Bill Koenigsberg, president and CEO of Horizon Media, couldn’t get a job at one of the big name Madison Avenue agencies, so he built his own. Now with $4.7 billion in billings, Koenigsberg’s Horizon is the world’s largest independent media services company and he is the first executive from the media side to be chairman of the American Association of Advertising Agencies.
“It’s so obvious when you walk into the agency it’s got Bill’s DNA running through it,” says Jo Ann Ross, president of ad sales at CBS. “He’s one of the nicest, most direct, most honest guys in the business. He’s so vested in his employees and his clients. He’s the whole package.”
Growing up in New York and on Long Island, Koenigsberg was a self-described TV junkie fascinated by commercials. “I’m one of the few people who knew growing up that he wanted to be in advertising,” he says.
While playing tennis at the University of Miami, he interned at agencies. But Florida was not the advertising capital of the world, so when he finished school, he returned to New York. On Mondays he’d drop off resumes at agencies. On Tuesdays he’d follow up with phone calls. On Wednesdays, more resumes went out. “Not knowing a soul anywhere it was tough to get in,” he recalls.
Koenigsberg landed a job with one of the early small media agencies and planned to leave after getting a year’s worth of experience. He stayed seven years, became a manager, but left after the company reneged on the promise of a company car.
He wound up at the fledgling media buying division of Media General. When Media General sold some assets, Koenigsberg borrowed $14 million and bought the buying division himself to start Horizon.
After a shaky start, the agency attracted key clients such as GEICO. “He’s a smart, relentless supporter of the brands he represents,” says Ted Ward, VP of marketing at GEICO. “He’s a real creative thinker as to how to take what might initially be viewed as a traditional media buy and work it so that his folks bring us a more integrated product,” he says, pointing to sponsorships of History channel shows that included spots with Vikings and Houdini themes.
“That’s part and parcel of Bill’s hands-on approach,” Ward says. And Koenigsberg’s legendary energy hasn’t waned after 20 years. “I’m trying to wear him down, but I’m not being too successful,” Ward says.
A newer client, Eric Hirschhorn, chief marketing officer at Burger King, notes that “when somebody runs a business as an owner they treat the business completely differently. He understands that the business we’re in evolves and changes incredibly rapidly and he’s willing to invest in his own business and the business of his clients to make sure that he’s servicing them in the way they need to be serviced.”
Hirschhorn says he speaks to Koenigsberg every day. “I don’t know if that’s because I’m crazy or because he’s that good,” Hirschhorn says. “If you told me I was the only client he had I’d believe you.”
Mel Berning, chief revenue officer of Horizon client A+E Networks, calls Koenigsberg a great partner who’s also a great customer.
“Despite the fact that he has grown Horizon into the largest independent shop, he is able to really stay involved in his clients’ business,” Berning says. “He’s also brought a group of top-flight media executives to the agency.”
Go to an industry gathering, and Koenigsberg seems to know everyone in the room. “He’s a master networker and knows what’s going on with everyone’s business and what’s important to them,” Berning says.
“He’s at every industry event. He’s part of the community, he’s part of every significant conversation,” says Irwin Gotlieb, CEO of GroupM.
Gotlieb acknowledged the difficulty of Koenigsberg’s achievement in building a large business from scratch. And even as a CEO, “he’s a true practitioner. He will roll up his sleeves and get into the nitty-gritty of a media deal.”
Koenigsberg traces his success to his “business is personal” mantra, which governs the way the agency treats its employees, clients and media partners. Koenigsberg has thrown a book party for the GEICO gecko and put up a billboard of Aaron Cohen when the long-time broadcast buyer retired.
He believes motivated employees are a powerful force and the agency often gets listed among the best places to work. “We have a vested interest in their success and we’re able to move mountains and do things other people can’t do. That’s how the magic happens,” he says.
He also believes in investing back into the agency for tools, technology and infrastructure, as well as reinventing the agency’s structure as the media industry changes. Recently the company has gotten itself deeper into the content, sports and event businesses.
And as if he’s not busy enough, he’s on the boards of charities and has a couple of side businesses, including partnering with a super model on a global flower business. He’s also an attentive father, with one son who works at Vice Media Group; another just got out of college and a daughter he watches ride horses.
Naturally, speculation swirls around Koenigsberg selling Horizon. He says he gets an offer about once a week and admits cashing in is tempting.
To sell “it’s got to be right for my clients, it’s got to be right for my employees and for our culture; it’s got to fulfill a strategic need. And it’s got to be right for me,” he says. “I love what I do. I’m excited to get out of bed each day. I’m an entrepreneur, I’m a builder and I believe that I can continue to build significantly more value here and also I enjoy the business of the business itself.”