Omnicom Blocks Merkley Exits

Three partners at Merkley Newman Harty & Partners nearly left last week for senior roles at Grey, but Merkley parent Omnicom Group refused to release them from their contracts, said sources.

Andy Hirsch, an executive creative director at Merkley, would have become president of Grey’s New York office, reporting to current president Steve Blamer, who was to become CEO, said sources. Alex Gellert, co-managing director at Merkley, would have steered client services, and Randy Saitta, another ecd, would have filled the top creative post, sources said.

Instead, the trio most closely associated with Merkley’s Mercedes-Benz business will stay at the New York shop, with the promise of what they sought at Grey: the opportunity to shape and lead the agency, sources said. And in the process, old Merkley, as embodied by president and co-founder Steve Harty, is giving way to a new guard that joined only two years ago. This will be done, however, without changes in titles or even raises, sources said.

On Friday, Harty said he was leaving the shop, effective Oct. 1. There are no plans to name a successor. “We have put in place an outstanding team,” said Harty, 49, in a statement. “It’s now time to give other folks a turn at the helm.”

His departure will reduce the number of partners to six; those who remain, including Gellert, Saitta and Hirsch, are expected to get greater responsibility. Sources said disagreement at times among the partners about agency strategy and direction spurred the trio to look elsewhere.

Omnicom execs were said to have had a strong hand in the outcome–a nod to the significance of Mercedes, whose arrival at Merkley in 1999 set off a legal battle between The Interpublic Group of Cos., parent of former agency Lowe & Partners, and Marvin Sloves, former chairman of Lowe. IPG sued Sloves, accusing him of tortuously interfering with the $125 million account, thereby causing the shift. But a panel of arbitrators dismissed nearly all of IPG’s claims, and the case was settled out of court.

Sources stressed that this was an altogether different story.

“These three wanted to be able to leave without causing any damage to Merkley, so they went to Omni-com to discuss how best to handle their departure,” said Rick Kurnit, a partner at law firm Frankfurt Garbus Kurnit Klein & Selz in New York, which represents Merkley. “Omnicom’s response was that rather than having them go, it would respond to the problems within Merkley.”