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What about the clients?

Back in February, we praised Publicis and True North Communications for putting clients first as they planned the dissolution of their joint venture. Ten months later, unfortunately, the reverse is true.

In suing to block True North's acquisition of Bozell, Jacobs, Kenyon & Eckhardt, and subsequently launching a hostile attempt to take control of True North, Publicis appears to have tossed client considerations out the window.

In February, it was a critical letter from Publicis' most significant multinational client, Nestle, that helped trigger the agency partners' amicable divorce. This time, however, Publicis' plans were not deterred by a letter from S.C. Johnson & Son, the largest worldwide client of True North's Foote, Cone & Belding, threatening to put its account into review if Publicis' takeover bid succeeds.

While Publicis Chairman Maurice Levy has talked a lot about the need to "take into account what stockholders have to say," we've heard little said about taking the best interests of clients into account.

True North won a significant victory last week when it obtained a preliminary injunction blocking Publicis' takeover offer, which was subsequently withdrawn. But the war isn't over yet. On Dec. 10, Publicis said it would seek an emergency appeal and a stay, sending a clear signal it isn't giving up.

The longer this battle drags on, the more True North and Publicis will be forced to divert time, energy, money and other resources to the fight, further distracting both companies from their core businesses. And employees are surely spending more time perusing media accounts of the flap and gathering at water coolers, time that would be better spent helping solve clients' marketing challenges.

Publicis does need a partner to complete its worldwide network, allowing it to compete effectively in a consolidated global marketplace. But there's got to be a less disruptive way to achieve that goal. And one that better serves the needs of clients.

PBS' ad flap

The federal communications Commission staff is causing consternation in the public TV community by hauling Chicago's WTTW-TV on the carpet for airing "enhanced" underwriting credits that look and sound too much like a sales pitch. The upset is likely to continue until the FCC (with four new commissioners on board) takes a look and makes sense of the confusion.

This is one FCC members can't ignore since public TV's Public Broadcasting Service doesn't have the power to enforce rules about what corporations can do in their public TV messages.

The fracas may seem arcane to viewers of WTTW and other major- market public TV stations that actively offer :30s to reward corporate backers. A few may notice these spots normally don't carry comparative claims, calls to action or price info; they can carry 800-numbers, brand names and corporate logos, however. (In the current flap, WTTW concedes underwiting credits it aired for Zenith Electronics Corp. crossed the line by promoting particular products, but contends other spots cited as illegal by FCC were within today's rules.)

These quasi-ads in public TV are here to stay, but preserving distinctions between public TV and commercial TV is still important for public TV's future -- both as an entertainment medium and as an advertising medium. FCC should make those distinctions clear. If it does, we would expect corporations, which value their association with public TV programs and access to its audiences, will go

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