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NEW YORK-Steve Dworin, the darling of Madison Avenue, is near a deal to become ceo of N W Ayer. But keep the Dom Perignon on ice for now, please.

Negotiations between Mr. Dworin, 40, and Ayer investor Richard Humphreys could wrap up this week. But the pending deal prompted a last-minute offer from Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising.

Bill Muirhead, Saatchi's new ceo for North America and president of Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising Worldwide, is said to have asked Mr. Dworin to be ceo of the agency's New York office. The post is now held by Harvey Hoffenberg, who also is the office's chairman and chief creative officer.

Wherever he lands, Mr. Dworin will have to live up to his reputation as a new-business Svengali. That reputation was built in his 21/2 years as president of Deutsch/Dworin, during which the agency's billings jumped from $90 million to $275 million.

His prosperous partnership with Donny Deutsch was felled earlier this year by personality conflicts. While Mr. Deutsch didn't officially begin the search for a replacement until last week, Mr. Dworin was an instant hot commodity. Besides Ayer-seeking a replacement for retiring Chairman Jerry Siano-and Saatchi, his other suitors have included Lintas, Ogilvy & Mather and Chicago-based Tatham Euro RSCG.

At Ayer Mr. Dworin is said to be enticed by the free rein he would get to try to turn around one of the oldest, most moribund multinational agency giants.

Mr. Humphreys couldn't be reached for comment, and Mr. Dworin would neither confirm nor deny he had made a decision.

Mr. Dworin's top tasks at Ayer would be to solidify relations with clients like General Motors Corp., Procter & Gamble Co. and AT&T; drum up new business; and explore a merger with a more creative shop.

Mr. Dworin would be moving into an agency that lost Sterling Winthrop's $55 million Bayer account early this year. That casualty followed Ayer's bruising loss of $110 million in AT&T business to FCB/Leber Katz Partners last November. Ayer later recouped about $60 million in AT&T business from Young & Rubicam. Total U.S. billings for Ayer have been widely estimated at $600 million to $800 million, with the agency employing 630 in the U.S.

Already, Mr. Dworin has ties to Ayer media client E&J Gallo Winery, for whom he worked at Deutsch, and GM's Phil Guarascio, from both executives' early careers at Benton & Bowles.

He's also well-versed in P&G business from having spent years working for competitors like Unilever, Kraft General Foods and Nestle at J. Walter Thompson USA and Ogilvy & Mather.

His Unilever experience, in fact, helped make Mr. Dworin attractive to Interpublic Group of Cos. Chairman-CEO Philip H. Geier Jr., who offered Mr. Dworin the New York ceo post at Lintas, now held by Tony Miller.

But the appeal of financially sound Interpublic may have been outweighed by potential political pitfalls at Lintas, where news of Mr. Dworin's possible appointment received a tepid response.

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