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Borrow ideas to gain an edge

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Mimic something that works in another industry to fix something that doesn’t work in yours.

Irwin Gotlieb did that in advertising sales. Starting out on Madison Avenue in 1970, he soon picked up on the fact that media buyers with individual clients and small budgets held no sway against the major television networks, which could dole out commercial airtime in tiny slivers and charge whatever they wanted.

The 20-year-old was new to Madison Avenue but he wasn’t new to business. Gotlieb already had worked in New York’s diamond district, where he saw diamond cutters track prices for jewels and figure out how to carve up a rough stone for the highest yield.

Gotlieb applied that strategy to buying ad time. He wanted to buy large chunks and carve them up for resale. In 1976, he wrote a computer program projecting advertisers’ demand for TV airtime, which helped him figure out how much time he should buy in advance at a discount. Gotlieb parsed consumer research and ratings data. He needed to know what people were watching so he could go hunting for inexpensive but popular shows.

Once he found some hot prospects, Gotlieb placed large orders, striking multi-year deals with the networks. Example: One of his early finds was a Chicago talk show with a young host named Oprah Winfrey.

Bottom line: By the 1980s, as one of the first to use deep data analysis, Gotlieb was a player. Now he’s the most powerful ad man on Madison Avenue.

— Adapted from “An Ad Man Tests the Limits,” Burt Helm, BusinessWeek.

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