Allen's admonition was: "Beware those who would have us believe that advertising has become irrelevant. It always was, and always will be, as relevant as we make it. The geeks will not destroy us. Only we can do that."
Don't try to convince him the geeks -- the new technologists in his parlance -- are dedicated to building brands. In a video interview now on AdAge.com, I asked him if what he cited as the twin pillars of the business -- the creative revolution led by Bill Bernbach, and technology led by dot-coms past and present -- are compatible.
"They are compatible in that they have to be compatible," he told me. "The notion that you can approach consumers with anything less than creativity, innovation, new ways of approaching them, makes no sense at all. Creativity and technology are not antithetical in that regard. The new technologies, though, require not different types of creative thinking, but a different way of expressing your creative thinking in terms of what the technologies offer."
Allen views the internet as "a brilliant resource for information," but doesn't see it as branding because it cannot deliver the same emotional connection. "That's why I believe there will always be a place for TV, radio, print, which do have the capacity to engage a consumer emotionally," he said.
Above all, he puts great stock in protecting the brand. "You have to continually guard against the diminution of the brand by efforts that have nothing to do with the brand. In other words, as opportunities for tactical enumerations, for different ways to reach the consumer that don't necessarily enable you to build the brand at the same time, you have to balance the two and you have to have somebody watching that, because a brand can lose its identity, a brand can lose its strength, a brand can lose its emotional relationship to people if it is not continually nurtured.
"Certain technologies allow that nurturing, certain do not. That doesn't mean that you don't use the ones that don't. It means that you have to protect the brands with communications that deal with the fact that you are not always communicating the brand."
What's often overlooked, I said, is that a brand is a very fragile thing. He replied, "A brand is a human relationship. That is what it is built on. If that relationship is fractured, if the relationship is somehow lost because the brand hasn't lived up to it or because the brand has done something to disappoint people, it is a fragile thing. You can in many respects consider it as fragile as a marriage. If you do something devastating, there are negative consequences."
In introducing Allen in the video, I called him the "lead firecracker" in the Big Bang, the 1986 merger of DDB, Needham Harper and BBDO. "Each agency had a different reason to want to be part of Omnicom, and for BBDO it was largely a matter of becoming private again, coming off the public market, which we had gone into in order to finance our global expansion," Allen told me.
I asked what would have happened if Saatchi had bought DDB, as it was desperately trying to do. "I think we would have found a way to bring Needham and BBDO together, although we would likely have had to remain a public corporation. By creating Omnicom, BBDO became a subsidiary of a public corporation. I don't think that would have been possible if that had just been us and Needham," said Allen, who was Omnicom's first CEO, but stunned the ad world by turning the job over to Bruce Crawford, and then returning to running BBDO.
Any regrets? "No. It was the happiest moment of that period of my life. ... Going into a meeting hoping not to screw up is not a healthy way to live your day."