Roll over, Bob Jacoby: At Y&R, top execs can mint money, too

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By the time you read this, the advertising industry's version of "Antiques Road Show" should be over, and Young & Rubicam will be in the clutches of WPP Group. ("You said you found this agency at a rummage sale on Madison Avenue? You paid how much? $5 billion? I hate to be the one to tell you this, Mr. Sorrell, but when you turn it over and look carefully inside, you'll see that what you thought was an original advertising agency is actually a . . .")

Yeah, a cheap shot. But while we're at it, here are a few more about this sale of the century:

* Wasn't the IPO supposed to make Y&R stronger? Young & Rubicam's leadership, in retracting its long-held tenet that private ownership was the one viable model for an ad agency, said going to the public financial markets was the only way it could raise capital to make the acquisitions necessary to serve globalizing clients more effectively. Yet since the IPO Y&R has done precious little on the acquisitions front. That Harte-Hanks, until recently a newspaper company, and still a relative newcomer to the direct-marketing field, was Y&R's most significant acquisition target signals that executives were never truly serious about building a strong public entity.

* When they say it's about clients, it's never about clients. By its mere dalliance with Publicis, Y&R fairly shouted it was never really concerned about serving customers. The French agency holding company is chock-a-block with conflicting marquee accounts -- notably General Motors Corp. and Renault, which kinda bump up against Y&R's Ford account. Lord knows what damage has been done to these relationships, some stretching back years, by this public willingness to jettison them.

* When they say it's about shareholders, it's fair to ask, "Which shareholders?" It's not hard to see that the Y&R auction will benefit a small set of insiders in whom ownership of Y&R is now concentrated. In fact, we might look back on the pre-IPO period during the late '90s, during which time Y&R bought out its many private shareholders, as nothing more than preparation for the enrichment of a few. Any who doubt this need only read the press reports, clearly based on leaks, which indicated a major sticking point in the WPP plan was compensation for Y&R senior management. When the dust settles and we see who walks away with what, it may turn out that Bob Jacoby, the chairman who sold Ted Bates & Co. to the Saatchis and walked away with a then-astonishing $110 million, will finally have competition in the greed arena.

* Spinner, heal thyself. Maybe I'm wrong about all that. Maybe Martin Sorrell has masterfully manipulated the media on two sides of the Atlantic, and gotten them to portray Y&R CEO Thomas Bell unfairly as avaricious and selfish. Having been masterfully manipulated by Sir Martin in the past, I concede the possibility Mr. Bell's gotten a bad rap. But hey -- wasn't Tom Bell a public relations executive? Didn't he, like, used to run Burson-Marsteller? Couldn't he have arranged better media treatment for himself and his company?

* WPP is clearly the better owner. However shocking Mr. Sorrell's hostile forays in Adland seemed in the '80s, hindsight -- and the development of the global economy -- tell us concentration was inevitable in the advertising industry, and Sir Martin saw this early. Although his overpayment for Ogilvy Group nearly sank him, he fended off his bankers and built Ogilvy, J. Walter Thompson Co. and the WPP Group holding company into towers of strength. Now, with a decade-and-a-half overseeing a global, multi-network marketing communications conglomerate, Mr. Sorrell is clearly preferable as a manager to the less experienced Maurice Levy of Publicis.

Indeed, WPP's near-failure in the early '90s gives it an advantage. With the exception of Omnicom Group, every public multi-network agency company has flirted with bankruptcy and/or gone through a significant management shakeup early in its history. Interpublic Group of Cos. ousted Marion Harper Jr., and Saatchi & Saatchi booted the Saatchis.

Balancing the needs of shareholders, clients and your own people is hard work. Some, such as Omnicom Chairman Bruce Crawford, come to it naturally; others, like Interpublic Chairman Phil Geier, learn it over the life of the company. It is a skill Mr. Sorrell knows but Monsieur Levy hasn't yet demonstrated.

* Tomorrow, the sky will be Grey. Boy, wouldn't that agency make a nice, publicly-traded shell within which to put B Com3, or whatever they're calling that DMB&B- Leo Burnett-N.W. Ayer-Dentsu party.

Oh, you thought it was over? No. It's just another beginning.

Mr. Rothenberg can be reached at rothenberg_randall@strategy-business.com

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