WISE FOUR A'S BUILDS BIG TENT

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The american association of Advertising Agencies was right to amend its rules to make Four A's membership possible for agencies specializing in marketing disciplines other than media advertising. (And the association also was right to not give another moment's thought to changing its name as a result.)

The 81-year-old organization's mandate has been to service the ad agency business, and at times that came to mean the full-service ad agency business. But Four A's boasts it's not made up exclusively of large agencies; more than 60% of members bill under $10 million a year.

That fact means the majority of Four A's existing membership probably handles much more than just network TV and magazine ads; agencies in such a billings category are old hands at integrated marketing, used to working in marketing tactics and disciplines far removed from the nation's large agencies. And while it appears the impetus for the charge of heart -- opening up Four A's rolls for public relations, sales promotion, media buying, etc. -- was the increasing ownership of such shops by the major agency organizations, the realization that these marketing options are just as important as major-media advertising should have come via those many smaller members.

It was much in evidence that the rules were outdated when, for example, media buyer Western International Media was admitted to the association via its ownership by Interpublic Group of Cos. while DeWitt Media, still an independent, was excluded. As Four A's President-CEO Burtch Drake himself put it: "It was basically unfair."

This decision to be a "big tent" organization was a move that had to be made. Potential new members may wonder if an "advertising agency" association is where they belong; Four A's leaders will have to address that over time. But we feel safe in saying current members -- the talented people into whose hands most U.S. marketers entrust their most valued brands -- fully agree with the wisdom of keeping the group's well-known brand name intact.M

Which future?

The calendar says October but winter has come early for the stocks of the big publicly traded ad agency holding companies. The fall, from admittedly superheated price levels, has nonetheless been dramatic: WPP Group closed at around $36 a share last Tuesday, from a 52-week high of more than $77; Omnicom Group was around $39 compared to a 52-week high of more than $58; Young & Rubicam at $23.75 from a high of more than $35; Grey Advertising at $299, down from $480, and so on.

What goes up comes down, of course. But the gloomy outlook of investors who once bid agency stocks up suggests a belief about how marketers will behave if the economy cools off. And that belief is they will cut spending (and therefore the billings of the agencies they use).

It is that assumption, hopefully, where investors err. Most key marketer executives have been through an economic downturn just several years ago. In the intervening years of plenty, there have been renewed pledges of faith in the necessity to keep building brands, no matter what the business climate of the moment. Now that quarterly results for some big marketers are showing a sales and profit growth slowdown -- particularly for those active in international markets, such as Gillette Co. and Coca-Cola Co. -- the testing time for this commitment to brand-building may be at hand.

Investors are letting it be known what they think lies ahead. Now it's up to marketers to maintain the life-support brands need, no matter the economic weather and in spite of the mood on Wall Street.

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