IS OVITZ WASHED UP ON MAD AVE, HOLLYWOOD?

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Poor Michael Ovitz. First he fails to take Madison Avenue by storm, now it appears his influence in Hollywood is fading.

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Mr. Ovitz's legendary clout springs from his ability to pull together his clients-movie stars, directors and writers-in one glorious package that he was able to sell to the major studios.

In the same way, Mr. Ovitz took advantage of Coca-Cola's predilection for the movie business (the company once owned Columbia Pictures) to supply his talent agency's movie directors for Coke's TV commercials created by his firm. The result, as I've written in this space before, was a mish-mash of unrelated themes devoid of any comprehensive strategy.

Only the return of marketing whiz Sergio Zyman saved the day.

He made the most memorable Coke icons, the contour bottles and the Coke logo on the familiar red circle, into the unifying elements of the commercials. Now, seemingly unrelated and widely disparate story lines seem to work together.

But Mr. Ovitz and Creative Artists Agency haven't worked their magic anywhere else in the advertising world. And maybe that's because "the Hollywood agent culture is different. It is one that exists on deals done quickly, not done on deals nurtured over years. The cultures really precluded an immediate exploitation of the unrest that Mike Ovitz created," a CAA competitor told our family newspaper last week.

The deal culture may be showing signs of weakening in Hollywood, too. Frank Rich, the ex-theater critic for The New York Times and now an op-ed columnist, noted that Mr. Ovitz was "conspicuous by his absence" in the formation of Dream Works, the new movie studio started by Jeffrey Katzenberg, Steven Spielberg and David Geffen.

"The giddy Hollywood reaction" to the new enterprise shows "how eager this town is to embrace a new order. And how desperate it is to kiss an old order goodbye," Mr. Rich wrote.

The new, lean Katzenberg-Spielberg-Geffen entity "will be the antithesis" of the Japanese-owned studios, the aforementioned Columbia, now owned by Sony, and MCA, acquired by Matsushita. Both, not so coincidentally, were Ovitz deals.

"The hands-on Katzenberg trio-without an M.B.A., or even a college degree, to their name-are being hailed as liberators precisely because they do not practice the Olympian, string-pulling corporatese of the Ovitz era. At times they are even more passionate about the art of entertainment than the art of the deal," Mr. Rich opined.

It would be nice if the same kind of passion about the art of selling came back into the advertising business. And maybe it will, once the Ovitz and Maurice Saatchi era are safely behind us.

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