MEDIA HEADLINER: Man with the Midas touch has big plans for L90's UK launch - Bill Apfelbaum is bringing his winning formula to web ad sales, Ian Darby writes

L90, the US-based online advertising company that launched last week in the UK, has brought in the former TDI supremo Bill Apfelbaum to add some credibility. This may seem strange when you consider that during one memorable TDI presentation, he bounced around to the Tina Turner song Simply the best in front of a City audience.

However, Apfelbaum's credibility stems from his ability to make money.

In 1989, when he joined TDI, it had debts estimated at dollars 100 million. But when TDI was sold in 1996 (following the acquisition of London Transport Advertising in 1994) to Infinity Broadcasting, Apfelbaum made more than dollars 60 million.

Apfelbaum stayed on as TDI's worldwide chairman after the sale but became increasingly hands off as time went on. He stepped down last February.

Early in 1998, Apfelbaum met John Bohan, the president of the young internet advertising company L90, who had built a company that was turning in a profit but needed investment to take it to the next stage. Apfelbaum injected dollars 2 million of his own money and became the chairman of L90.

Bohan says: 'Everything Bill did with TDI, I wanted to do with L90. He says it's all about three things - revenue, revenue and revenue.'

Apfelbaum's creed is to keep it simple. He helped to refocus L90's sales teams and reorganise its offices around five rules used at TDI. These include simple instructions to the sales teams such as 'make five calls a day', 'get back to clients within 24 hours' and 'ask for all the money'.

Apfelbaum's arrival at L90 has had the desired effect. Within months, Bohan had attracted another dollars 13.5 million in investment from, among others, Omnicom. He also netted other big hitters to the L90 board including senior executives from Coca-Cola.

Apfelbaum will now split his time between L90's Los Angeles HQ, New York and London. Jane Henley, the former business group director of TDI UK, who will run L90 in the UK, says: 'He has a vision and sense of drive that will make a difference. And he has the Midas touch.'

Born in New York in 1947, Apfelbaum quickly made his mark when he was thrown out of high school for punching a teacher. After a spell teaching in Vietnam, Apfelbaum embarked on a media sales career and rose through the ranks at New York Subways Advertising before becoming its president in 1982 and gaining more than dollars 10 million from its sale in 1989.

Describing his time at TDI as sometimes 'like the Marx Brothers', Apfelbaum nonetheless turned an ailing company into a huge success story.

Despite his appetite for money and success, Apfelbaum is fiercely liberal.

He launched an anti-racism campaign with the Simon Wiesenthal Centre and during his time at TDI each office had its own charity programme.

Apfelbaum's influence can be seen in L90's approach. Henley says: 'Bill has his formula for success that is 'humble on the outside, cocky on the inside'.'

However, L90 may need all of Apfelbaum's energy and tenacity to succeed in Europe, where it is launching well behind established online sales operations such as 24/7 Media and DoubleClick.

Apfelbaum, as the worldwide chairman of L90, will help Henley and the vice-president of European sales, Heather Stephenson, to expand the business.

Bohan says this will be through organic growth as well as acquisition.

L90 claims that its service, where only a small part of its offering is buying banner ads, is different to that of its rivals. Most of its services for clients involve sponsorship deals, viral marketing, sweepstakes and promotions. However, both DoubleClick and 24/7 say that they have also diversified outside of banner ads, so the competition will be tough.

It also remains to be seen if lifting a sales model from a traditional media company such as TDI will work in the new-media sector. However, so far in the US, it seems to have worked, with a client list including Mars, Microsoft and Procter & Gamble.

Apfelbaum acts as the equivalent of a football manager at L90. His role is all about motivation. As Bohan says: 'He does a tremendous amount of cheerleading so that staff at L90 feel they've got something to be excited about.'

The more he motivates them, the more money he makes.

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