Chrysler was new kind of war where agencies came second

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Now that it's over, it seems the outcome was never really in doubt. We knew all along who was going to win.

No, not the presidential election. The DaimlerChrysler review.

I'm sure DaimlerChrysler executives would say they created a level playing field, and David Bell would insist he wouldn't have marshaled his resources if he didn't think True North had a fair shot. But from my admittedly limited perspective (on the outside looking in), it was never really a contest.

Here's why: DaimlerChrysler wasn't out to hire an ad agency; it was out to hire a holding company. And while BBDO-FCB might be a close match, John Wren and David Bell aren't in the same weight class.

True North simply can't compete at the same level as the Big Five, which is why its assets almost surely will be folded into one of their portfolios in the near future.

You can't yet call it a trend, the hiring of holding companies rather than agencies. In fact, DaimlerChrysler provides the only other recent example. When it moved the Mercedes-Benz of North America account, Daimler asked Omnicom and True North to offer their best solutions. Wren put forth Omniboutique Merkley Newman Harty and won the account. It was Wren who sat in on follow-up media calls, not a Merkley executive.

Wren was in Detroit on Nov. 3 as well, when the DaimlerChrysler news came down. And Chrysler Group's Bud Liebler openly acknowledged that Omnicom's vast resources were a significant factor in the decision.

Maybe DaimlerChrysler is the only megamarketer thinking in these terms. Then again, maybe its moves presage a new paradigm that will parallel the global consolidation and integrated marketing movements. If so, that raises questions about the role of the modern holding company.

Last year, the heads of the leading holding companies were asked if their firms have become brands rather than the parents of brands. Wren scoffed at the idea, saying, "Omnicom is a financial brand; it's not a marketing brand." Martin Sorrell said WPP is an internal brand, but not an external one.

Last week, I asked Wren again whether Omnicom is a brand and if he believes more marketers will look to hire holding companies. "I still don't buy it," he said. "I didn't buy it last year, I don't buy it this year."

In the DaimlerChrysler review, "The holding company differentiation was that there was a strong perception Omnicom wasn't going to be bought by anyone," said Wren. "The owners of BBDO will still be the owners 12 months from now as opposed to some Frenchman or someone who has General Motors as a client. What the holding companies provide is stability, that the subsidiaries will be able to deliver on their promises."

"I still think we're a financial brand, not a marketing brand."

Whatever the term, Wren is, at least for now, the toast of Madison Avenue and Wall Street. His investments have been cautious and mostly wise, his brands strong, his headaches few. (BBDO's succession plan is among his most pressing problems. Compare that to John Dooner's Lowe woes and need for a third network.)

In recognition of those strengths, Omnicom's stock has been trading at a healthy price/earnings ratio.

"In the investment business," financial analyst Jim Dougherty told Ad Age, "everybody adores Omnicom . . . it is the gold standard."

Not a bad brand positioning.

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