By Cristy Lytal
As Dennis F. Holt ’58 accepted his USC Alumni Association Half Century Trojans Hall of Fame award at a Town & Gown luncheon on Oct. 28, he described a relationship with the university that far exceeds 50 years.
The only child of Swedish immigrants, Holt was born on a farm in Minnesota in 1936 and moved to Trojan territory in 1939.
“Growing up from the age of two, I always lived within two miles of USC,” he said. “USC taught me the value of hard work, loyalty, relationships, knowledge, paying it forward and the ability to fight on.”
Holt got a head start on learning some of these life lessons at age 12, when his father suffered a debilitating heart attack. A friend who was a television stand-in shared Holt’s predicament with Ozzie Nelson — a fellow Swede and the star of TV show The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. Nelson enabled Holt to support his parents by doing everything from filling in small parts on the show to extra work around the set.
During these tough years of working while attending Norwood and Manual Arts high schools, Holt found inspiration by sitting alone at home in a walk-in closet and writing out slogans, such as “always aim high.”
He did exactly that and earned a baseball scholarship to USC, where he served as the president of the Associated Men’s Students and of his fraternity Chi Phi.
“What other school creates an environment not only of learning, but also of perfecting the social skills?” he said. “I’m still in touch with probably 35 or 45 people that I went to school with. One, Dale Zeigler, I talk to at least once a week. He was our star pitcher, and I was the star ‘sitting on the bench guy.’”
Holt considered applying his natural social graces to a political career, and graduated in 1958 with a bachelor’s degree in public administration from what is now the USC Price School of Public Policy.
But when opportunity knocked on a different door, Holt was there to answer it. He began a career selling airtime, first at the radio station KEZY in Orange County, then at RKO in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York.
In 1965, Holt’s entrepreneurial spirit took hold. With the backing of an investor, he and a partner started and eventually sold U.S. Media International, the world’s first media buying service.
In 1970, he followed up this success by founding Western International Media in a basement office across from Pink’s Hot Dog Stand on La Brea Boulevard. The company’s primary function was to buy commercial time on radio and television. By 1973, Clint Eastwood — whom Holt had first met when he was 17 — decided to become Western’s first big client.
Western quickly grew into the largest media management company in North America, offering comprehensive planning, buying, research, promotional and other services to clients including Disney, Times Mirror Corporation and ARCO. With offices in the U.S., Canada, Europe and Asia, Western made numerous acquisitions, and Holt created more than 40 subsidiaries to do everything from television commercial production to direct mail.
A self-declared “workaholic,” he poured his heart into his enterprise, working 12 hours a day, seven days a week.
He expected equal dedication from his employees and, in return, took care of them like members of his own family. He made it company policy to pick up the plane fare to fly any employee to the bedside of an ill, out-of-state parent. He routinely helped out employees in need. Many of his employees took to calling him “Uncle Dennis.”
One Christmas in the early 1990s, Holt’s employees showed their appreciation by raising money to build a batting cage and buy baseball uniforms for Holt’s alma mater Manual Arts High School.
In 1994, Holt sold Western (now Initiative Media) to Interpublic Group of Companies, although he continued to run it for nine years.
When his non-compete agreement ran out in 2004, Holt launched a new full-service media management company, U.S. International Media, which now has 22 offices worldwide. Holt is also the chairman and CEO of Patriot Communications, a telecommunications service bureau created in 1990 as a Western subsidiary.
Holt’s caring generosity toward his “professional family” has always extended far beyond the innovative companies he creates. He supports numerous nonprofit and philanthropic organizations, and he co-founded Ad Relief of Greater Los Angeles, a charitable group that helps advertising professionals get back on their feet during tough times.
He is also an active member of the Trojan Family. He has served on the Board of Councilors of the USC Price School of Public Policy for many years. In 2009, Holt and his wife Brooks established the Holt Lecture in Communications and Public Policy at USC Price.
In presenting the Half Century Trojans Hall of Fame Award, USC Price Dean Jack Knott noted how Holt “exemplifies the spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship that we strive to instill in our students at the USC Price School of Public Policy.”
Over the years, he has received a litany of awards and recognitions, including the Horatio Alger Award, Southern California Broadcasters Association’s Man of the Millennium and Mediaweek’s Media Executive of the Year.
Still, receiving the Hall of Fame Award from his alma mater has special meaning to man who is not only a world-renowned alumnus, but also a former kid from the neighborhood.
“It was a great school then for its time, and the President of USC has done an amazing job to take us into the stratosphere of education,” he said. “I’m so grateful and so honored beyond words.”