The IPG/Octagon Debacle: Time to Rethink the Ad Biz

On Saturday, Oct. 19, the front page of the business section of The New York Times featured an article about Interpublic Group and Octagon Motor Sports, headlined, “Ad Company Makes Bad Bet on Auto Races.” My mind immediately raced back about 40 years to announcements in the ad column of the same newspaper about another agency investing outside its basic business. Doyle Dane Bernbach, the leading creative shop of the day, decided that since its clients were busy diversifying, it should follow suit. First there was an investment in a sailboat company, then a major investment in George Jensen retail stores. Both investments were big mistakes.

What did Bill Bernbach, Mac Dane or Ned Doyle know about making sailboats? Perhaps they thought that their wives could have fun buying china or glassware for George Jensen? I could ask the same question of the wisdom of IPG getting involved in auto racing. Frank Lowe, another great creative mind, convinced management that owning Octagon Motor Sports would add to the bottom line.

Of course, this kind of corporate thinking didn’t start until agencies decided it was time to go public. I recall a close adviser to Bill Bernbach telling him that by going public, the agency would probably lose its creative luster. Bill was perplexed, and asked why. The response was, “Now, at the end of every quarter, your focus will be on sales and profit, not on the creative product. The market will demand a kind of reporting that you, Mac and Ned are not used to.” How prophetic.

I am beginning to wonder what happens to the decision-making process when you become a public company. Does all of the entrepreneurial thinking of ad agency executives go out the window? For example, a number of years ago a major agency holding company placed a well-known banker at the head of one of its major divisions. The banker had great experience in putting together agency deals, and was very well liked in the industry, but he had never run an agency.

He knew numbers and he knew how to make deals, but that does not qualify him to run a major agency operation. Yet I am sure that more than one executive put his and her stamp of approval on his selection.

With the demise of names like “D’Arcy” and “Benton & Bowles,” I think it’s time to rethink the agency business. Are we going to be a business focused on “the quarterly statement,” or a business focused on what clients hire us to do? Are we going to be a business looking around for the next investment opportunity, or a business concentrating on the next big idea?

Harold Levine


Levine, Huntley, Schmidt and Beaver

New York

New Orleans: Exotic Ad Locale Close to Home

Noreen O’Leary’s article “Outward Bound” [Creative, Oct. 14] indulged my dream of New Orleans as a home for world-class advertising, somewhere between Portland and Reykjavik. We share Amsterdam’s tolerance, not to mention canals. We have long been a magnet for writers, musicians, painters and other free thinkers. Like Prague, Hamburg, Bombay and Amsterdam, New Orleans offers the “experience money can’t buy: creative excitement in an upbeat work atmosphere.”

Admittedly, you could hardly describe the clients here as open-minded, but New York is just over two hours by plane. You can’t get from Santa Monica to Anaheim in two hours.

John Hegarty and Tim Delaney have the priority right. But talent and the right cultural environment, now that’s a dream worthy of Hogshead-ian pursuit.

Robbie Vitrano

Co-founder/creative director


New Orleans and New York