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BHC - Holt 111204

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    Profile of:
    Dennis Holt

    “Success is seldom an accident.
    Failure is often a mistake.”

    – D.F. Holt

    By John L. Seitz – Courier Managing Editor

          When you’ve already spent a quarter century creating a $70 billion cottage industry and building your own company from zero to $5 billion in annual revenues, what’s left to do as an encore?
          After selling his sprawling Sunset Blvd.-based empire to a multi-national media conglomerate, and buying a farm in rural South Carolina, a former longtime Whittier Dr. resident of Beverly Hills faced just such a dilemma. His decision: start all over again.
          Most 60ish, well-to-do executives would probably opt to sit back, enjoy being out of the rat race, concentrate on their stock portfolios and/or golf scores, and play with their grandchildren. However, Dennis Franklin Holt is once again confounding the experts. All of which is not surprising since this penultimate salesman has spent a lifetime taking risks and going against the grain.
          Before its 1995 sale to the Interpublic Group, Holt’s Western International Media Corporation (since renamed Initiative Media) was the largest independent buyer of spot TV, radio, outdoor, newspaper, Hispanic and Asian media in the US. It was also one of the country’s largest purchasers of network TV advertising.
          It had 1,700 clients, 2,000 employees, 38 nationwide offices, and some 70 diverse entities covering a smorgasbord of related services from infomercials, in-house commercial production and motivational incentives to ride-sharing plans and satellite TV spot transmission.
          Just to keep his hands in the action, four years ago Holt repurchased from Interpublic one of his divisions, Patriot Communications, which has subsequently become a worldwide force in the interactive voice response form of telecommunications. Now servicing 700 clients out of 15 nationwide offices (with another scheduled to open in the United Kingdom), it manages more than 10,000 toll-free telephone numbers and is on target to reach $40 million in 2004 revenues.
          He initiated Patriot Marketing Group, a full service promotion, incentive and corporate branding company, for the purpose of attracting and retaining customers and motivating employees. In the latter realm, Patriot set up the Smart Ride program aimed at assisting companies in finding alternative transportation solutions for their workers.
          With his eight-year, non-compete contract with Interpublic having expired, Holt further reved up his competitive juices and once again decided to return to the media management game full throttle with his April debut of US International Media. In six months, the new firm already has acquired 34 accounts and purchases the media for 10 agencies in Los Angeles, Minneapolis and New York.
          And all this despite having a weekly commute of 3,000 miles each way from his new home in Charleston, South Carolina, where he lives with his wife, Brooks, and 14-year old daughter, Ashley. (He also has a son, Clayton Holt, and daughter, Alexis Rouss, from a previous marriage and granddaughter, Olivia Rouss.)
          Asked what changes he has observed in the ad business in recent years, Holt stated: “Consolidation of the broadcast companies is the biggest one. Another is the realization that large ad agencies are no longer negotiators but decision-makers - all of which opens the door for us.
          “One important factor that can never change in importance are the personal, hands-on relationships which in most cases take years to develop.”
          For Holt, he has spent the better part of five decades fostering such relationships. His career began in 1958 as an advertising time salesman for a small Orange County radio station. He joined RKO General, serving as a salesman in San Francisco, Los Angeles (KHJ and KHJ-TV) and then New York.
          While still in Manhattan, he left RKO in 1964 and, together with another investor, introduced the heretofore unheard of concept - an independent media buying service. Opening the first such firm in the world, they named it - US Media.
          In effect, the aim was to pool together the budgets of many small agencies and other buyers of advertising airtime and space in order to get better pricing clout from broadcast and print outlets through the sheer strength of numbers.
          “In those days, many of these small customers had been frozen out of the radio and TV marketplace because time was so prohibitively expensive,” explained Holt. “If you weren’t a GM, GE, Ford or some other member of the Forbes 500, and represented by a major Madison Ave. agency, your chances of getting competitive pricing were virtually nil.
          “Though we were just a tiny speck in the ocean at that time and going into an area of the business which had been largely ignored, the big ad agencies were terrorized at the concept of an independent media buying service coming in and stealing some of their billings though we had no intention of doing so.”
          When this initial New York firm was eventually sold, Holt took his revolutionary idea and moved back to his familiar roots in Los Angeles. During the month of January 1970, Western International Media was born, operating out of a $100 a month, one room basement office in a seedy section on La Brea with a single employee, two phones and no clients.
          “I’ve always believed the more calls I made, the more successful I’d be,” he said. “In those days, however, I certainly got a lot of ‘nos’.”
          Holt added he has never regarded any disappointment in his business life as being a failure but just another experience from which to learn and work even harder.
          In fact, this self-styled “prince of persistence” related how he chased one man’s business for eight years and got nothing but rejection. One time when this prospect had finished with his usual routine of yelling, swearing and telling him to get lost, Holt retorted with typical optimism: “I’m going to consider you a firm maybe”. The man slammed the phone down but four years later out of sheer frustration gave Holt his entire account.
          Still all this hard work resulted in little more than modest success. It was not until 1973 and a chance meeting for a drink with an old pal that things finally began to turn around. After the usual pleasantries, the latter asked him point blank how his business was really doing. Holt reluctantly confessed he was struggling.
          That friend was Clint Eastwood who proceeded from that time forward to give Holt the media buying for all his movies.
          Instead of just having a bunch of small, local accounts, he now had Clint Eastwood in the fold and thus overnight became a significant player in the cutthroat network TV ad world.
          Some years later, that same contact resulted in The Walt Disney Company becoming Western International’s largest client, eventually generating some $800 million in billings for its worldwide operation.
          The Disney-Western bond was cemented when Holt was called one Christmas Day by studio executives telling him they wanted to saturate the nation with TV spots promoting a Robin Williams’ film Good Morning Vietnam. The clinker was these had to be on the air the very next morning.
          What some persons might have regarded as unconscionable pressure and an invasion of privacy during a holiday break instead became the opportunity of a lifetime for Holt.
          Working around the clock, Western International’s staff began rousting vacationing station executives from their family homes, cars or ski resorts to alter their ad schedules and secure the necessary time slots for the movie. On December 26, less than 24 hours later, the spots began airing on stations in America’s 40 largest markets - virtually an impossible scenario.
          Holt built the business on performing such “impossible” feats for his clients - large and small - with an uncanny attention to details. He never ducked a phone call nor was any client was ever treated or considered unimportant, regardless of the size of the ad budget. When many of these former small players got bigger, the attention given them by the Holt team in the “old days” engendered a continuous and intense loyalty to Western International.
          “The most precious entity for any salesperson must be their customer who should always be treated with respect and, hopefully, friendship,” said Holt.
          “In every business or life relationship, there are both good and bad times. We believe in constantly staying in touch with our clients, calling them every week and seeing them with regularity,” he continued. “And if that person should happen to lose his or her job, we still continue to call and help them as any true friend would.”
          And from day one, Holt always treated his own co-workers as members of his extended family.
          “I learned the importance of loyalty and good deeds as a youngster from Ozzie Nelson,” Holt stated.
          In fact it was the impressario of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet long-running TV series who came to the rescue of the 13-year old Holt and his parents when his Swedish immigrant father had suffered a disabling heart attack.
          After moving from Ashby, Minnesota, the family was living in a three room apartment in south Los Angeles with no savings. Nelson brought Holt to the studio and gave him steady stand-in work on the show for the next seven years.
          This gesture made a tremendous impact on young Holt. (Ironically, when Western International established its Casablanca Productions’ division to produce TV commercials, the Nelsons’ son, David, was chosen to run the operation which he did for the next 25 years.)
          One of Holt’s most famous and endearing traits to friends and/or customers is his vast repertoire of jokes. After purchasing much of the media for Ronald Reagan’s two presidential campaigns in 1980 and 1984, Holt was given the task of calling the White House and providing one new joke per day which he did Monday through Friday for seven straight years.
          “Talk about pressure, I had to call upon all sorts of my radio and TV buddies such as Gary Owens and Roger Barkley to come through with a fresh one whenever my own joke well ran dry,” Holt said.
          “Fortunately, I have to believe President Reagan liked some of those 1,800 jokes because he often used them in his speeches,” he continued.
          Holt attended Manual Arts High School on Vermont and received a full-ride baseball scholarship to the University of Southern California from which he received a bachelor of arts degree in public administration.
          “Unfortunately, they soon discovered I couldn’t hit a lick but still honored their scholarship commitment,” Holt pointed out. “For that, I will always be grateful to USC.”
          He currently serves on the board of directors of the USC School of Policy, Planning & Development, and USC Annenberg School For Communications. Other directorships include Westwood One, United Online, Skirball Cultural Center, and Saint John’s Health Center.
          Among his numerous business honors are the Horatio Alger Award; Mediaweek’s Media Executive of the Year Award; Southern California Broadcasters Millenium Lifetime Achievement Award; Hollywood Radio & Television Society’s Advertising Executive of the Year; and California Travel & Tourism Commission’s Hall of Fame.
          He received the Humanitarian Award from The John Douglas French Alzheimer’s Foundation, and is a longtime benefactor of Los Angeles-based Challengers Boys & Girls Club.
          On the environmental side, the Holt family has planted a million trees in a 7,500-acre South Carolina Wetland Wildlife Preserve.
          So after all he has accomplished and contributed in a lifetime packed with excitement, what motivated this sales dynamo to want to get back in the game.
          “I still get a thrill out of selling and working my tail off. In fact, I believe every account in the world is mine - some of them may be just temporarily housed in other places,” said Holt smiling. “For me, however, building personal relationships is the most rewarding part of all.
          “Since the past is past, our goal is not to duplicate another Western model with either US International Media or Patriot,” he continued. “There are so many cutting-edge technologies being developed which boggle the mind and will eventually transform this and most other industries. We certainly intend to be right there as these opportunities emerge in the years ahead.”
          Asked whether he still willing to work those former 14 to 16 hour days all over again?
          “No way. I think I’ll cut it down to 12,” laughed Holt. “As my dad told me, ‘do it, move it and make it happen. Nobody ever sat their way to success’.
          “Now, where’s the phone. I’ve got to start making some calls!”

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