LOIS USA WRITES CHAPTER 11 FINALE TO A 'FUNNY MONEY' ERA

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The only era ending with the bankruptcy filing by George Lois' Lois USA agency is advertising's Age of Funny Money.

Funny money is the convertible instrument with which many an agency entrepreneur has played the world for a sucker. This is not a value judgment. The stuff that dreams are made of is notoriously ephemeral; for the dream merchants of advertising to profit from their ventures, they often have to spin themselves into something far bigger, bolder and more substantial than a mere creative team and account man in a hotel room.

That clients, consumers and competitors fall prey to the illusion is itself evidence of advertising's power to persuade.

To benefit fully from the mirage, though, the agency entrepreneur has little choice but to sell out-to flip his shop to an acquirer, who sees in its welter of client and employee relationships a larger pot of lucre hidden somewhere down the road. Thus flipping has long been one of advertising's great sports, its heroes honored privately as they are begrudged publicly.

For every grumble over Bob Jacoby's $110 million profit for selling Ted Bates & Co. to the Saatchis in 1986, there is a tip of the fedora to Joel Babbitt and Joey Reiman, who pulled lesser millions in 1988 from another set of Brits, Gold Greenlees Trott, for their two-year-old Atlanta agency (which had few clients or kudos-but a hell of a lot of press clippings-to its name).

If flipping is a time-honored tradition in advertising, multiple flipping is an art, mastered by few. To succeed at it, an entrepreneur had to play the spread with the courage and expertise of a master day trader, selling an agency at the peak of its prominence and buying it back on the dips, time after time after time.

I first became aware of this intricacy of advertising finance back in the late '80s, when Ammirati & Puris inadvertently sent me a fax meant for its then-owner, Boase Massimi Pollitt in London. Ralph and Martin had sold their hot shop on what they thought was a high, only to discover during the decade's economic boom that they were doing even better. But the benefit was going to their owner, not them.

So they wanted to arrange a buyback, something they were able to accomplish in 1990, at a relatively advantageous price, only after BMP, under hostile assault by a French agency, had sold itself to Omnicom Group, which had account conflicts with its new acquisition's acquisition.

Not long after, in 1994, Ammirati & Puris took advantage of another market tick to flip itself to Interpublic, again for a hefty price.

That triumph wasn't singular. Jerry Della Femina has treated his agencies like flapjacks at an IHOP, and now owns half the real estate in East Hampton. But playing with advertising's unreal estate can backfire. After multiple flips, Waring & LaRosa no longer exists; Chiat/Day included Drexel Burnham Lambert junk bonds in its funny money portfolio, and ended up flipping to TBWA for what appeared to be a fire-sale price. (Ammirati itself may soon be merged from this world.)

George Lois, too, seems to have come up short. As much as I adore George-and I do, for he is one of the great graphic designers and raconteurs of this century-I'm sure I wasn't alone in wondering through the years each time he sold his agency and bought it back, took it public and brought it private, found foreign buyers and midwestern acquisitions, merged, splurged and purged. I wondered in particular about things that rarely make it into advertising trade stories: pesky little items like lenders and debt and shareholders and obligations.

George says he'll be back-"I've had worse days," he told The New York Times. Indeed, dreamers are easy marks. If bluesmokeandmirrors.com can take itself public with no revenues, none anticipated, a business plan eerily similar to that of your local Shopper newspaper, and a valuation of $800 million, why shouldn't Blue, Smoke, Mirrors & Partners be able to find a few buyers for its fantastic platinum pancake?

The answer, I think, is in the question. In the Internet era, advertising agencies are small bore. Money is no longer just funny; it's hysterical. The culture that credited the high-dive skills of a Jerry Della Femina now pays obeisance to a Jim Clark, whose silicon flips (Netscape, Healtheon, etc.) have made him a billionaire many times over.

Maybe georgelois.com could have avoided Chapter 11. I suppose we'll never know.