So far, the Saatchi 17 has branded, er, itself

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For about eight weeks last winter, the Saatchi 17 were the most notorious executives in the ad-agency world. Now they spend their days as a quasi-agency tucked away in a back corner of the 15th floor of Interpublic's Lowe, New York, where not even the receptionist knows for sure who they are.

Even they seem a little unsure of their identity. For now they are calling themselves One Seven, a new take on the group's now infamous nickname. But, like Prince or P. Diddy, they could be going by a different name next week. The refugees first called themselves Project Pilgrim, referring to their mass exodus from Saatchi & Saatchi in February. Now they have plumped for One Seven-e-mail addresses for the members are said to use onesevenny.com-but some say that's just a working title and could change again, while insiders at Interpublic are still calling them "the 17."

When the 17 loyally followed former boss Mike Burns, worldwide account director on General Mills, in quitting Saatchi on Valentine's Day and turning their back on CEO Kevin Roberts (AA, Feb. 21), most agency executives felt sure they had a job to go to. Surely 17 people wouldn't up and quit without a plan and a major client to work for. But it's now been five months since Interpublic signed the defectors to long-term employee agreements, and who they are working for-or indeed whether they have any work-remains a mystery.

Interpublic hired the 17, many believe, in a gamble that the group would bring business from longtime client General Mills, which, despite public support for Saatchi, was known to be unhappy to lose the team. But with a lawsuit filed by Saatchi pending against Mr. Burns, General Mills moving any piece of its $200 million global business to One Seven seems increasingly unlikely. And, in what seems a strange way to win over potential new clients, One Seven has not participated publicly in any new-business pitches.

`WORKING ON SOMETHING'

One staffer of One Seven is said to have told a friend, "We have clients and are working on something." Others have hinted they believe the group is indeed working for a real live client, which must please Interpublic. But despite that small assurance, many industry observers see the whole debacle as "one giant miscalculation" on the part of Interpublic, one of several the ad behemoth has made in recent months.

"It's been a comedy of errors on the part of multiple people," said one Interpublic executive who, like everyone else, could only guess at how the holding company might be looking to recoup its investment. Keeping even Interpublic executives in the dark about the new agency is likely a way to protect employees from ongoing litigation, he suggested, because doing so gives them "plausible deniability."

`They must not be too busy'

Calls to the offices of One Seven (reached at a number whose last two digits are 17) were either unanswered or quickly ended after employees declined to comment on their doings. An Interpublic spokesman likewise declined to speak about the agency.

Given its recent accounting woes and the potential loss of tens of millions in revenues from Bank of America, an account recently put into play, one industry observer said, "I would suspect IPG is not paying too much attention to the group." But with around $3 million in annual salaries for the 17-plus employees, Interpublic will likely not let the group idle for long. (One Saatchi exec apparently saw a One Seven staffer on the train recently at 3 p.m. and noted, "They must not be too busy.")

One Seven leader Anne Adriance, former head of Saatchi's KidConnection, and her staff are much-lauded for their expertise in youth and family marketing. But as one person close to the group notes, new-business expertise is not a central part of the group's skills. Concerns that the group might be drawn further into ongoing litigation combined with the general messiness of the manner in which they were formed are also likely scaring away would-be clients and even many consultants who might potentially be able to help.

The other major player in the Saatchi 17 saga, Mr. Burns, plans to set up a marketing consultancy in New York, said an executive familiar with the matter. Mr. Burns could not be reached for comment.

contributing: lisa sanders

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