The World According to Mandel

Nov 7, 2005  •  Post A Comment

By John Motavalli

Special to TelevisionWeek

It’s New Orleans during NATPE. In its heyday, there were many NATPEs in New Orleans. Which NATPE it was, exactly, Jon Mandel can’t quite recall. It’s quickly clear that the story is a long, ribald anecdote about his encounter with a woman who was also in the advertising game. Somehow, Mandel says, the woman wound up in a fountain with him, in front of a convention hotel. Whether or not clothes were involved is still a matter of some debate, he says, his eyes twinkling. (Mandel is one of those rare individuals whose eyes actually twinkle.)

Months later, Mandel runs into the woman again, checking into a hotel in Los Angeles for the Emmys. She’s now obviously very pregnant. He turns to her and deadpans, “I didn’t do that to you, did I?” Turning to Mandel, she grabs the arm of the man next to her and says, “Jon, have you met my husband?”

Cut to the Western Cable Show, back in the mid-’80s, when that convention was to cable what NATPE was to syndication. VH1 was one of cable’s newest channels then, and it had quickly become apparent that it was a poor stepchild to sibling MTV. A hapless VH1 executive had just finished extolling his fledgling channel’s virtues. Mandel, in the audience, listens to about half the presentation and then stands up. Back then, as today, he had the ability to focus attention on himself, fast.

“Schmendrick,” he roars, “VH1 has lower ratings than a 500-watt radio station in East Bumf**k, Illinois.” The red-faced executive sputters. Everybody laughs. They laugh not only because it’s funny, but because it’s more or less true. This was the era when VH1 had hired smirking DJs from radio, including Don Imus and Scott Shannon. Renamed VJs on the channel, they openly disparaged and ridiculed the likes of Julio Iglesias, whose videos they were schlepping. If the channel scored a .001 rating, they broke out the champagne. In one stroke, Mandel put the whole mess in perspective.

Whether he’s talking about his personal life or his professional life, Mandel, who has risen to become chairman of the sixth-largest media agency in the country, MediaCom, is equally obscene, profane and profound. “He’s rude, crude, abrasive, and one of the smartest people in the business,” says Bob Brennan, the former chief operating officer of rival Starcom Mediavest Group and the former CEO of Leo Burnett USA. “There are few more skillful in media than Jon Mandel.”

Take, for example, the changes media is going through today, with the power transferring from a marketer forcing a message to a consumer to a consumer having much more say in what messages he receives.

“All of the new technologies-such as online-are really merely utilities,” Mandel points out. “What is important [from the agency point of view] is that people come up with relevant content for these technologies.”

One of Mandel’s pet peeves is that ads are not sufficiently tailored to individual audiences. He attacks the concept that marketers are most particularly interested in some amorphous segment known as 18- to 49-year-olds. In fact, he says, that segment is made up of countless sub-segments that need to be addressed individually with relevant content. He gives as an example New York 1, the Time Warner Cable all-news channel in Manhattan that does a good job of reaching 18 to 49 New Yorkers, and might be more relevant to them than, say, “Good Morning America.” That means you would have to include them in a plan even though the actual ratings don’t begin to compare with anything national.

“It makes for a much harder job for an agency today,” Mandel says. “You have to go after a much wider mix of different media. It is and will be much more work than it used to be.”

Part of the problem, he says, is the constant desire of conglomerates to maximize their profits by increasingly fragmenting their offerings to gain shelf space with the consumer, even when there is not necessarily a need for the new service. The most recent example of this, Mandel says, is NBC Universal’s announcement that it will introduce a new crime and mystery channel called Sleuth, when the world hardly needs another A&E or Court TV-type crime programming outlet.

“Yes, Mandel is one smart fellow,” says Larry Divney, his longtime pal and president of ad sales at MTV Networks.

Not everyone, however, is interested in what Mandel has to say. For example, he recently called a top executive at one of the broadcast networks to give his advice on a big hire the executive was about to make.

“He fried my balls; he went batshit,” is the way Mandel recalls the conversation. “He’s threatened by everything.” But he adds that he also called a cable network CEO recently to tell her that a corporate image campaign was running in the wrong media. The CEO changed agencies the next day.

Mandel, 53, has been at MediaCom-formerly the media department of Grey Advertising-for his entire working career. And those who know him say little has changed about him in the 31 years he has been there. Yes, he now has a middle-age paunch, his hair might be a bit thinner and he’s more likely to be sporting a pink polo shirt than the regulation business attire he used to favor.

“If you want to compare Jon today to when he started,” says media consultant Arnie Semsky, a media legend himself who was Mandel’s boss when Jon started at Grey, “is that if you think he’s wild now, just imagine how he was 30 years ago. Sometimes I feel like Dr. Frankenstein who unleashed Jon on the media world.”

Mandel admits he has a potty mouth. “Gerry Laybourne is the only person in the business with worse language than me,” he says, laughing. And he is very aware of his reputation both on and off the media playing field. In fact, it would be fair to say that Mandel encourages the telling of tales about both.

Here’s one he relishes. The Italian maitre d’ of a New York restaurant that Mandel frequented before it closed seemed to think that Mandel was having an affair with every media woman in Manhattan. “He didn’t get that there are women in the business now,” Mandel recalls. Every time Mandel brought a woman there, the maitre d’ hustled the two of them to a table in a back room where they wouldn’t be seen.

Finally, Mandel made an impromptu date with his mother for lunch. The maitre d’ followed his usual pattern, sweeping them to an obscure corner of the restaurant, but then took Mandel aside. Staring at the older woman, the confused maitre d’ whispered to Mandel, “I don’t get it with this one.”

Two Favorite Topics

Mandel is clearly most taken by two major subjects: women and media. And sometimes, women in media.

Ask him his thoughts about a top leader in the industry such as Renetta McCann, CEO, of Starcom MediaVest Group, the Americas, and he doesn’t spurt out the usual testimonial. Instead, Mandel coos, “If she wasn’t taken, I would like to grow old with her.” This from a man whose 17-year marriage ended in the past 18 months.

Mandel pauses and then almost immediately tells this story. He recently presided over a lunch for the United Jewish Appeal. As he reaches the podium and starts speaking, the 5-foot-7 media maven says, “I haven’t had such performance anxiety since I had that affair with a 6-foot German woman.”

That Mandel is obsessed with women should come as no surprise when one considers that he attended college at Vassar not long after that once all-women Ivy League campus began admitting men.

About to graduate from Vassar, Mandel checked out the jobs bulletin board. A recent graduate had posted a note saying that Grey Advertising in New York was looking for someone to help out with administrative chores.

Mandel’s father, Bill, had been an executive at Revlon-“a client marketing type,” as Jon puts it-and he knew at least a little about the ad business. So Mandel figured, what the hell? “It was a job,” he notes. He wrote down the info and ended up in an interview sitting across from Larry Lamattina, who then head
ed network TV buying at Grey. Lamattina eyed the long-haired Mandel, with his Vassar CV, and, Mandel recalls, says, “We don’t hire fags here.”

Lamattina, reached at his Weston, Conn., home, has a different memory, and says the “fag” line is one he wouldn’t have said. But he remembers the 1970s Mandel with fondness. “I still see Jon as a young kid,” he said. “To me, he’s still that young kid. I think he’s a terrific guy. He is a character. He knows how to get quoted.”

There were times, in the early years, Lamattina says, when an entire upfront for all the agency’s clients was done by just himself and Mandel.

Upfronts are still part of the business, of course, but in the past 31 years, Mandel says, the changes in the medium, with technology in general and the Internet in particular, have been revolutionary.

In the late ’90s, when the media business was thrown head over heels with the sudden intrusion of the dot-com era, there was that lengthy vodka-fueled session at Smith & Wollensky steakhouse (referred to within MediaCom circles as “Close & Expensive”) with a bunch of Grey media types like Dave Dowling, where the concept of “pay per click” was invented. “It was supposed to be temporary,” Mandel says, laughing.

In the past few years, especially, Mandel has become an increasingly outspoken advocate for certain basic bedrock issues in media. He is, as is his wont, far more outspoken than most buying-side executives, either because he has paid his dues and does not fear retribution from higher-ups, potential clients or media company adversaries, or because he is simply beyond all that.

For example, in July last year, before a congressional committee on media ownership and radio consolidation, the subject was basically Clear Channel, a huge factor in the radio business and the focus of increasing concern about its size.

“Some of our agency counterparts have told us to just keep quiet because the media companies could hurt our business if we aggravate them,” Mandel told the lawmakers. “And because our clients pay us on a commission basis, we make more money if advertising costs skyrocket. However, I am concerned about the future of not just the advertising industry but the broadcast industry as well.”

Deregulating radio, Mandel concluded, “is analogous to letting a private citizen maintain the only public free road into the market and looking the other way when he puts a private toll up. The costs to the economy created by this closed market while winking that it is free is of paramount importance to advertisers and the people of the United States who have to pay the costs.”

According to a MediaCom study in nine markets across the country, radio ad costs jumped 184 percent in Atlanta as a result of deregulation, leading Mandel to tell Inc. magazine in 2003, “It’s an absolute shakedown.” He added recently, “There is a reason why monopolies are illegal.”

Consolidation, Mandel laments, has had a huge effect on the industry, most of it bad. He sees a lack of diversity, with conglomerates pursuing programming not because it is quality or will get the best ratings, but because it will synergize best across various elements of the company.

All of which brings Mandel back to one of his favorite laments, about the creatives at agencies being able to keep up with the new media business.

“When I see the same f**king creative running on MTV and the Weather Channel, I have to say, you might as well give the money to charity,” he says.

Mandel: Not an Elocutionist for the Faint of Heart

Wherein we rapidly throw 10 subjects at Jon Mandel, chairman of MediaCom U.S., and get his lightning-quick responses:

1. Martha Stewart

She is a mature brand, and all the line extensions in the world won’t help.

2. Video iPod

An awfully small screen for older people.

3. Newspapers

You get your hands dirty. I only read newspapers online, and their advertisers, including the car companies, are moving away from newspapers.

4. NBC prime time

It will be back, I hope, in my lifetime. There is too much money at stake.

5. Interactive TV

I prefer [the term] interactive video. There will be interactive ads on video only if the ad creative community can figure it out.

6. The Internet

So prevalent today that it’s become a utility.

7. Broadcast network news

Unless they extend the evening, it’s on at the wrong time of day. Two-thirds of the country has it on at 5:30. That partly explains the success of cable news.

8. Nielsen Media Research

A hell of a lot better than anyone gives them credit for. People who trash Nielsen should really spend time in the print business if they want to see bad research.

9. IPG [The Interpublic Group]

From the competitive side, I hope they don’t make it, but from the industry perspective, I hope they will. It will be good for the industry if they can avoid further problems.

10. Howard Stern

Now that he’s on Sirius, even less people will care.