The digital media industry is mourning Curt Hecht.
Hecht passed away this week at the age of 47, ending a brilliant 26-year career at Publicis Groupe and The Weather Company. His death has come as a shock to many, not only because of Hecht's intellectual and physical vigor but also because he chose to keep his five-month battle with lung cancer a secret, preferring to focus on family and work without distraction.
Hecht helped pioneer the ad agency trading desk model at Publicis Groupe, well before "programmatic" entered the industry vernacular. Later he was instrumental in developing a mobile-first, data-driven sales strategy at The Weather Company, where he was chief revenue officer.
"Curt's face will always be on the Mount Rushmore of the programmatic space," said Jeremy Hlavacek, VP of programmatic at The Weather Company and a protégé of Hecht's. "I was unbelievably fortunate to work with him for a few short years. His fingerprints are all over everything we have built here at Weather. It simply wouldn't have been possible without him."
A dedicated athlete who organized industry cycling events, Hecht was rail thin and whip smart. And he exuded a strong belief in the future of data-driven digital advertising, at a time when many in the agency and publisher worlds found programmatic advertising a confusing – even threatening – proposition.
"Whenever you sat down and talked to Curt, you felt his confidence and his unfailing belief in the evolution of ad technology," observed Ned Brody, who worked as a senior ad exec at AOL and Yahoo. "He really proved prescient in the beginning when a lot of that technology was emerging and the industry was chaotic. I think he had one of the early clear visions of the way it would shake out. He did an amazing job of advocating for that both on the agency side and the publisher side. Where a lot of publishers believed RTB stood for ‘race to the bottom,’ he was able to prove it could provide meaningful impact."
Very few in the agency world realized in 2008 the opportunity created by the onrush of technology and data in the media landscape. Hecht did, and he worked hard to leverage that opportunity on behalf of Publicis Groupe. His most lasting impact there was the work he did – alongside David Kenny, Kurt Unkel and Marco Bertozzi – retooling Publicis agencies for more efficient and effective modes of media buying. He built ties to ad technology platforms – including Google and Microsoft – under the name VivaKi AOD.
VivaKi would later serve as a model for other agency groups.
"He believed in what he was doing," said Bertozzi, president of global clients at VivaKi. "He had an incredible knowledge of the ad tech landscape. He just had an instinct for it."
Even those who competed directly with VivaKi had high regard for Hecht.
"I had respect for him as a competitor, but then doubled it when I met him as a person," said Jonathan Nelson, who runs digital at Omnicom Group. "He was super smart, passionate and a really good guy. And he was an interesting guy. We spent a lot of time talking about what was good for the industry. He cared a lot about doing things right. You saw less of the competitive attitude and a lot more of, 'Hey, we're building an industry.'"
And another rival, GroupM's Rob Norman, called Hecht "as brave as he was brilliant" in a Thursday tweet.
That bravery was necessary, since Hecht's belief in what he was doing required him to ruffle some feathers.
"Often he just didn't want to take no for an answer, and that included from the most senior people in the organization," said Bertozzi. "He didn't differentiate his opinions based on which person he was talking to. It's not that he was trying to throw his weight around. He just felt like, if the agencies have a chance, they have to get on board with this and make something of it."
But Hecht wasn't only a great theorizer; he could execute. Hecht's boss and key partner for much of his career was David Kenny, former CEO at Digitas and current CEO at The Weather Company, where he was responsible for hiring Hecht into the company's top sales job.
"In every tough situation, Curt kept me anchored on what matters – family first, our people second, clients and audience third and the money will take care of itself," Kenny wrote in an email to The Weather Company employees. "Curt and I both dream big, but he is the one who could turn the dream into a reality. When daily pressures created chaos and drama, Curt would prioritize and keep us focused on the most important and critical matters."
For example, Hecht pressed the publisher's sales force to reevaluate the value a media company could create for advertisers and agencies, shifting the focus away from placements and toward audiences.
"I don't want our team spending time on whether we have a home page ad unit," he told attendees at AdExchanger's Programmatic.io conference in 2013. "That's not high value. We think about audience and that we're making tools available to the agencies designed to make cable TV more addressable. The first step is to have a better composition of the audience an advertiser wants and being able to have the tools to best target them."
Hecht is survived by his wife Dorothy, and daughters Peggy and Kaki.