to drive through quality standards, particularly in strategic and creative media credentials, to ensure that MindShare's scale (dollars 18 billion of international billings, 50 offices, 3,000 people) really is matched by high-calibre thinking in all markets.
The international network still doesn't have the credibility required to demand a place at the client's boardroom table. And though Gotlieb believes that media companies don't have personalities in the same way agencies do ('Media companies, you know - we crunch numbers. We do research, we hone our trading skills, we are strategic, we are tactical, we do all those things, but I don't think we have that much personality'), there needs to be a MindShare culture to ensure that thoughts of JWT and O&M media departments become a vague memory - both for MindShare employees and for the ad agencies themselves.
More international new business will, of course, help, although again there needs to be a stronger new-business operation at the centre supporting a coherent international client management structure that can guarantee levels of service across borders. Gotlieb's former close relationship with P&G will help in the network's drive to pinch Unilever assignments in local markets (the US Unilever media business is coming up for grabs soon, with the UK set to follow not far behind).
But before Gotlieb tackles such issues, he must address the question of the Media Edge, which WPP acquired along with its parent agency Young & Rubicam earlier this year. Ratification of the deal is imminent when we meet, but Gotlieb cannot be drawn on details of his plans. 'We will eliminate duplication across the two media companies wherever that's sensible. There are significant opportunities like that that are no-brainers. And do we find ways of leveraging our new scale in the market? Absolutely, it would be criminal not to. Do we have conflicts to manage? Absolutely, and we will be very sensitive to those.'
He admits that it's hard to justify, in many cases, having the Media Edge's media buying handled by a rival agency (as happens in some markets).
And he does imply that the Media Edge won't simply become another network like MindShare, a mirror image of the main brand. 'My own view is that if you really believe that your fundamental proposition is right, then you don't need one that's second best.'
Gotlieb acknowledges that the solid and impressive foundations of the MindShare network were already in place outside the US when he arrived; the chief operating officer, Dominic Proctor, deserves much credit for the blood, sweat and tears building work. Now Gotlieb will have to set his own sights to a more international horizon if MindShare is to keep pace ahead of the competition.
'We have to re-invent our USP on an on-going basis,' he explains. 'But what makes that more manageable is that the media landscape in which we operate isn't standing still. It's going to get response-driven, it's going to get transactional. Anybody who thinks it's still about cost per million is living in the last millennium. And I really don't think in the next few years, our roles and our practices will look anything like they did five years ago. We will have completely re-invented what we do for a living. And I gotta tell ya, if it wasn't so, I'd go do something else. I'd watch paint dry.'
In continually re-inventing the MindShare brand, Gotlieb says WPP's recognition of media and its potential is the real weapon in his armoury.
'WPP as a media company will get to redefine itself many times over in the course of the next decade,' Gotlieb relishes. 'Sure, our competitors are looking ahead, too. They're all smart. But whether their corporations have the corporate will and the intestinal fortitude to pursue the steps that need to be pursued is a whole other matter. The fact is that we're going to be really big at this at the end of the next few years and we will get it right.'