Has agency allegiance dried up?

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His contract was signed with Foote, Cone & Belding, Chicago.

His paycheck came from Foote, Cone & Belding, Chicago.

His office as agency president was in FCB's building on Erie Street, in downtown Chicago.

But after PepsiCo last month moved more than $350 million worth of business from FCB, Chicago, to the Omnicom Group, Brian Williams moved, too. Mr. Williams cited his strong ties to and relationships with PepsiCo's Quaker Oats Co., which was part of the move.

His decision has renewed an interesting question regarding loyalty, and where it truly lies in the advertising business.

With the agency?

Or with the client?

The answers are as intriguing as the question itself.

"This is a rotten business," said Skip Pile, chairman-CEO of Pile & Co., a consultancy that works on agency reviews and compensation. "It's fun, it's exciting, it's interesting, but the margins for the agencies themselves are low. The job security for the professionals is non-existent."

Countered FCB President Brendan Ryan: "I think any terrific agency person feels a great loyalty to his or her client, and at the same time a great loyalty to the agency. But at the end of the day, these employees are employees of the agency. It shouldn't be a question of loyalties."

The phenomenon of jumping ship-and there is some debate as to whether this is a rarity or a regularity-was highlighted by the recent lawsuit by FCB and its parent, Interpublic Group of Cos., against Mr. Williams, DDB Worldwide and its parent, Omnicom.

Mr. Williams resigned at FCB to take over a new, yet-to-be-named agency affiliated with DDB Worldwide, Chicago, that will handle Quaker Oats. Interpublic and FCB filed suit to prevent a raid of FCB's top talent.

The suit was dropped when a Cook County Circuit Court judge in Chicago denied Interpublic's motion for a temporary restraining order, although an executive close to the situation told Advertising Age that re-filing the suit "is not out of the question."

Nonetheless, Mr. Williams, Martin Sherrod, who ran Quaker's cereal brands at FCB, and John Fraser, who handled Quaker's Gatorade, have all left for DDB. Persons familiar with the situation said offers have been made to some other FCB employees who worked on Quaker, though no further defections have been announced. FCB, which has picked up several Coca-Cola Co. products that compete with PepsiCo brands, is said to have made counter0ffers. A spokesman for FCB and a spokeswoman from DDB both declined to comment. But Bob Dreveny, FCB's exec VP-exec creative director, quashed speculation that he would also leave and go to the new agency.

"I am definitely staying here and I'm looking forward to coming through this," he said. "I want to make this place stronger than ever before."

Mr. Dreveny wouldn't divulge any specifics about who from his staff may leave or stay, but said he expected better than half to remain at FCB. He conceded that many staffers were conflicted at the offers to jump ship and that he was giving them time to consider their options. "I'd rather wait for `yes' than demand an immediate `no,"' he said.

As for Mr. Williams, he is not a pariah by any means, as it's hardly unheard of for agency people to follow their accounts to new shops. Mike Vogel resigned last year as chairman-CEO of FCB Worldwide, Southfield, Mich., to follow DaimlerChrysler's $2.4 billion consolidated Chrysler Group to PentaMark Worldwide, the dedicated agency set up by Omnicom's BBDO Worldwide after it won the account.

Sometimes the question of shifting loyalties gets ugly. In Feb. 1999, Interpublic accused former Lowe & Partners/SMS Chairman Marvin Sloves of having a direct role in moving the $125 million Mercedes-Benz USA account from Lowe to Omnicom's Merkley Newman Harty while Mr. Sloves was a consultant to Interpublic. The American Arbitration Association rejected Interpublic's breach of contract claim in Feb. 2000, saying it was "unpersuasive" and "credibly contradicted." It awarded Mr. Sloves more than $1.3 million.

Mr. Williams said that the way business is done today, agencies selected for accounts more often than not have a previous connection to the client.

"It's a dynamic," he said, "that drives a lot of pitches and always has driven a lot of pitches."

Indeed, Mr. Pile recently released results of an analysis that his Boston firm conducted in which he concluded that agency-client relationships today last a little more than two years. Just several years ago, the analysis found that relationship lasted 11 years.

Another consultant, Stan Beals from the Chicago firm Jones Lundin Beals, agreed.

"One of the biggest changes I've seen in the past 14 years is that I've never seen agencies look so much like each other," said Mr. Beals, attributing it to what he thinks is a growing movement of key creatives and executives jumping ship from agency to agency.

Messrs. Pile and Ryan both said it's still uncommon for agency executives to go with their accounts to new agencies, but it clearly happens. For example, John Staffen, exec creative director at DDB, New York, has left and come back to the famed agency three times since 1985.

"All that most creative people want are new opportunities," Mr. Staffen said. "That said, I have two clients that I've worked with for 10 years [Hershey Foods Corp. and the New York State Lottery], and I would consider switching allegiances for them. Do I feel closer to certain clients that I worked on for years? Sure. Those are the people you go out on a limb for."

Mr. Williams said loyalties in the corporate world, and in life, seem to have diminished some.

"As the world becomes more materialistic and as business has more pressure to deliver, especially as it relates to the bottom line, sometimes that end goal gets in the way of what promoted loyalty in the past," he said. "[Companies] used to have loyalty for life and had retention programs that were paternalistic. As the bottom line becomes more important, companies have begun to cut back those programs [and] lay people off, and employees themselves are not reciprocating loyalty. A friend told me once that loyalty is a reciprocal virtue."

That's a philosophy echoed by another account executive from a New York agency, who wished to remain anonymous.

"Loyalty?" he said. "Loyalty these days means, `I'll break my ass on this campaign for you, but if [the client] ups and leaves for reasons other than creative, can you please not lay me off?' "

Contributing: Kate MacArthur and Jack Neff

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