Warwick Baker in serious talks to be acquired

By Published on .

Warwick Baker O'Neill's promising engagement to Canadian holding company Wolf Group recently fell apart, but that hasn't stopped the agency from flirting with other suitors.

Acquisition discussions between Wolf Group, Toronto, and Warwick, New York, were hot and heavy until some recent snags, according to executives close to the situation. The talks, which one executive deemed "entertainment and discussion," apparently took place from the end of 1999 through January.

COLD FEET

The pending nuptials dissolved over several issues: Warwick executives were said to be against being merged with another Wolf Group agency, while Wolf became apprehensive after a key Warwick client -- Fruit of the Loom -- filed for bankruptcy in December.

"Fruit of the Loom left them with a lot of unpaid bills," said one executive close to the situation.

Another executive said Warwick now is in talks with other suitors, and apparently serious about one.

Warwick Chairman-CEO Wilder Baker declined to elaborate on any pending plans, saying only, "We're one of the last remaining independents of any stature -- people hover."

One admirer was Snyder Communications, said an executive. Warwick and the Bethesda, Md.-based holding company -- itself recently bought by Havas Advertising -- had serious talks last year.

Speculation that Warwick, among the nation's top 10 independent agencies, is for sale, however, seems perennial. In 1998 Interpublic Group of Cos. was reported to be interested. One insider said it was too soon to dismiss a reconciliation between Warwick and Wolf in the future, but others discounted that idea.

ONE STIPULATION

With all the possible matchups, Warwick is said to have one requirement: Its current management team must remain in place. The agency has spent several years bulking up management strength. Kevin O'Neill joined as president-chief creative officer in 1995, when the agency was known as Warwick Baker Fiore. A year later, Mr. O'Neill's name was added to the door. Since then, the agency has added experienced managers, such as William Mulligan, director of client services, Ron Fierman, exec VP-chief financial officer and Liz Paley, group account director-director of business development.

On the acquisition front, Wolf -- which bought Partners & Shevack, New York, and Grand Group, Chicago, in recent years -- is fighting with other non-U.S. holding companies for potential acquisition targets. Another Canadian holding company -- MDC Communications, Toronto -- bought Margeotes/Fertitta & Partners in 1998.

French holding companies, such as Publicis Group and Havas, have been on buying sprees. Publicis recently picked up Fallon McElligott, Minneapolis, and Frankel, Chicago; Havas nabbed Snyder Communications in late February.

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