Digital Mad Woman: Winkler Founder Agnieszka Winkler

The next installment in ClickZ’s ongoing series of conversations with the Digital Mad Men and Women of the 1990s who reigned over a revolutionary era for the ad business – the advent of the Internet.

winkleragnieszkaAs CEO and founder of Winkler Advertising, Agnieszka Winkler was hanging out with clients like Sony and Hewlett-Packard when the Internet hit the ad world in the mid 1990s. She and her San Francisco agency were focused mainly on business-to-business print ads for technology-oriented brands, but they also embraced new tech solutions in their ad making.

The Internet fit neatly into their program. In 1994, Winkler Advertising was among the first companies to establish a website. Shortly after, the site broadcast one of the first radio spots on the Web. By 1998, the trade press was calling the stylish blonde, then 52, the alter ego of Lara Croft, hero of videogame Tomb Raider. Tomb Raider developer Eidos Interactive, incidentally, was also a Winkler client.

Winkler sold her independent agency, founded in 1984, to Grey Advertising in 1997 in an all-cash deal, and stayed on for two years. She left to run her software start-up TeamToolz, a pioneer in collaborative social business tools. It was acquired by Artesia Technologies in 2001.

As an agency honcho working for tech giants, Winkler saw innovations in the ’90s that would hit the consumer ad industry a decade later. She grasped early on how technology would disrupt the marketing process and wrote about her insights in her book, Warp-Speed Branding, released in 1999.

Today she is a professional corporate director based in San Francisco.

ClickZ: Were there clues that something like the Internet was around the corner in the early ’90s?

Agnieszka Winkler: I remember that when Apple said people would use computers for their recipes, it sounded insane to most people. But yes, there were signs. These small, unknown companies would come to our offices to show us [futuristic] technology that gave hints of what was to come. The software or hardware would not always work and would be clunky, but the idea was there. It seemed like everybody had a piece of tech, but as you know, one piece does not make a product. The tech was way ahead of its time.

CZ: When the Net hit the scene, did it turn Winkler Advertising upside down?

AW: Frankly, the Internet felt like a natural progression to us, the latest tool. We had hired a Serbian programmer back in 1986. Our agency already had set up an intranet to work with Sony and H-P. And we had one of the first corporate websites. Now I realize that all of that was unheard of at mainstream advertising agencies.

The big thing to me was the deep implications of the Web. I recall giving lectures at Santa Clara University at that time about how the Internet would cause disintermediation of all distribution channels and would [dismantle] mass media. And that is happening.  

CZ: Winkler was a hybrid tech and traditional ad agency. Describe your office and your work style.

AW: Our offices were quite casual but I wasn’t. We always had an open floor plan because we started in Silicon Valley and that was the norm in Silicon Valley.  Employees often wore jeans and we had margaritas on Fridays. Once an assistant came to work in short shorts and a net tank top and I sent him home to change.  I told him, “You can wear what you want, but you have to wear something that covers you.”

As for me, I met with senior-level people at the clients so I was fashionable and businesslike. Maybe a little informal, but not exactly casual.  

CZ: You knew some of the leaders of the Internet revolution. What set them apart?

AW: For them, it didn’t seem to be about getting rich. I had dinner with Jim Clark of Netscape and his then-wife right about when Netscape went public and Jim’s mindset wasn’t about the money, but that he was done with that [endeavor] and was looking to the next challenge.

Another example was Bill Gibson, founder of Digital Microwave Corp. and president of DMC Telecom International. He called himself “trailer trash from Texas.” He didn’t talk about buying a big house with his wealth, but he worried that the money might ruin his children. For a company retreat, he made his senor executives go to Calcutta and help Mother Teresa.

I’d say that the common motivation was that they wanted to solve a problem. That’s why, when a new MBA tells me he or she wants to start a tech company and make a lot of money, I tell them, “sorry, that’s not how its done.”

CZ: During the boom years, what personality types were most successful?

AW: Ironically they were often personalities that were seen as aberrations before [the boom years.] They were the trouble-makers.

People that succeed liked to integrate – rather than compartmentalize – their work. Intuitive decision-making was better than rational decision-making, largely because of the speed of change. Other useful traits were being flexible and fluid – your job would change, your task would change and you’d have to adapt.

It also became very important to be able to work concurrently rather than sequentially. There wasn’t time to think linearly. You needed to have Plan B, C and F and be ready to shift on the fly. That’s confusing to lots of people.

CZ: How did you and your clients view the young Internet startups around you, such as Organic and CKS?

AW: They were sources of tech and analytic skills that were stronger than what we had. But they were weak on the marketing side and in seeing how the tech fit into the overall plan. I sought to use them for our programs for clients. We could do the messaging and they executed. I had very few issues with the Web startups; I had more issues with the traditional shops.

On the other hand, clients tended to feel the Web startups were in a bubble and were somewhat immature. Often the Web entrepreneurs didn’t know how to talk with senior people on the client side.

CZ: As time passed and digital marketing has evolved, what has surprised you?

AW: Social media, I didn’t see that coming.

Interested in conversations with other Digital Mad Men and Women? You can view the entire series here.


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