Just our luck to interview big John Wren a matter of weeks before he decides to make advertising history by winning the biggest account move ever - the Chrysler Group's dollars 1.8 billion consolidation into the Omnicom Group and out of True North Communications.
Until that point, Omnicom was comfortably the world's largest advertising group (the post-Young &Rubicam WPP can also lay claim to this particular boast but more on this knotty point later), owing its top ranking to an aggressive acquisition campaign designed to strengthen its position worldwide. Now he has demonstrated that Omnicom is capable of growing organically as much as by acquisition. What on earth has he got left to prove?
The answer, of course, is lots. Having been the first of the big three advertising groups to take marketing services and digital marketing seriously, he has to prove that he can sort out the group's media issues, spot the next big thing and capitalise on it to shareholders' advantage. And, having won DaimlerChrysler in a pitch that even the client admitted was all about price, he has to prove that the reported meagre commission rate makes financial sense.
Omnicom's fabled creative positioning has always been its differentiating factor. While the three communications groups that have emerged as the leading global players are about the same size - between dollars 5 billion and dollars 6 billion in gross income according to 1999 figures - and led by relatively young figures - Wren is 48, WPP's Sir Martin Sorrell is 55, Interpublic's chief executive elect John Dooner is 52 - Omnicom has managed to retain a creative lustre that the other two would kill for.
While everyone knows that it's a numbers game at the holding company level, Omnicom has managed to avoid the slur of becoming fiscally driven at the expense of quality. In Wren's view, this dates back to the roots of a group that was created in 1986 to combine three ad agencies into a single entity capable of competing in the world market. 'You can't decide to add creativity to an already successful business, it has to be at the core of the equation,' he says.
With his three agency networks - BBDO Worldwide, DDB Worldwide and TBWA - enjoying such similar positioning, you could question whether a network positioned with efficacy and global account handling at its core would be a valid addition to Omnicom. A McCann-Erickson, say. 'There would be room for that,' he muses. 'But it couldn't just be a factory, it would have to service a niche that the others don't get called to. There are lots of big businesses, especially in packaged goods, that don't require creative agencies as much as the efficient, by-the-numbers kind of agencies. But we haven't given up hope that our creative agencies can't get more of those clients.'
Even TBWA, where the chairman and worldwide creative director, Lee Clow, has said he would never work for Procter & Gamble? Or, indeed, for any client with formulaic ideas on how you market and how you advertise. 'I would not try to use my influence to get people to do things they don't want to do, it would only end in tears. If P&G ever came to Omnicom and said we would hire you if you could change TBWA's mind, we would probably pass because we're playing a very long game and that's just not how we do things. But in any case P&G would only be attracted to TBWA if TBWA was flirting back,' he concludes.
Has he ever made a duff acquisition? 'Nothing of any importance, a few little snippets like the pieces we bought out of Maxwell's empire. If I could go back seven years I probably would have saved that dollars 15 million and ploughed it into something else. But if all my mistakes are at that level, where I can window dress them, I'll be happy.'
What of media? Last time Campaign interviewed Wren, media was Bruce Crawford's bag. Wren's predecessor moved upstairs in 1997 (not strictly true: he still has the biggest office in Omnicom's Madison Avenue HQ) allowing Wren to take over as chief executive. Crawford became the chairman of the Omnicom board but held on to media; now Wren is in the driving seat on that issue too. It is the principal issue that the darling of Wall Street needs to address when it is compared with WPP and, to a lesser extent, Interpublic: Omnicom has not yet made the most of its media muscle.
Omnicom has two global media networks. OMD is buying-focused and fully owned by the group's three competing advertising networks. PHD, created in March this year and headed by David Pattison, is the home of the group's independent media agencies including New PHD in the UK and Creative Media in the US. PHD is about strategic thinking rather than buying clout. At OMD, unlike WPP's MindShare, strategic media planning continues to reside in the three agencies.
To address the issue, Wren has decided to move Daryl Simm, the former media supremo at P&G worldwide and chief executive of OMD. He will sit within Omnicom and be responsible for both media brands and the search is on for a worldwide chief executive for OMD. One insider, while admitting that Simm was faced with an impossible task, refers to the need for someone who will establish himself as a stronger leader of the three networks.
'Every discussion about opening up an OMD office ended up in huge arguments. This summer the agencies, and Wren, signed up to a binding agreement.' In the uncompromising words of another observer with direct knowledge of the search, the new OMD chief will need to be 'an American headbasher who will make the ad agencies get in line'.
That glib quote reveals an essential truth about the nature of Omnicom.
Interestingly, Wren refers to the group as a 'family', while WPP and Interpublic are invariably referred to by their leaders in more warlike terms, such as 'tribe'. Omnicom's policy of allowing operating companies, within tight financial parameters, to control their own destiny, means that sometimes it will not take on a fight. So, while it has been increasingly obvious that OMD has been low profile for its size and that the agencies that 'own' it needed to be encouraged to toe the line - until now - it was hoped that consensus would win the day.
Asked to name the least pleasant aspect of his job, Wren hints at this issue: 'I guess every executive has a classic weakness. Probably the worst thing is facing an issue in an operating unit where something is amiss and I know it's wrong and the head of the unit knows it too but that person isn't going to fix it because it's his blind spot. So getting at the thing that needs doing without doing it for them - which at one level they would like you to do, although they don't like the implications of that at all - that has to be the trickiest thing.'
He adds: 'Anyone who sits in this seat and tells you that they are in control of a traditional agency is lying to you. Ownership isn't control: influence and respect are control.'
On the future of the media agency scene, Wren predicts little change over the next three years: 'The big players will be the same. OMD, MindShare, whatever IPG becomes, Carat.' Turning, however, to the online world, he predicts emphatically that someone will break through the clutter: 'If you do the sums properly, you find that right now there are three groups with sizeable chunks of online spending. You've got MindShare, because of IBM; Agency. com, and Organic, in which we own an interest. All three, or one of them, will emerge at some point.'
Turning to this future in which there are no more then six or seven players of any size when you go through both categories, is there any room for the likes of , say, Zenith, CIA or, indeed, PHD?
'Perhaps CIA or PHD will find a partner to team up with, but others will disappear because they are not competitive and there's not a lot they can do to grow as a worldwide player.'
Does he have any ambitions in media ownership? 'No, not really. I don't see it as part of our mission and, even for those who have it as part of their mission, I don't see them making it a sizeable part of their company and maintaining credibility. Basically, what we are selling is ideas and trust and we have to remain impartial.'
Wren, who rose to fame on his part in the creation of DAS, Omnicom's collection of marketing services brands, has very strong views on the value of vertical integration. The future for Omnicom's advertising networks seems clear: in a world where clients are asking for closer integration, those networks will be aligned more closely with marketing services disciplines: 'As we grow, each network has to offer a full menu of customer relationship marketing, direct marketing, sales promotion, direct marketing and interactive consultancy. The reality is that our advertising groups won't be organised in the way they are now, they'll be holistic, media-neutral.'
Why does this make sense from a shareholder perspective? 'It has nothing to do with that, it's about client service, recognising that broadcast TV is an element of the world but that the world is no longer static, definitions of creativity have changed. The environment that David Abbott and Phil Dusenberry of BBDO created has to be respected but there's no way in Christ that that's it.'
Where three years ago the talk was all of marketing services, now everything depends on what happens in the interactive world. If the rate of change is as dramatic as over the past five years, we had all better watch out.
Within DAS, for example, there are around 105 companies, representing some 42 per cent of Omnicom's total revenue with pure agency and media accounting for roughly 58 per cent. Five years ago, the figures would have been 35 per cent and 65 per cent respectively. And five years from now? 'It will moderate, marketing services will continue to grow faster than advertising for the next five years but everything depends on what happens in the interactive world.'
At this point, Omnicom has about 35 standalone properties within Communicade, its digital unit. Eight are public, the rest are private (for now) and then there are a number of digital divisions embedded within what Wren calls the 'traditional companies'. By any standards, Omnicom has been fast, aggressive and successful in its digital strategy, ever since Wren started it all off back in 1996 by buying minority stakes in six of the brightest US online consultancies. One or two - Razorfish and Agency.com - have been roaring successes. Think New Ideas went sideways early and was sold on to AnswerThink. Wren wryly wishes all his failures could be so bad: 'We made about 400 per cent return on our investment and that was the only one of my original purchases that didn't make it to the finish line. They went public first and too soon.'
What of size? Following WPP's purchase of Y&R, the year-end figures may well show Sorrell back on top again and, like it or not, investors judge such groups in part by their relative sizes. Unfortunately, many of Wren's liveliest observations on this topic were off the record - or, tantalisingly, retracted from the record as soon as he uttered them. What escapes the editing is that the long game is all about competing on quality. 'Big is not a strategy,' he concludes. 'Big is the result of a strategy. My view on this issue is that we get judged once a year (the Advertising Age agency report each April is the acid test for advertising's richest) and last year I was still the biggest.'
Everyone wants to hear what Wren has in mind as the next big thing. Does the architect of Omnicom's below-the-line and digital strategies have anything else up his sleeve? 'I can't tell you,' he laughs. 'You better believe that I have it though.' Who would dare dispute it?