WISE GUYS: SEVEN HOT REGIONAL SHOPS FORM O&M'S NEW CREATIVE BACKBONE. WILL THE SYNDICATE (AKA LA COSA BOYKO) WORK? WARREN 'NESS' BERGER INVESTIGATES.

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O&M's Syndicate, the freelance network with seven regional creative agencies, may be the hottest topic in creative circles since Dick reared his ill-groomed head for Miller Lite. There's plenty of disagreement on the probable success of the new venture, but on one point there's a consensus: The formation of the Syndicate, announced late February, is a bold and groundbreaking move by O&M chief creative director Rick Boyko. O&M signed up the agencies Hunt Adkins of Minneapolis; Seattle's WongDoody; Core of St. Louis; Dallas's Pyro; San Diego's VitroRobertson; Grant Scott Hurley of San Francisco; and Work of Richmond. The arrangement calls for each agency to commit to a minimum number of hours working on various freelance assignments at O&M, ranging from new business pitches to presenting ideas to existing clients. Each of the participating shops will receive an annual retainer fee or project fee. (How much O&M is paying the agencies has not been disclosed, but it is said to vary from agency to agency).

For O&M, the Syndicate is "an opportunity to build relationships with entrepreneurial creative talent that is not available on the freelance market," says Boyko. On the other side, the participating partner-agencies are getting a steady revenue stream, a chance to work with some of O&M's blue-chip accounts and prospects, and access to O&M's resources, such as research. "We see it as chance to help us grow, and possibly go after business that we couldn't before," says John Vitro, a partner and creative director at VitroRobertson. The other partners echo that view, with most citing the experience of working on big brands as the primary benefit. "As far as I can see, there's no downside," says Cabell Harris, the founder of Work.

But others see a number of potential pitfalls for the Syndicate. Some wonder how creative directors who call the shots at their own agencies will re-adjust to having a boss -- Boyko. "Where it may go wrong is that all these people want to be in control -- that's why they started agencies," says Nick Cohen, founder of Mad Dogs & Englishmen. It will also mean a return to the kind of big agency/big client bureaucracy that some of these entrepreneurs fled, shrieking bloody murder. "They're going to find themselves coming in and presenting to that same old 'gang of six,' and dealing with research and corporate politics," says Paul Cappelli, chairman and creative director of The Ad Store. "Suddenly, you're back in a system you've always despised." For his part, Tracy Wong, co-founder and creative director of WongDoody is aware of the pitfalls: "I worked at O&M in the past, so I know exactly what I'm getting into," he says.

There are other potential worries for the partner agencies. "I think the main purpose of these guys at presentations will be to make O&M look good, to say, 'Here's some edgy stuff we can show you, and now here are the ideas we expect you to actually buy,'" says the CD at one New York agency. On the other hand, the Syndicate shops could also be too successful -- and as Cohen notes, in such an arrangement, "the better you do, the more work the agency will want to give you. And then before you know it, you're working for O&M."

For O&M, there are risks, as well. "By going to outside creative agencies, it's almost a public admission that they're not satisfied with their own work," says Cappelli.

There is also the danger that O&M could alienate its own creative department -- particularly if the outside partners get all the juiciest assignments. "It's a risk for Rick," says one of the Syndicate partners. "Some of his creative people are bound to ask, 'Are we not good enough?'" Boyko insists that O&M creatives have nothing to worry about: "This really won't affect them any more than our old system of freelancing." He predicts that even with the Syndicate on board, the agency "will be doing about the same amount of freelance we've always done," except there'll no longer be a "scramble at the last minute for whatever freelancers are available."

In some respects, Boyko is merely formalizing what O&M and most big agencies have been doing in hush-hush fashion for some time: The hiring of small creative agencies to do project work for big agencies. "Everyone knows that this has been going on, even though it's supposed to be a secret," says Alex Bogusky, creative director at Crispin Porter & Bogusky. Bogusky applauds the experiment, which he sees as a Hollywood model of co-producing work. "These days, before a movie starts, five logos come on -- Columbia, in association with Tristar, on an Ivan Reitman production, and so on," says Bogusky. "This is a lot like that, and I think it makes sense."

Does that mean more Syndicates will follow? Not necessarily. Among ad giants, O&M is uniquely positioned to pull this off because the agency, and particularly Boyko, is well-regarded in creative circles. As one Los Angeles creative director notes, "In a best-case scenario, this could result in big-budget primetime advertising that is being produced by some of the best regional creative agencies. There are a lot of potential problems, but if it works, it's

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