MERGER HEADACHE NOT SO TOUGH FOR TRAGOS

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If you think the advertising business has had a rough patch during the past couple of years, you should talk to Bill Tragos.

A year-and-a-half ago, on one cold morning in January, Bill went outside to get his newspaper, slipped on a patch of ice hidden by the snow and banged his head on the sidewalk. He was knocked cold.

After that Bill started getting severe headaches, and he finally was diagnosed as having a blood clot on the side of his head. The night before he was scheduled to go into the hospital to have the clot removed he was coming home from work on the train and a briefcase fell out of the rack and hit him on the head.

Bill was out of the office from mid-March to the end of April of last year, and even now he still gets a couple of headaches a day, which is "par for the course," he's since learned, for head trauma.

But none of the above slowed Bill down enough to keep him from helping engineer the deal between his agency TBWA and Chiat/Day. I asked Bill how the merger was going at a Crain's New York Business All-Star lunch, where he was honored as one of four All-Stars.

"I'd like to vaunt my great managerial skills and say, `Oh boy, it's tough,' but it isn't," Bill said. "Everybody knows we're international, but Chiat/Day also is full of people from different nationalities. So we have an openness of spirit that's very helpful." Great creativity and account planning capability on both sides also help make the two outfits work well together.

Another common trait shared by Bill and Jay Chiat is they're both considered outsiders in New York. "The accepted wisdom is that New York is the navel of the universe and all the rest of the country is hillbillies. I have the advantage of being both a hillbilly and a foreigner."

Bill and his partners started their agency in Europe (although Bill is from St. Louis), where he gained a certain amount of fame and recognition, and when he came back to New York, "I was nobody again. The cold shower I had to take in New York did me a lot of good," he told me over chicken and potatoes at the Waldorf.

The Oklahoma bombing was still on both of our minds, and Bill thinks the media has to share some of the blame for the tragic event. "We're held to such high standards in the advertising business as to what we can and can't say." But on the programming side, "I don't see any accounting. Anything's possible regardless of the pain it causes. There's a weird and disturbing sense of freedom" on the TV and radio talk shows.

"I don't think I'm a prude, but good Lord, there's not a modicum of good taste. The shock is completely gone. I lack my old sensitivity, and I'm sorry I've lost it. I can now watch a Tarantino film like `Pulp Fiction' without hiding my eyes."

Bill remains a St. Louis boy. Right now he's making the rounds of his far-flung enterprise talking to people to make the merger work, but basically he's still a guy with a St. Louis Rams bumper sticker on the back of his car.

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