BUCCI MAKES MOVE ONTO NATIONAL STAGE; FAST TRACK: AFTER A 2-YEAR BUYING BINGE, BUCCI'S AGENCY NEARS GOAL

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Tony Bucci's epiphany came while jogging on the streets of his Squirrel Hill, Pa., neighborhood.

During that October 1997 run, the expansion strategy for his small Pittsburgh agency crystallized in his mind. Mr. Bucci, the chairman-CEO of Marc USA, raced home, pulled up a chair to his kitchen table and drafted a blueprint.

The plan: transform his one-city shop into an national force with pockets of regional power. The means: acquisitions. The time frame: seven years.

Less than two years later, Mr. Bucci, 50, is within striking distance of his national target. He's acquired offices in Chicago, Dallas, Indianapolis, Miami and New York, along with satellite offices in Tulsa and Orlando. Last month, he nabbed Zuckerman Fernandes & Partners, San Francisco, and he's currently in acquisition talks with agencies in Boston and Seattle.

"I'm a little ahead of pace," he said, laughing.

TRIPLED BILLINGS

Mr. Bucci's rapid acquisition rate has also inflated his independent agency's bottom line. Billings have almost tripled over the last two years; they are projected to top $500 million by yearend. Although he pays for his acquisitions in cash -- and without funding from outside investors -- Marc's 1999 revenue is expected to come in at $50 million, a twofold increase from 1998.

The billings figure puts once-tiny Marc into the same competitive set as Earle Palmer Brown, Goldberg Moser O'Neill, N.W. Ayer & Partners and Temerlin McClain.

"Several years ago, they were a [small] regional agency," said Arthur Anderson, principal at agency search firm Morgan Anderson Consulting. "They are now getting to critical mass."

Among Marc's clients are Church & Dwight, Holiday Inn, Motorola and Rite-Aid Corp.

Mr. Bucci also has designs on more retail accounts, particularly automotive, department stores and fast-feeders, which fit his agency's profile of a national branding network overlaying local resources.

"There are a significant number of clients who are geographic-sensitive," said Mr. Bucci. "Many of these clients are saying 'We want someone in our region.' "

He points to the recent review for Powertel, where the client saw only Atlanta shops, and the review for Siemens Communications Devices, where the client sought an agency in the Southwest.

It isn't only acquisitions that put Marc on the map. In 1993, long before others started doing so, Mr. Bucci completely revamped Marc's structure, eliminating departments such as creative, planning and media. With the help of an outside consultant, he then created self-contained, client-focused teams that functioned as an agency-within-an-agency.

SETTING A TREND

Executives from major networks including Leo Burnett Co., Dentsu and J. Walter Thompson Co. traveled to his obscure agency to check out the new structure, which would later become commonplace at large and small shops.

"He was clearly a pioneer," said American Association of Advertising Agencies CEO-President O. Burtch Drake. "It was unknown at the time for such a radical re-engineering of an ad agency."

Mr. Bucci is a bit of a revolutionary in other areas as well. He refuses to use a broker for his acquisition deals. Instead, he scouts out agency targets through his own research.

"I can't conceive of having a broker go find an agency for me," he said. "The critical part of any acquisition or merger is chemistry."

Even so, some industry observers warn that Mr. Bucci could face complications when his acquisition honeymoon period is over.

"Eventually, he may find a problem," said independent advertising consultant Harry Potter. "The difficult thing in this is not making the deal, it's making it work after the deal. When you take on new operations, it'll take you years to get the whole thing straightened out."

Hasan Ramusevic, a former new-business consultant at AAR/

Bob Wolf & Partners, New York, said Marc's acquisition strategy appears sound.

POTENTIAL WOES

"They've identified markets where they want to be and they've done a good job in finding shops that culturally mesh with them." But he cautioned that a quick acquisition pace can lead to potential problems. "You have all of these different . . . managers who used to be owners who still feel they're the boss," he said.

Mr. Bucci said he addresses this issue by governing his network with a light hand.

During his fateful neighborhood jog in 1997, Mr. Bucci set another goal for his agency -- going global within 14 years. Although Marc currently has no offices outside the U.S., he's set his international sights on Canada, Europe, South America and Hong Kong. He jokes that the third phase of his plan is to rename the shop Marc Intergalactic.

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