Staying a Step Ahead of the Pack

Mar 2, 2008  •  Post A Comment

Tim Spengler Initiative USA President Tim Spengler knows about the industry’s past. His father was the longtime head of advertising for Bristol-Myers and every night around the dinner table, the younger Spengler would soak up talk about people, brands and events. When he was 14, the youngster would cut out network logos and put them up in his room.
Adding to that pedigree, the agency Mr. Spengler now leads was still Western International Media when he joined it in 1993—the legendary Los Angeles-based shop that practically invented independent media buying in the U.S. And for years, he was mentored by Western’s legendary national buying chief, Bill Croasdale, an upfront icon for four decades.
Tim Spengler also knows how to thrive in the challenging present. Along with Initiative Worldwide CEO Richard Beaven and Alan Cohen, president of Initiative West and Worldwide Innovation, he is part of a potent executive trio that has boosted the agency’s fortunes, pushed into the forefront of industry innovation, ignited morale and attracted top-level talent to its ranks.
In the past year alone, the agency grew by 25%, winning organically with new planning assignments from existing clients Bayer, KAO Brands, Coors and Big Lots!, among others. And in the two years since Mr. Spengler was elevated from executive VP/director of national broadcast to chief activation officer (where he oversaw the unification of all buying departments including national and local broadcast, print and online), Mr. Spengler and his teammates have been on a new-business blitzkrieg, winning about $1 billion in fresh billings from Hyundai/Kia, Cadbury Schweppes, Citi Home Equity, CBS, Showtime, Lionsgate Films and Quiznos.
It’s all based on an agency principle Beaven describes as “an action orientation—and Tim personifies that.”
Those bona fides alone would make Tim Spengler a contender for top honors. But that’s just part of the reason that he’s TVWeek’s 2007 Media Buyer of the Year. And it’s not just that he has a personal style that bonds people to him and makes them eager to work with and for him. Nor is it only his effort, which colleagues and clients alike say is nigh on relentless. (Mr. Beaven describes Mr. Spengler’s leadership style as “the ideal combination of perspiration, inspiration and belief.”)
What really sets Tim Spengler above your run-of-the-mill media agency executive is not only his sure grasp of past or present, or even his demonstrable skills as a leader. What makes him truly special is his vision.
“I always value somebody who’s not a prisoner of their job description,” says former Initiative Worldwide Chairman Alec Gerster, who retired March 1. “So many people come out of [network television buying] jaded and overly focused on national broadcast that they lose sight of what’s going on in a broader context. Tim clearly wasn’t.”
In fact, in many ways, Mr. Spengler has always been a modern media-agency leader, even before the old media world fractured and fragmented and unbundled. Even before he was a leader, in fact.
From his first job as a secretary at NW Ayer, through a stint at Lowe and then on to Western-turned-Initiative, Mr. Spengler “always thought of the job as bigger than media,” he recalls. “What are you doing for your brand? I always thought of it as marketing. I always thought the job was bigger than the numbers.”
Maybe it was all those dinner conversations at his father’s house. Certainly his endless curiosity about the business and how to make things work better is a factor. And one can’t conduct an interview with colleagues or clients about Mr. Spengler without every one of them extolling his ability to hear what others are saying.
In marketing terms, Mr. Spengler can process and synthesize information and is comfortable with other ideas and points of view. This is what makes him so smart and not infrequently fearless. Also creative—a word that still isn’t applied nearly enough to what media agencies do. Or, as Mr. Spengler describes it, “turning a media idea into a marketing result.”
Mr. Spengler’s understanding of the AOL brand, for example, was instrumental in the creation and launch of the “Running Man” for AOL during Fox’s World Series telecast in 2004, which featured the then-revolutionary use of digital insertion technology on a network broadcast. There was Home Depot’s “orange carpet” during the Academy of Country Music Awards pre-show. More recently, marijuana-scented strips in Rolling Stone for the season premiere of Showtime’s “Weeds.” And last fall’s “blinks,” the agency’s name for five-second teaser spots that Mr. Spengler’s team created for the October release of Lionsgate’s “Saw IV,” which utilized the old broadcast television test pattern and fuzzy screen of a malfunctioning TV set to scare the living daylights out of viewers.
“Tim really listens to what you need and then is willing to take risks in order to take your campaign to the next level,” says Erika Schimik, senior VP of media and research for Lionsgate. “The blinks were something that had never been done before.”
John Ross, VP of advertising and marketing for Initiative client Home Depot, says, “Tim is very nimble in the face of change,” adding, “I never have to worry about him being the strongest media IQ in the room. He’s just wicked smart.”
Characteristically, Mr. Spengler was thinking of the future when he joined Western. “I looked at all of the people in the business I emulated, and they had all lived and worked in another market,” he notes. “That allowed them to bring something else to the party. Entertainment in L.A. Other types of clients in Chicago. Cars in Detroit.”
So Mr. Spengler went to the West Coast for one of Western founder and patriarch Dennis Holt’s trademark, you’d-better-wear-a-suit weekend job interviews. And again, he heard the future calling. “I went out and met with Dennis, and that operation was so impressive,” he remembers. “And they said all we do is media. You’re the talent in our company. That’s all I needed to hear.”
And then there was Mr. Croasdale. Mr. Spengler recalls, “I had worked with people who worked with Bill. He was a smart, passionate, tireless worker. I learned from Bill that it’s a people business and you should understand what’s important to the person on the other end of the phone.
“Integrity is important and you should demand it of yourself and everyone around you. And you should bring the power and leverage of the agency into the discussion. Bill always was representing something bigger than just the deal at that time.”
Sound familiar? But it hasn’t always been easy.
The birth of unbundling was sometimes a difficult one in the 1990s, as fledgling media shops fought with their creative counterparts, marketing consultants and others for the client’s ear. The Western acquisition was among the most difficult of those transformations, creating a bicoastal culture clash between the holding company’s buttoned-up Madison Avenue approach and Western’s Hollywood flash and personality-driven style.
Initiative struggled to reconcile the two cultures to uneven effect for most of the next decade. And although it competed constantly at the highest level, it almost never won any significant new business for most of that time.
Through it all, however, Mr. Spengler soldiered on, never wavering in his belief that the agency—which never lacked for talent or smarts even when its prospects were most grim—would persevere. “I never wanted to leave,” he says. “Even in the hard times, I always felt that I could be part of a winning organization. I didn’t need to go someplace else to win.”
Mr. Gerster, one of the industry’s most respected players whose arrival in 2002 marked the beginning of Initiative’s turnaround, knows something about staying power, having worked for 30 years at Grey Global Group. To him, Mr. Spengler’s decision to stick it out “shows a level of confidence and maturity that have served him well.”
Like many businesspeople, Mr. Spengler, a competitive tennis player in college, likens his industry to athletics. “Media is a team sport,” he says. And in the past few years, he’s been joined by some talented teammates.
It’s not hard to see how the Beaven-to-Spengler-to-Cohen play works so smoothly. Mr. Spengler calls working with the other two “the highlight of my career,” and the three are indeed complementary talents. Mr. Cohen, who joined the agency in 2005, is a highly regarded entertainment marketing executive who worked at ABC and NBC and is “the most creative marketing executive I’ve ever met, like Picasso,” Mr. Spengler says. Mr. Beaven, a strategic planner, joined in 2006 from MediaVest and is steeped in the cerebral Starcom MediaVest Group culture. He’s “usually the smartest person in the room,” opines Mr. Spengler, whose deep background on the activation side meshes perfectly.
“When we get together on an issue, topic or problem, I feel that if we really think about it together, where we come out is probably the right place,” he explains. In fact, as Mr. Beaven sees it, Mr. Spengler is emblematic of the kind of agency Initiative wants to be.
“Tim’s done a terrific job of breaking down what was a very ‘me’ culture into a very ‘us’ culture,” says the Initiative CEO. And about the troika approach, Mr. Beaven says, “Every company leadership has to manifest what that company is about. The three of us working together that way is a very clear representation of how we want everybody to work.”
As Home Depot’s Mr. Ross observes, Mr. Spengler “has a way of bringing groups together, getting them all on the same page, so people learn what to do and how to apply the resources willingly. Evangelical may be too strong a term, but people like working with him.”
Mr. Spengler does have a solid supporting cast, including local broadcast chief Sue Johenning, another survivor from the lean years, and, more recently, national broadcast chief Ray Dundas and digital head Michael Hays.
Initiative’s success also is drawing the kind of brainy talent it probably couldn’t have wooed aboard until recently, such as Fred Sattler, the former director of media strategy at TBWA Chiat/Day, media director at Doner and most recently No. 2 in PHD’s Detroit office; he helped pitch and win Hyundai and will lead that team as executive VP.
This week marks the official start of the Spengler era at Initiative. It’s been 15 years of blood, sweat and sometimes tears for the new president. But the past is merely prologue to this industry veteran. Tim Spengler is one media agency executive for whom “going forward” is not merely a buzz phrase; it’s a mission.
As he leads Initiative into the future, expect nothing less than more of the same.
(Corrects name of awards show sponsored by Home Depot to Academy of Country Music Awards)


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