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Fabled movie actress Mae West once proclaimed, "Too much of a good thing

. . . is wonderful!" Judging by the number of commercials now carried in prime-time network TV, network executives must heartily agree. Advertisers take a different view, however, and there's welcome talk that some of their TV ad buyers are ready to make ad "clutter" an issue again.

J. Walter Thompson Co.'s Jean Pool, that agency's exec VP-director of North American media operations, promised recently that JWT and its partners in WPP Group's giant media buying group, the Alliance, will make clutter an issue in this spring's upfront TV buying negotiations. When you buy about $2 billion in national TV time, as members of Alliance do, you deserve to be listened to. But the networks are not likely to act if demand for TV time is strong. Ms. Pool said she's betting a softer upfront market will give buyers more leverage, and the ability to reward networks willing to prune the commercial load they have foisted on prime time.

Network TV executives need a push from outside, since they find it hard to resist the internal pressures that lead them to add more commercial minutes. More ads per hour help offset the loss of revenue from smaller audiences; they accommodate make-goods when shows underperform guarantees; and they provide a valuable platform for promoting a network's programs. But more ads dilute the value of TV to advertisers and feed the suspicion among marketers that they aren't getting sufficient value for their ad dollar.

An analysis for Myers Report by SFM Media found the Big Four broadcast networks added 1,133 more commercial and network promo units to prime time in just the first 10 weeks of the 1997-98 TV season, after adding more than 2,100 units in the '96-97 season. ABC, the worst offender last fall, averaged 9.5 30-second units per prime-time half-hour.

It's time advertisers speak up, and TV network managers should apply the brakes before clutter gets even more out of hand.

A new player

For a while there, it seemed like the Big Three agency holding companies -- Omnicom Group, Interpublic Group of Cos. and WPP Group -- were going to become the Only Three. While True North Communications and Young & Rubicam are also in the news, most of the recent acquisition activity has revolved around the aforementioned holding companies. Then along comes Snyder Communications.

Who? Many in the industry asked that question when Snyder last month gobbled up a well-regarded Boston ad agency, Arnold Communications, for $120 million in stock. Those who had to ask haven't been paying attention.

True, Snyder hasn't been a player in the advertising field. But it has been quite a healthy participant in the marketing world, building business in database and direct marketing and in product sampling. And, as every holding company CEO knows, marketers today are looking not just for advertising but for broader marketing communications solutions. With its acquisition of Arnold, Snyder is now poised to deliver many of those services to clients.

This isn't a knock against the Big Three giants, which, of course, have their hands in every field -- from advertising to direct marketing to public relations and healthcare marketing. But in a world increasingly marked by global consolidation, it's always nice to have a fresh face appear on the scene, offering another option for marketers and keeping the big guys on their toes.

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