PERSPECTIVE: Holding companies reflect the personal traits of their heads

So, having just repaired damaged relationships after the Top 300 School Reports, this week we junk some familiar elements, devote seven pages to comparing the giant agency groups in devious detail, and lose virtually every friend in high places we ever had. Fun - it's a dangerous concept.

First, a few words on the rationale behind the report (Sizing up the Supergroups, p15). While much is written about these groups in isolation, we believe no magazine has set out to compare them in this way or in such detail. With the exception of Publicis and Dentsu who sell advertising space as well as buying it, the global holding companies all have similar business mixes and impressive client lists, so their growth should be similar. But, of course, it's not. The operating strategies of the groups may be broadly similar, but operating realities and controls vary wildly, as do the quality and breadth of coverage of key disciplines.

This is not a scientific report, so we have included a vox pop (which is necessarily anonymous, but screened for self-interest) reflecting the perception of these companies among agency peers and Wall Street and City players. These analysts control the important stock psychology side of the business and their views lead investors to consider loss-making Grey and Havas, when compared with the big four, as the industry's hospital cases.

What emerges from this survey is the sense of a showdown among the four biggest global communications groups - Omnicom, Interpublic, WPP and Publicis, who together will soak up more than half the industry's revenue in 2002.

John Wren at Omnicom, John Dooner at Interpublic, Sir Martin Sorrell at WPP and Maurice Levy at Publicis ... consider your perceptions of these individuals, consider how they differ in outlook, temperament and background, then consider the companies themselves.

It's apparent that even in these days when the industry is supposed to have lost its appeal for the individualist, even the communications leviathans bear the hallmarks of the personalities of their leaders. WPP appears to place most emphasis on central financial controls, reflecting Sorrell's CV and skills as a financial practitioner.

John Wren managed roller-skating rinks, sold T-shirts and worked for Arthur Andersen before arriving on Madison Avenue in 1984: the diversity of his CV mirrors the disparate services offered by Omnicom, which derives 56 per cent of its revenue from businesses other than advertising, the largest percentage of the big four.

Whether the groups continue to thrive depends on how effectively each chief executive runs his empire as the industry suffers its worst recession in memory. But the overall message is that Omnicom's modus operandi works best. In other words, fiscal controls balanced with autonomy for those who do the creative work and run the agencies.

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