Rise Up: Rebuilding a Media Agency after 9/11

This post originally appeared on MediaPost.

I moved to New York while lower Manhattan was still smoldering from the terrorist attacks. My digital shop had recently been acquired by WPP and as part of the merger I was offered a position in New York City at a media-buying agency. With New York in tatters, you either had to be patriotic or opportunistic to accept such an offer. I was both.

“Give me 10 years to make it in New York,” I told my wife. “If I haven’t made it by then we’ll get the hell out.”

At first I didn’t know if I would last a month in New York, much less a decade. I was a solid marketer but lacked the math skills to work in media. I also didn’t have the right tools. Whenever I had to work with numbers I would use the little calculator app on my laptop.

“Jesus, if you can’t add at least get yourself a real calculator,” my boss, Alan Schanzer, would joke.

Real media people had large, multi-function calculators on their desk at all times. They were standard issue, along with the Ad Age media company family tree poster tacked to the wall behind them.

The agency I joined, The Media Edge, or MEC as it would later be called, had been spun out of the ad agency Young & Rubicam years earlier. Media was a grown-up business now and the balance of advertising power had shifted three blocks west from Madison Avenue to Seventh Avenue, where MEC was located.

MEC had some good accounts in the U.S., but many of the clients were third or fourth in their category. The result was that the agency seemed to have as many clients as staffers.

And then 9/11 happened.

The economy was already reeling before the attacks thanks to the dot-com bust but then 9/11 accelerated the downturn. Marketers pulled back on spending and laid off staff. Although everyone in advertising suffered, it was the digital shops that took the worst of it. MEC’s ad banner group lost nearly all of its clients.

As a result the team dwindled from over 70 people down to just a dozen. By the time I arrived at MEC it was unclear whether the digital group would continue to survive at all.

In the agency business there’s only one way to rebuild, and that’s to win new accounts. Unfortunately, at that time MEC couldn’t win a new account to save its life. The low point was when we were pitching a toilet manufacturer and we couldn’t even make the first cut.

“You people don’t seem to like each other,” they told us.

Many of us were new at the agency and were still trying to figure out how to work together. Fortunately, we had some great leadership that remained optimistic no matter how bad things got.

“It will happen for us. We just need a break,” our chairman Charles Courtier assured us.

While we weren’t as formal and buttoned-down as the other media buying agencies, we had a diverse group of people who all wanted to win. More importantly, we had a management team that appreciated our unique talents and knew how to apply them.

While I was still bad at math, I was good with clients and was promoted to head of new business for our digital group. In 2005, I pitched and won the L.L. Bean business. It was a solid win for our group and marked the beginning of an unprecedented streak of new business success. The larger agency would soon be awarded the Paramount business, an account worth $250 million in annual billings. As Courtier promised, we had finally gotten our break. Macy’s, Energizer, Monster and others soon followed.

And then, in a win that would forever change the agency, AT&T named MEC as its media agency of record. This $2.4 billion AT&T account represented the top of the mountain for MEC. The shop that couldn’t get past the first round of a media review was now the No. 1-ranked agency by RECMA for new business efficacy.

Ad Age named MEC the Global Media Agency Network of the Year. The astounding part was that it did so two years in a row, which usually never happens. Also, in 2008, OMMA named MEC’s digital group the Interactive Agency of the Year. This was quite a turn of events for a department that had almost been shut down six years earlier.

Like the rest of New York, MEC recovered from 9/11 thanks to a lot of hard work, camaraderie and a sense that things would eventually get better.

I was honored to play a small part in it.