THE VIEW, FROM THE CEO SUITE, OF THE MODERN HOLDING COMPANY

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When Marion Harper Jr. formed Interpublic in January 1961, he envisioned a corporate structure that would resolve the client conflicts restricting big agencies' growth. He also wanted a horizontal organization to bring marketing disciplines such as research and public relations "out of advertising's shadow."

Even 38 years ago, the potential was clear; Advertising Age said Interpublic's creation opened "a new chapter in the agency business." It was a chapter that eventually grew into a full, fat textbook. Today a handful of massive holding companies rule a marketing landscape picked clean of all but a handful of independents.

The modern agency holding companies still resolve conflicts and provide a roof over a range of communications companies. But their role is also expanding. On the media front, they seek to leverage the combined clout of their companies for better buying efficiencies. And account consolidations are increasingly common, validating Harper's vision.

Now, an unconventional decision by a major marketer has raised questions about what, exactly, a holding company is or should be. When Mercedes-Benz of North America fired Lowe & Partners/SMS, the automaker surprised the industry by saying that, in effect, it would hire a holding company rather than an agency.

Mercedes asked Omnicom and True North, each of which already does business with parent DaimlerChrysler, to offer their best solutions. Omnicom presented its tiniest boutique, Merkley Newman Harty, and won. Mercedes then stunned the industry again by asking Omnicom boss John Wren, not a Merkley exec, to sit in on follow-up press calls.

Did this move, agency types wondered, usher in a new era? Were holding companies now brands, rather than just brand parents? Were they, in the words of one shop boss, "super agencies?"

Wren's answer: Nonsense.

"Everyone is making more of this than they should," says Wren, who calls the Mercedes situation unique. "Omnicom is a financial brand; it's not a marketing brand."

Omnicom's role, he says, is to provide its agencies "support and access to capital" while maximizing shareholder value. Its laissez faire management style is, in fact, what has made Omnicom the home of choice for some of the industry's most creative agencies.

Interpublic plays a more active role. Phil Geier says his organization is a "management company" whose role is to ensure its agencies have "the proper strategic positioning and proper people."

Interpublic puts forth on its Web site a philosophy that seems an awful lot like a brand positioning. "It began with a vision," the site states. "It has evolved into one of the largest, fastest-growing organizations of advertising and communications services companies in the world," one that offers "brand-building strategies, award-winning creative, state-of-the-art media."

Still, Geier dismisses the notion of Interpublic as brand. "Our agencies are very separate brands that operate and compete in the marketplace, and we provide services and strategic direction and budget controls."

WPP Group's Web site also outlines the "seven stated goals" of its "group strategy." Of the Big Three CEOs, Martin Sorrell is most willing to offer a brand philosophy for his umbrella corporation. But he sees WPP as an "internal brand," not one that should mean anything to marketers.

Sorrell's annual reports are famous for their detailed musings on the state of the business. He regularly brings executives of WPP companies together for workshops and seminars, and offers marketing fellowships to attract and retain talent. A new employee booklet, the Catalog, spells out how WPP shops can gain "small but critical competitive advantages" by working together.

WPP, Sorrell says, is a "parent company" that oversees the upbringing of its offspring.

"We're trying to get people to kiss and punch, to compete and cooperate," he says. But, he adds, the strength of WPP ultimately "depends on the strength of