Berger's Bickering Will Backfire: This is No Time for Industry Feud

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What motivated Euro RSCG's Ron Berger, the outgoing chairman of the American Association of Advertising Agencies, to pick a fight with a fellow agency executive at its annual conference in Scottsdale?

You'd think that the agency honchos would be on their best behavior so that marketers would consider renewing their close ties with agencies as a serious and valuable partner.

But that was a bygone era, and now agencies seem to go from whining about the unfairness of their fate to bickering among themselves-neither of which burnish their diminishing position with clients.

In his remarks, Mr. Berger said the agency business needs more people like Omnicom's John Wren and fewer like WPP's Martin Sorrell. "John's understanding and respect for his own brands, the work and his people, shows you can run a public company that pleases more than just shareholders and analysts. John is unique, and we need more like him."

I'd have thought that Mr. Berger's agency, part of fifth-biggest agency holding company Havas, would find it advantageous to compete against what he viewed as the weakened WPP agency brands-and to keep it to himself. He told us after his speech that Ogilvy, JWT and "what's the third one? ... Y&R ... These are not brands with great vitality."

If I were Mr. Berger I'd watch my backside. You can be sure that Mr. Sorrell will go over Havas' account list with a fine-tooth comb.

Havas does appear to be vulnerable, what with turnover at the top. Philippe Wahl, the former chief executive, was slated to talk at the 4A's conference, but the chairman of Havas replaced him last month. The new guy had presumably more pressing things to do.

Mr. Berger could be irked at Mr. Sorrell for not contributing any money to support the inaugural Advertising Week in New York, one of Mr. Berger's pet projects during his tenure as 4A's chairman. "Guess how much he pitched in? Zero," Mr. Berger said after his speech. I can't believe that anybody would be that petty, so there must be other, more pertinent reasons, for Mr. Berger's dumping on Mr. Sorrell and kissing up to Mr. Wren.

Could it be as simple as Havas Chairman Vincent Bollore wanting to sell his holdings and thinking that Omnicom would be a suitable buyer? Havas, I don't need to tell you, is not in great shape, but it's doing better (it reported '05 earnings of $81 million, up from $75 million the year before). As our editors said, "the biggest parlor game was guessing what Vincent Bollore's end game was for Havas."

Maybe Mr. Berger gave a glimpse of this strategy at the 4A's conference. And then maybe he had a change of heart, because by the end of the meeting, when it came to hand out the O'Tooles, Mr. Berger was up on the rostrum claiming-probably facetiously, but who knows for sure-that somebody was going around posing as him and giving "obnoxious" speeches.

All of this played out against the somber backdrop of Ken Kaess' death from cancer. Several speakers paid tribute to his great contributions made to the advertising industry, and Mr. Berger cited the memory of Mr. Kaess in explaining his decision to mention Mr. Sorrell by name. Mr. Kaess, he said, had a "passion for the business," an attribute that he apparently thinks Mr. Sorrell lacks.

In my last column, I wrote about what I thought were inappropriate remarks made by a prominent Arab businessman and president of the Dubai Chamber of Commerce. Mr. Berger's comments were equally inappropriate. What good does it do to start a feud at a time when the advertising business is trying to "reclaim a seat at the top of table," as one marketer said at the IAA conference in Dubai?
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