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NEW YORK- Ogilvy & Mather Direct Chairman-CEO Jerry Pickholz is preparing for retirement by stepping up the search for his successor at the world's largest direct marketing agency.

Mr. Pickholz, who has headed O&M Direct almost since it became a separate unit in 1977, confirmed he has held discussions with candidates for a top-level job, probably ceo, that would leave him as chairman during a transitional period.

"I guess anyone in this business at the age of 61 needs to give thought to his successor," he said last week. "I fully expect to keep the job I'm in until an orderly succession takes place."

Although candidates have been informally screened for the past two years, Mr. Pickholz said he has set no specific timetable.

Industry observers believe no other executive already at the agency is qualified to lead it. Mr. Pickholz is among the last of the first generation of direct marketing agency managers; many of his competitors have installed younger top executives who are perhaps more conversant with new technologies that promise to reshape the industry.

One candidate interviewed a year ago is Bob Perkins, the former head of Chiat/Day's Per kins/Butler direct marketing unit and now senior VP-marketing at Pizza Hut. Mr. Perkins couldn't be reached but is believed to be still in the running; Mr. Pickholz wouldn't comment.

Last week, the unit prepared for another generational change in its creative department. Joe Cupani was named executive creative director from senior VP-creative group director. He succeeds Stanley Winston, who remains vice chairman and chief creative officer of the worldwide agency.

O&M Direct has had problems in the past year, as some clients have defected and others have tightened their belts. And while worldwide billings grew in 1993 from 1992's $840 million, profit growth was harder to come by.

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