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The man who saw tomorrow: Irwin Gotlieb, GroupM

From advising clients on media buying to writing software programmes to clicking pictures, Irwin Gotlieb of GroupM is a man of varied interests.

, ET Bureau|
Jun 23, 2010, 10.15 AM IST
In the world of quants there are two sets of players. The Alphas, who are able to consistently beat the stock market, and the betas who play the market in a plain vanilla way. The title of the Alpha comes to those who supposedly know the Truth or are close to unravelling the Truth.

The Truth is outperforming the stock market using mathematics or quantitative analysis. But Irwin Gotlieb’s interests do not lie in the stock market, though throughout his career, the man’s dabbled deep in numbers.

And given his achievements, Gotlieb, worldwide chief executive of GroupM could be given the sobriquet of an Alpha and the one who knows the Truth. Gotlieb, however, disagrees. “I don’t think anybody knows the truth,” he says. At the end of the day, the guys with the most data and the best skills to interpret the data are going to win, he says. “But, you have to know what data and you have to know how to interpret the data.”

The man has earned the reputation of interpreting the drift and steering GroupM and its brands — Mindshare, Maxus, Mediacom and Mediaedge:cia — towards a new world. His conviction of the role that technology can play a crucial role has seen Group M invest in Invidi Technologies, a technology startup based in Princeton, N.J. Invidi helps determine the age, gender, income and location of TV viewers. Another investment in technology involved investment in Visible World nine years ago. The company creates multiple versions of a TVC based on segmentation and assembles in real time. “Between GroupM and WPP, we’ve made massive investments of our own. It is our view that our work here is not to simply sit back and passively watch the evolution of our business,” says Gotlieb.

A technology evangelist, Gotlieb says that, in markets like India, digital may be not be big, but one cannot be complacent. “What you need to do is learn everything you can but you don’t necessarily invest a huge amount of your resource into it. Everything has to be moderated to align with the time frame that’s expected,” he says.

The adoption of technology, says Gotlieb, happens at a faster rate in developing markets than it does in developed markets. “Just look at how quickly wireless is adopted here, compared to the US. Wireless adoption in the US took many years. Why? Because the wired infrastructure was terrific. India didn’t have a wired infrastructure that was particularly good and wireless adoption took place very rapidly. Similarly if you look how DVD adoption took place — in the US and Western Europe it took over a decade, because we still had VHS. However, in South East Asia, DVD adoption happened in a 3-year window because there was nothing to replace and the price point was more than competitive with the older technology,” he states.

From the work done at media agencies, one is likely to think that it’s all about number crunching. But for Gotlieb, interpretation of data is creativity and he doesn’t take it too kindly when it’s hinted that media agencies lack imagination. “There is creativity in the interpretation of data, there is creativity in the development of technology and there is creativity in the use of technology. It’s a different form of creativity, but it’s absolutely creativity,” he says. Besides looking at numbers, media agencies today help create content, says Gotlieb.

The analysts at GroupM are not just looking at numbers, they look at business science, get consumer insights and combine it with tactical planning and trading to give the best value to their client. “I would suggest, if we were to be having this conversation ten years from now, even the concept of big ideas is going to evolve dramatically, because we(media agencies) will have the ability to target in a very refined way and almost any product will need highly segmented strategies,” he says.

Gotlieb is credited to have written the software that was used by media buyers for over 30 years to arrive at prices for TV and radio spots and outdoors. The man therefore has a word or two of advice for the internet giant Google.

“Google is a very technology competent business and they will continue to dominate there, unless some engineer working out of his garage in India or China comes up with a better mousetrap than what Google built. That might be tomorrow or in 10 years, but it’s going to happen. My instinct is that it won’t be in the search algorithm but in the user interface. The user interface on Google has changed very little since its inception and I think it’s their core vulnerability.” Gotlieb also thinks, Google’s strategy of disruption will be less beneficial to the conglomerate and it could succeed rapidly if “they partner or collaborate with other members of the ecosystem and play the role of the technologist and technology provider in the ecosystem.”

At the end of the conversation, it became evident that Gotlieb doesn’t just live and breathe data. His other pursuit, photography has ample display of creativity, be it portrait or nature with attention to detail. Perhaps the best part of the discussion was Gotlieb’s brief conversation with the photographers on the intricacies of photography and use of cameras. The man wears many hats and data crunching is just one of them.

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