Editorial: Almost dry eyes as Ayer tale ends

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Go ahead. Shed a few tears for N.W. Ayer & Partners. It had a grand, 133-year run. Its place in advertising history is secure; its story is over. The Bcom3 Group brass, Ayer's most recent owners, no doubt had some regret at taking the Ayer name down. But we'd wager not much. Nor should they have. And there exist a few more venerable agency names that probably would have a hard time justifying their current existence. Their futures should be coolly evaluated as Ayer's eventually was.

Agency brands need attention and investment; not just cash, but substantial amounts of management commitment, top-of-the-industry creative skills and the energy, size and standing to compete for and win significant accounts. Take nothing from shrunken Ayer's final team, but that sort of investment just gradually slipped away.

Ayer lost control of its independence, and its fate, in the 1990s. Advertising Age ranked Ayer the No. 3 U.S. agency immediately after World War II. Strategic miscalculations and business problems sapped its strength in the 1980s, but it was still ranked No. 17 in 1994.

In 1996, by then under the control of a South Korean investor, Ayer was sold to MacManus Group. Three years later, Ayer's remaining Procter & Gamble Co. business moved to MacManus' D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles. For the year 2000, Ayer's U.S. gross income ranked it No. 94 on Ad Age's annual list.

An illustrious heritage cannot ensure a future for any agency in the here-and-now world of advertising. Holding companies such as Bcom3 (soon to be part of an even bigger Publicis Groupe mega-company) have pantries full of agency brands. There is an inevitable sorting out of those that have promise for the future from those that simply have a great past.

Ayer more than lived up to its promise in climbing to the top ranks of the ad business. Few agencies ever gain those heights. Fewer still manage to live on forever.

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