4A's searches for signs of life

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Weary advertising executives arriving this week at the American Association of Advertising Agencies' Management Conference are looking for ways to put the business' harsh realities behind them.

"There's been no perceptible pickup in ad spending, no new categories [of ad spending] coming along," said O. Burtch Drake, president-CEO of the Four A's, which meets April 17-20. "Everybody wants to be optimistic, but we're waiting for some good news to confirm that level of optimism," he said, hoping some signs will show up in the second half of the year.

Indeed, industry employment fell in February to 177,900, the lowest level since September 1998, according to the Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The movement of business, however, appears to be improving. Some 51 accounts worth a combined $930 million changed hands in February 2002, up from 28 accounts valued at $870 million in February 2001, according to William Blair & Co. At the same time, holding companies have enjoyed a rally on Wall Street since October, with the big four agency stocks-Interpublic Group of Cos., Omnicom Group, WPP Group and Publicis Groupe-trading near their 52 week highs.


Conference attendance for this year's Laguna Niguel, Calif., event is expected at 318, close to last year's Naples, Fla., draw of 320, but down considerably from the conference's high-water mark of 460 in Bermuda during the balmy business environment of 2000. The last California conference, in 1996, drew 400.

Key speakers include John Dooner, chairman-CEO of Interpublic, who has tentatively titled his talk: "Holding company? Parent company? It won't matter what we call them if we forget we're in the business of ideas. One man's opinion." Ken Kaess, president-CEO of Omnicom Group's DDB Worldwide, who takes over as 4A's chairman this year from Brendan Ryan, CEO of Interpublic's Foote, Cone & Belding Worldwide, is expected to speak about clients' current conservative mood and its impact on creative.

One planned panel features professional ad agency review consultants that the industry has had a contentious relationship with in the past. For the first time in 10 years, consultants such as David Beals, president-CEO, Jones-Lundin Beals, and Catherine Bension, president-CEO, Select Resources, will address the group. Asked if the panel's appearance means the two sides have buried the hatchet, one executive bellowed, "I wouldn't say that."

contributing: mercedes m. cardona, lisa sanders

Fast Facts

What: American Association of Advertising Agencies Management Conference

When: April 17-20

Where: Laguna Niguel, Calif.

Expected attendance: 318

Speakers: Brendan Ryan, CEO, FCB (outgoing chairman); Ken Kaess, president-CEO, DDB (chairman-elect)

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