True North Communications has acquired Howard, Merrell & Partners, a Southeastern shop recognized for its creative work and top-drawer strategic research and account-planning capabilities.
"It was time to play on a bigger stage," said HM&P president Mac Merrell. "We needed a partner who gave us instant global reach, who really got it where our business model was concerned. It wasn't love at first sight; it was instant chemistry."
The agency, located in Raleigh, N.C., had 1999 billings of approximately $90 million. HM&P retains its name; it will operate autono mously, reporting to TN's Bozell Group in New York. Terms of the acquisition were not disclosed.
Gene Bartley, Bozell chairman and CEO, said he and TN chairman David Bell had been courting HM&P for the last 18 months.
Other suitors included three global advertising networks, sources said.
"To use a basketball analogy," said Bartley, "their best five players can stand on the floor with any five players anywhere in the country. They were sought after by everyone."
Over the last decade, the shop, led by Merrell, creative director Gary Knutson, account planner David Bryant and marketing analyst Bruce Hall, has been known for its highly sophisticated research units that use British account planning and traditional marketing analysis techniques.
"In a business sense, we can fully characterize the competitive environment in every meaningful way—in size, in movement, in the future and life cycle of product vis-à-vis the brand, what resonates with users and consumers," said Merrell. "This allows our clients to feel comfortable in taking the large leaps that are necessary to [developing] breakthrough creative work."
HM&P clients include SAS Institute, IBM, Kimberly-Clark Corp., Coors and Bristol-Myers Squibb.
There are no conflicts with either Bozell or other TN agencies, according to Bell.
"The thing that makes [HM&P] unique is the combination of creative-boutique freshness and strategic and sound management," said Bell.