In recent months, the Big Three of the agency holding company world had fallen uncharacteristically silent. Even when they made news it was for the wrong reasons, or at least for offbeat ones.
Headlines about Interpublic Group of Cos. seemed to be limited to two types of stories: those about lawsuits Chairman-CEO Phil Geier had filed against former employees, and those about lawsuits former employees had filed against Phil Geier.
The biggest news out of WPP Group last summer revolved around a new compensation package that could leave Chief Executive Martin Sorrell $50 million richer in a few years. As for Omnicom Group, President-CEO John Wren just kept quietly going about the business of maximizing shareholder value (which the other two also do a fine job of, by the way).
But no news is bad news for us journalist types. Sure, there were plenty of other stories to cover, but the Big Three could usually be counted on to shake things up every couple of weeks. We were in need of a fix.
For a while, we were distracted by those mini-moguls who seemed like potential rivals to the agency giants. But even those threats subsided. Maurice Levy stopped making bold pronouncements; David Bell decided he needed to consolidate in order to expand; and Dan Snyder transformed himself into an armchair quarterback.
What happened to the art of the deal? The games of one-upsmanship? The battle to be No. 1? Had the masters of the communications universe lost their fight? Had the landscape been picked so clean of independents that there was nothing of value left to buy? The situation looked bleak.
But then . . . the rumor mill began to churn again. From across the pond word re-surfaced that Sorrell was getting ready to move on Y&R. Geier was said to be eyeing MacManus. Wren was placing bets on every promising dot.com specialist in the world.
They were just rumors at first but-to borrow a quote from "Barbarians at the Gate"-rumors are premature facts. And the rumors that have circulated through the agency world for months, in some cases years, are indeed becoming facts.
Omnicom acquired integrated marketing agency M/A/R/C for $100 million and then picked up a 50% stake in interactive shop Critical Mass for $20 million. Those in the know say Wren will announce two or three more deals, also in the direct and interactive arenas, before the big '00.
Geier continued his talks with MacManus, and also moved ahead with plans to merge Ammirati Puris Lintas and Lowe Group to form the world's fifth-largest agency. (Both have seen their share of turmoil in recent years, but it's hard to say whether a merger is the best solution. Insiders are bracing for a culture clash that could rival that of the Ammirati & Puris/Lintas pairing, which is why Martin Puris isn't likely to stick around to watch.)
One savvy observer, on hearing the Interpublic M&A news last week, dubbed it the "Medium Bang." Not quite as exciting as the Big Bang that led to Omnicom's formation, but big news nonetheless.
As for Sorrell, it's hard to know exactly what he's up to, but safe to assume the initials Y and R are scribbled on at least one yellow pad in his office.
Most observers believe it's no longer a question of whether, but when. It's assumed the heirs to Peter Georgescu, who retires at yearend, will be more open to an overture. The biggest remaining hurdles, then, are whether the management talent will stick around after the deal is done, and whether Ford will balk at having all its business housed under one roof.
If Sorrell can pull off the Y&R deal, he'll earn bragging rights as WPP jumps from No. 3 to a clear No. 1, based on 1998 data, with worldwide gross income approaching $6 billion. Which, in turn, puts pressure on the others to play catch up. Which means more deals.