At Advertising Age, we knew in our bones the story we were breaking on April 28, 1986, would change the business.
It was thanks to some super hold-the-presses work by our agency reporter at the time, Stewart Alter, that we were able to identify the three agencies creating what our headline called the "Biggest global agency." The hardest part: finding out that last-third-name.
We knew Doyle Dane Bernbach and Needham Harper Worldwide were about to merge, but rumors about a third agency had us scrambling. We had to nail it by Friday evening. After numerous calls, with editors hovering, our reporter put down his phone and said quietly, "It's BBDO." The story was written.
On Sunday, April 27, BBDO President-CEO Allen Rosenshine phoned me-knowing we printed on Friday night and thinking we couldn't run anything Monday based on his call-to schedule a time for a meeting to disclose details of a coming deal, so we would have the story for May 5. What he didn't realize was that with his call, he was confirming to me, as Ad Age editor, our story. Whew!
Understand that all reporters-and editors-experience a sweaty, nagging "What if we're wrong?" fear when their paper is about to break a story before its time. Mr. Rosenshine's reward for unintentionally reassuring me was my having to tell him that we'd be carrying the story the next day.
In recalling events that began swirling in that April of 1986, the rumors come to mind. After what was called the Big Bang, London rumors had it that Maurice and Charles Saatchi, who had also wooed DDB, were so upset about losing out they were preparing to offer that agency a better deal.
THE SAATCHI FACTOR
Was a hostile takeover in the cards? No, but the Saatchis could not be expected to sit still, not after they had spent a fortune to acquire agencies and collateral service companies around the world, constantly preaching the value and importance of one-stop global reach for global advertisers.
They were moving beyond DDB, however. The May 5 Ad Age headline said: "Bates OKs Saatchi talks." There, take that, Allen Rosenshine and Keith Reinhard. Saatchi was catapulting itself into "world's largest" status simply by throwing money-something like $500 million-at Ted Bates Worldwide, with billings of $3.1 billion.
That deal would create an agency group billing $7.5 billion, half again larger than the BBDO-DDB-Needham combo, assuming, as Ad Age put it, there were "no client departures due to conflicts."
When we finally met with Mr. Rosenshine, Needham Chairman-CEO Mr. Reinhard and DDB President-CEO Barry Loughrane, we learned how the deal jelled.
In West Germany one day a year earlier, Willi Schalk, president of BBDO's International Group, ran into Juergen Knauss, Needham's Munich-based chief. They spoke of ways to strengthen international offices, and Mr. Knauss encouraged BBDO's Mr. Schalk to check with Needham's Mr. Reinhard. The ball was passed to the simpatico Mr. Rosenshine, and a meeting with Mr. Reinhard took place at the Stanhope Hotel in Manhattan.
Mr. Rosenshine didn't know Mr. Reinhard had been holding exploratory talks with DDB for nearly a year. And Mr. Reinhard didn't know BBDO's Mr. Schalk was by then also talking to DDB.
By February 1986, Mr. Schalk, having learned of the Needham-DDB talks, suggested to his boss that, hey, let's go ahead and add DDB to the equation.
On March 1, the three agencies met at Manhattan's Lotos Club. All went well and they decided secrecy was essential; the fear was the Saatchis could upset everything if they knew. So the dealmakers booked different rooms under different names at the Helmsley Palace, across from the DDB offices, and when they met, they would take pains to leave separately.
By April 17, the Needham board was approving the DDB-Needham merger at a meeting in Chicago's Ritz-Carlton. Then rumors began to swirl and DDB stock began to rise; trading in DDB stock was suspended on April 22. Rumors of the third agency began to circulate the week of April 21.
What none of us knew at the time was that a press conference had been scheduled for late in the day on Friday, April 25. But last-minute hitches and a flurry of squabbling among some shareholders forced a postponement.
By then, of course, our readers-and the world-had read all about the Big Bang. And, in one form or another, they've been reading about it ever since.