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True North Communications watched $180 million in billings slip away this month, and that hurts. What hurts more, however, is what might've been.

The Chicago-based holding company missed a chance to inherit global billings for two separate clients-$550 million for Colgate Palmolive Co. was consolidated at Young & Rubicam and $225 million for Bayer AG was united at BBDO. While True North chalks it up to poor circumstances, it appears the holding company's size is partly to blame.

And as more marketers contemplate consolidation, some wonder whether two factors will stunt True North's growth: the lack of a second agency network to accompany Foote, Cone & Belding, and its relatively weak presence in key international markets.

True North Chairman Bruce Mason says the agency's geographical reach hasn't been a handicap. Great creative and investment in technology will keep True North growing, he maintains, as will acquisitions abroad, like the pending purchase of $71 million Ulka, Bombay.

Clearly, a second network might have saved True North in the Bayer review. When Bayer decided at the 11th hour to consolidate virtually all of its billings with one agency, True North was out of the running. Already handling S.C. Johnson Co.'s Raid brand, FCB couldn't take on Bayer's insecticide business, too. The agency kept the $30 million Bayer corporate account in the U.S., while losing $35 million in Alka-Seltzer Plus business.

"It's inevitable that the big marketers managing global businesses will have to consolidate," Mr. Mason said. Yet he said he still believes aligning with one agency is more the exception than the rule. "Typically multinationals like to have more than one so that if one agency stumbles, they have other resources to turn to," he said.

Analysts were disappointed by news of Colgate (a loss of more than $150 million in billings) and Bayer, but said they don't think True North should scurry to acquire a second network.

"It's a high priority and it's something they are working toward but I respect their discipline in the process," said Rita Spitz, an analyst with William Blair & Co., Chicago.

Of greater concern may be True North's stature abroad. While it ranked seventh in capitalized 1994 U.S. billings, True North was 13th worldwide, 10th in Latin America and 18th in the Asia/Pacific region. Total billings worldwide are $5.1 billion.

Recent acquisitions in China and India certainly will raise True North's ranking in Asia, but the loss of $40 million in Colgate billings in Latin America will hurt the company's position there, said Jim Dougherty, an analyst with Dean Witter Reynolds, New York.

And until True North resolves its dispute with French joint venture partner Publicis, analysts can't be certain of True North's stability in Europe, Mr. Mason said. "Analysts will say, `We like True North, we like TN Technologies, but they have a problem with their joint venture partner and until that's resolved, there's an element of risk,'*" he said.

True North owns 49% and Publicis 51% of the Publicis FCB Europe joint venture. Earlier this year, squabbling between the partners threatened the alliance-True North objected to Publicis' purchase of Groupe FCA, while Publicis objected to FCB's formation of holding company True North. The partners agreed to cease arbitration in July; they continue to work on their differences.

Despite his commitment to continue growing abroad, Mr. Mason said he thinks technology someday will make the model of the traditional global agency obsolete.

Toward that end, True North in June installed software meant to connect all creative offices worldwide. Mr. Mason said technology-more than a second network or boosted international presence-will give True North an edge in future reviews.

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