OPINION: Stuart Elliott in America

"Playing the Equitable Center Auditorium" doesn't have the same ring to it as "playing the Palace", as in New York's famed Palace Theater. But it made no difference to David Bell, the new chairman-CEO of the struggling Interpublic Group of Companies, who put on an appealing performance last week almost as Palace-worthy as any boffo turn by Bob Hope, George Burns or Al Jolson.

Bell presided over his first annual meeting of Interpublic on 20 May at the embattled agency company's long-time site for the gatherings, the auditorium in the Equitable insurance skyscraper. It was also the first time that morose Interpublic shareholders had the opportunity to complain to top brass about the dismal results since the corporate meltdown began last August.

Kvetch they did, decrying the lucrative retirement package awarded to John J Dooner Jr, Bell's predecessor, who was demoted in February in the wake of the myriad financial and operational difficulties that at some moments seemed to have jeopardised Interpublic's survival. There were also complaints about pricey bonuses awarded to many senior managers before accounting irregularities forced a $181.3 million restatement of earnings and prompted a formal investigation by the federal Securities and Exchange Commission.

But those gripes seemed anti-climactic because they came after Bell shrewdly pre-empted a good deal of stockholders angst. How? By disclosing during remarks scheduled before the Q&A period that management's long-term incentive cash-award programme would be cancelled for 2002-2004 and that executives past and present would relinquish more than 1.2 million stock options granted during headier times.

Pledging to "lead by example", Bell began the Great IPG Giveback, as an eager employee of an Interpublic below-the-line agency might christen it, by relinquishing 210,900 options, adding that 500,000 would come "from John Dooner alone".

Multiplying the benefits of the beau geste, the options are earmarked for deserving lower-level employees at Interpublic operating units, to help keep and draw "world-class talent".

Six other current and former leaders, including Philip H Geier Jr, Jerry Judge and Brendan Ryan, agreed before the meeting to kick back options along with Bell and Dooner. They were joined afterwards by Sean F Orr, the CFO, and at least one more executive clambered aboard the bandwagon the next day.

Others will go along for the ride, eager to get with the programme promulgated by the new CEO or reluctant to be perceived as indifferent to his Clintonesque "I feel your pain" shareholder initiative. Perhaps Interpublic could erect a tote board in the lobby of its Manhattan headquarters, similar to those used for fundraising telethons, to keep a running tally of all the donated options.

Snarky as those comments might be, the meeting has to be deemed a hit for Bell - if not a home run, as we say in our baseball-crazy country, then at least a solid double. Standing alone on the auditorium stage, he effectively delivered a well-crafted speech that made clear "the path to recovery": fix the fiscal flaws, keep the clients satisfied and grow again, but organically instead of by buying earnings through deal-making. "The upside for Interpublic is far greater than for any competitor," Bell promised, because they've already reaped the rewards of organic growth.

Or to paraphrase that Palace-player Al Jolson: "You ain't seen nothin' yet."

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