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IPG EYES NEW MATE: AMMIRATI WHILE INTERPUBLIC'S LINTAS SPINS OFF AGENCY

By Published on .

Ammirati & Puris, just 31/2 years after a drawn-out buyback from Omnicom Group, may be headed into the Interpublic Group of Cos. agency network.

The possibility of acquiring one of the industry's most highly regarded creative shops is being discussed as Interpublic moves aggressively to diversify its portfolio of global goliaths.

Advertising Age has learned there have been talks about a possible acquisition, which is surprising because of determined efforts by Ammirati Chairman-CEO Martin Puris to buy back the New York-based agency in 1990.

Executives at Interpublic, parent company to McCann-Erickson Worldwide, Lintas Worldwide and the Lowe Group, could not be reached for comment on these preliminary discussions. Earlier in the week, however, they approved a major spinoff involving Lintas.

Two senior Lintas executives- former Lintas, New York, office President-Chief Operating Officer F. Stone Roberts, 49, and Exec VP Sheri Colonel, 38, and the $50 million Maybelline account from Lintas-were assigned to create a separate agency, the Gotham Group, at 79 Fifth Ave. That is the same location where an earlier Lintas spinoff shop, L2, had been housed during the agency's unsuccessful effort to retain its IBM personal computer business.

As word of the Gotham Group's creation was being announced, Ammirati's Mr. Puris was denying his shop was destined to become the next Interpublic agency unit.

"No deals are being made, no discussions are being had ... I think we like being on our own," he said. Pressed on the issue, Mr. Puris went on to say, "there have never been any serious discussions." He added that the subject may have come up casually over lunch but not recently.

Still, Mr. Puris left the door open as he praised Interpublic and noted there are "a lot of reasons that an Interpublic thing would be interesting ... I never say never to anything."

James Dougherty, an analyst with Dean Witter Reynolds, said Interpublic is "preparing for a different kind of agency business in the future, where they have smaller agencies, fewer hierarchies and more senior people involved with clients."

Ammirati's clients include Compaq Computer Corp., MasterCard International and, as of last month, Labatt's beer, giving the agency billings of $400 million.

One industry executive, who valued Ammirati at $30 million to $50 million, said Interpublic wants to accommodate major marketers that are increasingly awarding their accounts to more diminutive agencies.

If a deal is struck, Ammirati, long regarded as a crown jewel in Madison Avenue's creativity tiara, would remain free standing but report to one of the holding company's three large agency systems, most likely Lowe & Partners/SMS. Similarly, Gotham, while wholly owned by Interpublic, reports through Lintas.

Omnicom, having landed Ammirati with the 1989 acquisition of the agency's then-parent Boase Massimi Pollit, London, has taken the industry lead in spinoffs. Last year saw Omnicom form three "cluster" agencies : Berlin, Wright & Cameron; Merkley Newman Harty; and Castle Underwood.

Interpublic in the late 1980s considered an acquisition of Boston-based Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopulos. In recent years, the holding company has touted Lowe & Partners/SMS, New York, as its nimbler creative force. But that agency's 1993 merger with Scali, McCabe, Sloves, and its Diet Coke account win propelled the shop beyond any "creative boutique" claims.

Gotham's formation frees Lintas to pursue more assignments from Johnson & Johnson and ChesebroughPond's, which have increasingly found the agency's Maybelline account a conflict due to its new Revitalizing line and overseas expansion plans.

Joining Mr. Roberts, who becomes Gotham ceo, and Ms. Colonel, president-chief operating officer, is Creative Director Lynn Giordano, 45, from managing partner-group creative head at D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles.

Mr. Roberts said the agency wouldn't be aggressive in pursuing new business initially but added that talks are under way with Lintas client 3M about moving to Gotham.

Gary Levin and Pat Sloan contributed to this story.

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