Lights out: D'Arcy leaves a 96-year legacy

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It was the agency that gave America the red-cheeked image of Santa Claus. It connected Budweiser's Clydesdales with Christmas, got shoppers to squeeze the Charmin and convinced drivers to trust their cars to Texaco.

But despite its many successes and its growth over 96 years to become the world's 14th-largest agency brand with $763 million in worldwide gross income, D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles ultimately could not survive. On Oct. 14, D'Arcy's new parent Publicis Groupe announced plans to shutter the network and move its accounts to other Publicis units. "It is a classic business case of evaluating a company's value," said Abe Jones, managing director of investment-bank boutique AdMedia Partners, New York. "Is it worth more as a break-up opportunity or as a whole?"

Publicis Chairman-CEO Maurice Levy opted for the parts-specifically, senior management and core clients, which include Procter & Gamble Co. and General Motors Corp. "It is always brave when you carve something up in a business like this," said Mr. Jones. "The risk is that there is something connected to D'Arcy as a franchise, some intangible, that you haven't given enough weight to."

It's not a big risk. The agency's glory days, marked by high-profile executives and celebrated work, were long ago, and the shop had struggled in recent years to differentiate itself.

In its history, some of the agency's most successful work was created for an account that initially developed out of family ties. Percy Orthwein, an early employee of D'Arcy Advertising, St. Louis, was connected through marriage to the Busch family, a bond that brought Anheuser-Busch to D'Arcy St. Louis.


A-B remained a client until 1994 when August Busch III severed the brewer's 79-year relationship with D'Arcy after management failed to inform him that its media-buying unit had accepted an assignment from rival Miller Brewing Co.

Other long-term relationships eventually unraveled. Last May, Mars moved more than $100 million of global business from D'Arcy, ending a nearly 70-year partnership.

Yet over the years, as the network grew through acquisitions and mergers, D'Arcy successfully built its business with two longtime clients: GM and P&G.

MacManus, John & Adams, which merged with D'Arcy Advertising in 1971, helped Pontiac achieve a stunning sales turnaround, recalled Jim Wangers, who worked at the agency from 1958 to 1975. Pontiac's "Wide-Track" ad theme started in 1959. Ads introducing Pontiac's GTO muscle car in 1964 compared the car to a tiger, and by 1966, all Pontiac models carried the tag, "The Great Wide-Track Tigers from Pontiac."

The P&G relationship is also storied. The Cincinnati package-goods powerhouse came to D'Arcy via the 1985 marriage of D'Arcy MacManus Masius and Benton & Bowles, which had launched Pampers, the first widely sold disposable diaper. D'Arcy and P&G introduced Bounce, the first dryer fabric softener, and, in 1999, Swiffer, which created a new household-cleaning category.

Still, one P&G executive said the agency recently seemed "resource constrained."

"The irony and the tragedy," said Arthur Selkowitz, vice chairman-chief client officer, Publicis, "is that the brand that created so many brand leaders could not itself sustain its leadership position."

contributing: jean halliday and jack neff

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