Here's how the agency's billings and gross income have fared in recent years (graphic) AYER REACHES TURNING POINT HUMPHREYS HOLDS KEY TO RECHARGE AGENCY'S BRAND

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For N W Ayer, the coming months could prove as pivotal to the agency's future-if it's to have one-as the first 125 years.

That's the take on Madison Avenue, where the focus is on board member Richard Humphreys, point man for W.Y. Choi, a South Korean businessman who last March surfaced with an estimated $45 million in backing through an investor group, Adcom. The group recently increased its 60% stake to 65%.

Adcom included Ayer senior managers whose share in the agency is expected to shrink with the departure of a number of top executives, Chairman Jerry Siano possibly among them. This group may have helped Ayer get over some, but not all, of its problems.

Nearly 12 months after the cash infusion, Ayer is still struggling to reinvigorate its creative image-a goal that eluded the agency when Adcom's $24 million bid failed to lasso Hal Riney & Partners and its enigmatic Chairman Hal, who went bonefishing instead (AA, Feb. 14).

"We have the need for a strategic acquisition or merger, but there's no hurry," Mr. Humphreys told Advertising Age. "The agency has to settle down and I really don't want anyone at the agency to be distracted by these external issues. There's a lot of work to be done."

Obviously. After 20 years of trying, Ayer is still searching for a critical international presence, a mark missed since the early 1970s when Ayer was briefly renamed N W Ayer ABH International. The appellation reflected international yearnings that were never fulfilled.

Mr. Choi, 41, also has global aspirations. A Korean media mogul whose communications enterprises include Seoul-based International Media Institution, the TV Journal, the weekly news magazine Sisa Journal and IMC, a local agency affiliate of Saatchi & Saatchi Worldwide, Mr. Choi has been somewhat of a mystery man in the U.S. He is described by the few who have met him as distinguished and reserved.

His global visions include Korea's first international agency network to rival Japan's Dentsu, and a Time Warner-scale media company.

He is said to consider N W Ayer a steppingstone to all of that, but the stone is proving slippery.

Mr. Humphreys, the H in CME KHBB and a former Saatchi & Saatchi Worldwide president-ceo, now spends "up to 50%" of his time at Ayer's Worldwide Plaza headquarters in New York as he seeks a new ceo and an alternative acquisition to "help relaunch the Ayer brand."

"Who can they team up with now?" wondered one executive familiar with Ayer, who said, "Riney represented a chance to get their creative thrust going and get them back into the picture. Without it, one of the icons of the American agency business is in trouble. Ayer's lifeblood in the U.S. is General Motors and AT&T, and how strong a position it's in with either is questionable."

Ayer recently broke a GM corporate campaign that so far has amounted to only one print ad, nothing like the $80 million campaign the agency has been chasing for nearly two years.

AT&T appears to be in better shape as a client, despite its $110 million billings shift to FCB/Leber Katz Partners in November. Ayer partially recouped with a $60 million AT&T win at the expense of Young & Rubicam, bringing Ayer's total AT&T billings back up to $100 million, but still short of its original $150 million.

In January, the agency also lost Sterling Winthrop's $55 million Bayer account to BBDO Worldwide, New York. Ayer executives acknowledge that no matter how it is sliced, Ayer's total U.S. billings are now down to just under $800 million, from $880 million in 1992.

There are those who have followed the company, however, who believe U.S. billings may be closer to $600 million and Ayer's operating profit margins of around 10% also may be much smaller.

Those estimates would imply $7 million to $8 million in operating profit and an estimated total value of $75 million for N W Ayer. Mr. Humphreys noted that the agency "was profitable last year; it will be profitable this year."

Key to Ayer's future stability will be a greater international presence.

"Ayer has to have an international capability as much for defensive reasons as for aggressive reasons," Mr. Humphreys acknowledged, even as he backed off earlier assertions that a stronger affiliation with Ayer Europe was a serious possibility.

In 1992, Ayer sold its majority position in Ayer Europe, leaving it with a 23% stake. The reduced position is expected to significantly decrease N W Ayer's previous $700 million in international billings. And while Ayer is interested in buying back more, Ayer Europe is talking with other suitors, including DDB Needham Worldwide.

While Saatchi is rumored to be shopping CME KHBB in Europe, Mr. Humphreys said he is not talking with them. Ayer, which also must find a U.S. partner, is still packing a $30 million acquisition fund.

"We could have Adcom buy a company and merge it, or have Ayer buy a company, in which case I suppose Adcom would have the largest stake in a combined operation," Mr. Humphreys said. "It depends."

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