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Agency Shutdown: Bcom3 pulls plug on Ayer

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Today is the end of an Ayer.

The agency that created some of the world's most enduring brand slogans-"Reach out and touch someone," "Be all you can be," "A diamond is forever"-disappears today as parent Bcom3 Group folds the shop into sibling Kaplan Thaler Group.

The combined entities, with nearly 100 employees and $325 million in billings, will use the Kaplan Thaler Group name under Linda Kaplan Thaler, CEO and chief creative officer.

While it helped create enduring brands, the 133-year-old shop was unable to save itself. Retiring the venerable N.W. Ayer name wasn't easy, said Bcom3 Chairman-CEO Roger Haupt.

"I've thought about this a lot. ... I'm not somebody who believes in extending names for the sake of extending names," Mr. Haupt said. "It is more about the Kaplan name. ... We're in a situation where we have an excellent agency in Kaplan Thaler and at the end of the day that's the right thing to do."

While Ayer has tangled with WPP Group's J. Walter Thompson Co. for billing as the oldest U.S. agency, the company justly lays claim to a host of other firsts. The agency established the 15% commission; added a new-business department before 1910; centralized print media research within the planning department; and developed the first color print ad.

N.W. Ayer & Son was founded in Philadelphia in 1869 by Francis Wayland Ayer, who at 19 years of age sought credibility by naming the shop for his father, Nathan Wheeler Ayer. The agency's early mission was selling commodity space in newspapers. About ten years later, N.W. Ayer moved into writing ad copy and negotiating space for clients such as Procter & Gamble Co. and Police Plug Tobacco. From that work, the company developed the concept of branding products and of offering clients service in multiple cities and media.

STORIED HISTORY

Over the years, marketers including Cadillac, Steinway pianos, Camel cigarettes, Hills Bros. Coffee and AT&T sought out N.W. Ayer's expertise. "Francis Wayland Ayer was the creator of the industry," said James Twitchell, professor of English and advertising at the University of Florida and author of "AdCult U.S.A." "He figured out that what we do is tell stories."

The agency moved its headquarters to New York in the late `60s, and CEO Neal O'Connor began to expand internationally. New clients, such as the U.S. Army, came on board.

Two decades later, in the 1980s, a kickback scandal on the Army account rocked the agency, and in more recent years Ayer's industry stature faded away. Eventually, Ayer became part of MacManus Group, which later merged to create Bcom3 Group.

Ayer's final client list included Continental Airlines, Whirlpool Corp.'s KitchenAid, Charming Shoppes and Villeroy & Boch.

Ayer had 2000 gross income of $25 million, while Kaplan Thaler had gross income of $13.1 million, according to Advertising Age. Kaplan Thaler, founded in 1997, will move into Ayer's Manhattan offices. Most Ayer staffers will stay on. Mary Beth Casey, Ayer president-CEO since 1999, is exploring opportunities within Bcom3 and its proposed merger partner, Publicis Groupe.

Said Mr. Twitchell, "There's a rise, a shine, an evaporation and fall of every great idea."

There will still be an Ayer apparent-in a museum. Bcom3 is donating Ayer's historical archives and work to the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History in Washington.

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