One of the things that always tickled me about Erwin Ephron’s career is that he began it as Nielsen’s PR man and ended it as one of Madison Avenue’s holiest gurus, a consultant whose words weren’t just trade wisdom, but the media industry’s gospel. It tickles me not because I have spent so much of my own career covering Nielsen, but because I always felt like we were part of some exclusive club -- a secret society, if you will -- who understood how people’s perceptions of things like TV ratings influences the way they think, feel and behave -- especially about media.
Ephron used that knowledge to influence other people, especially the way the world’s biggest marketers spent billions -- maybe trillions -- of advertising dollars over the course of decades that spanned some of the media industry’s most economically turbulent years, when profound shifts in the way people used media began altering the fundamentals of advertising.
When Madison Avenue’s biggest ad agencies began using “optimizers” -- then state-of-the-art computer systems enabling them to calculate the most effective and efficient schedules for building audience reach on television -- in the mid-1990s, I asked him why. “Because there are now too many options for people to calculate manually,” he explained. When I asked him why, he did some quick math, and told me that based on the number of broadcast and cable TV networks that existed at that time, the number of options that could have gone into a prime-time advertising schedule was, “the number 4.5 followed by 15 zeros.” Since I had never actually seen that number written out before, I asked him what it was, and he explained it was “4.5 quadrillion. That’s why people need optimizers to calculate reach.”
I love that anecdote, because it reminds me of two things. One is how rapidly the world of media -- and media planning -- have been shifting as technology accelerates the fragmentation of mass media. And two, how well Ephron understood both the problems and solutions associated with it.
My only regret is that Ephron’s career didn’t continue long enough to help the advertising industry navigate the even more confusing and messy state that the hyper-fragmentation of digital media has dumped on Madison Avenue’s doorstep -- the emergence of search, social, mobile, a ubiquitous array of screens and options, and “user experiences” -- which have essentially obliterated the historic foundations of media planning, giving rise to a cacophony of “paid, earned and owned” and “attribution” models, and perhaps the greatest media planner indignity of all -- the rise of algorithmic-based programmatic audience trading systems that are replacing people altogether.
I would have loved to have known what Ephron would have made of all this noise, and how he would have organized the essential truths around it so that I could have written the answers for others the way I have for the decades. But we never had that opportunity. On the few occasions that I tried to broach these subjects with him in recent years, I could see he had already checked out, and it was time for a new Erwin Ephron to step forward and pick up those reins. If you’re out there, I’m still waiting for you to take that step, because I will tell you, I am more confused than ever, and I miss Ephron’s guiding hand.
If you ask me what Ephron’s greatest achievement was, it was that he was the first to grasp the way mass marketing’s media efficiency was decaying because of fragmentation, and he provided a powerful, if only temporary solution, for it. But as brilliant and practical as his “recency” planning theories were, it was the way he sold it that was most impressive. One man writing and opining -- speaking to small influential groups, or crowded conference auditoriums -- he persuaded an entire industry to shift the way they thought about the science and economics of media communication through his intellectual appeal. He never spoke down to you, but as I told one of my colleagues after reporting on his passing yesterday, Erwin Ephron is the only guy who could make me feel like I don’t know schmatz about media.
He had that effect on everyone, including some of the smartest minds I know. One of the last good memories I have of Ephron was the last lunch I had with him. It was a few years ago, and one of those smartest minds, NBC Universal’s Barry Fischer, and I took him to the Gotham Bar & Grill, and we sat there like two schoolboys getting lectured, but always in that Socratic dialogue way that at least made you feel like you were contributing to the conversation, even if your answers weren’t necessarily the right ones.
Like many of the commenters who posted on the obit we published yesterday on Ephron’s passing, I felt like he was much more than a source, but an actual mentor. What’s amazing is how many people -- people who others see as their mentors -- also felt that way.
I have known Erwin Ephron my entire career covering the advertising and media business, but my first association with him was not as an industry guru, but as my wife’s boss. She started as planner at Epstein Raboy, which later became Ephron, Raboy & Tsao, where Ephron was just an internal guru, working for clients and formulating some of the ideas he would later use to transform an industry. And even though my wife only worked for him for a short while, Ephron remained a familial association for us. He was also our Greenwich Village neighbor, and there were a number of occasions when I’d bump into him on the street, buying groceries on Bleecker Street or raviolis on Houston Street, and we’d strike up a conversation that led to some unexpectedly deep thinking about the media business.
I am not alone. Many friends and associates described similar chance encounters with Ephron, who was always quick to banter and engage. But then suddenly the conversations shifted from “I ran into Erwin” to “have you run into Erwin” to “do you know anyone who has seen Erwin lately.” In fact, my first tip that Erwin actually was waning was about a year ago when another mutual friend, Rob Frydlewicz, said he ran into him on the corner of Bleecker and Grove and described Ephron as not being in his top form. That was my first early warning that something was amiss, until last spring when another old friend of Ephron’s, Gale Metzger, called and asked me if I knew where he was, that he had essentially dropped off the face of the earth.
So Metzger began an investigation that left me humbled as a journalist, turning over every stone, knocking on doors, and even tangling with an estranged wife and family members in pursuit of Ephron’s whereabouts. And let me tell you, if I’m ever lost off-the-grid, I want Metzger to lead the search party. When he asked me to join in the investigation, I did what any good editor would do, I delegated it to someone else, asking yet another long-time friend of Ephron, Gabe Samuels, to join in the hunt. Between Metzger and Samuels, they were able to piece together the story -- but asked me not to write about it while Ephron was still alive -- because it took a sad and tragic turn.
They learned that Ephron had taken a serious fall that caused a head injury that significantly impaired his brain functions, and that he had been admitted to a hospital. When they finally tracked him down, they described the conditions as being not quite optimal, and Ephron’s state as being not quite lucid. So they appealed to his family to have him transferred to another facility where he got better care, and with regular visits from his long-time friends, began to regain some of his former self.
In order to help Ephron reconnect, Metzger rummaged through stacks of Ephron’s writing and compiled a list of some of his pithiest quotes and observations (you can see it at the end of the obit we published yesterday), which he would read to Ephron and ask, “who wrote this? His response, ‘I did.’”
I hope that reconnection helped Ephron remember the contribution he made to the industry, but I know based on yesterday’s comments that many, many others do -- the people whom he touched, influenced, lectured to, educated, argued with and schooled.In his last visit with Ephron, Metzger says he just wanted to “go home.” To which I would tell him, if I could, “Erwin, you never left.”