THE KINGS OF MADISON AVENUE: Bruce Mason - He rode out of the midwest and did battle with his French arch-rival, Maurice Levy. And True North's chairman lived to tell the tale to John Tylee

Bruce Mason, True North's chairman, is a King of Madison Avenue by

proxy. A Chicagoan by style and inclination, his spat with his Publicis

counterpart, Maurice Levy - the two are enemies in the ad industry's

biggest ever global imbroglio - has turned him into one of America's

most written-about agency group chiefs.

It's a situation that sits ill with him, highlighting as it does the

huge contrast between himself and Levy, the well-groomed gallic


Levy wears his ambition like a badge and has shown a willingness to

gamble publicly and expensively to fulfil it.

Mason couldn't be more different. The epitomy of the plain-spoken and

unflashy midwesterner, he prefers to work free of the publicity that

plagued him for most of last year and is reluctant to be cast in the

role of Levy's nemesis.

Ask him if he and his fellow protagonist were locked in mutual loathing

- as is widely believed - and he is eager to depersonalise their


'I never took it to heart, it was always just business. Maurice is a

very capable person and I've always had a lot of respect for him. He was

just looking out for his shareholders' interests and so was I.'

To wander with Mason through the wreckage of True North's global

partnership with Publicis, though, is to be reminded of the comedian who

remarked that he'd only ever had one row with his wife. The trouble was

it began the day they got married.

Much the same could be said of the relationship between the successful

but unworldly US groom and his status-seeking French bride. The big

difference is that as the groom, reeling from the effects of an ugly

divorce, prepared to tie the knot again, his first wife turned up at the

altar offering to give the marriage another go.

In the end Levy overplayed his hand. His attempted coup de theatre when

he hoped to scupper True North's dollars 440 million takeover of Bozell

foundered against the might of the US courts.

Nor did he fully appreciate the bonds between US agency chiefs and their

clients. William Perez, chief executive of S C Johnson, one of the

biggest global clients of True North's FCB subsidiary, had already come

to Mason's aid when a boardroom coup threatened to oust him two years


When Perez warned he might take more than dollars 400 million worth of

business elsewhere should the French gain control of True North, it was

clear the game was up. 'Clients have to be your friends,' Mason remarks,

eschewing any suggestion that the intervention has left FCB heavily in

S. C. Johnson's debt. 'That's not the company's style,' he claims. 'It

was only looking after its own interests.'

What's clear is that by taking over Bozell, creating the world's sixth

largest global network with billings of dollars 12 billion, True North

has found the soulmate that Publicis could never have been. Mason talks

en-thusiastically about Bozell's boss, Chuck Peebler, aged 61 and a

fellow midwesterner - 'a bullshit-free straight talker who gets things

done' - and of his long-time friend, David Bell, chairman of Bozell


The pair joined Leo Burnett in Chicago on the same day 30 years ago and

shared a desk in the media research department.

Although Mason is unlikely to say as much, the fact that Bozell has its

roots in the US is crucial. Does it mean the advertising divide between

the US and Europe has proved to be unbridgeable? No, although there does

seem to be a particular problem with the French. Is it pride?

Arrogance perhaps? Mason merely smiles and shrugs, preferring you to say

it rather than he. 'Our ideas of partnership are different,' he


'It's not to say one is right and the other is wrong. Only that they're

not compatible.'

The origins of the ill-starred marriage go back to the late 80s. While

its agency peers were going global, FCB's world continued to revolve

around its Chicago heartland. For competition it rarely looked beyond

New York and San Francisco. With much good domestic business to be had -

and few truly international clients - there was little incentive to

broaden its horizons.

'Even those international clients we had put their non-US business with

other roster agencies,' an FCB senior manager recalls. 'We weren't

saying to them, 'Hey, we'd like to do that.' We had to come from a long

way behind.'

Mason says: 'Most agencies' global presence is driven by a single large

client. We didn't have one at the time so it wasn't critical. The

emergence and importance of global business changed all that.'

With hindsight, the deal reached between Levy and Norman Brown, Mason's

predecessor, looks hasty and ill-conceived. Today, Mason acknowledges

that, because neither partner had a controlling interest, the

partnership was fatally flawed from its inception.

On paper it seemed to be a neat arrangement. FCB, with no strong

presence in a burgeoning European market, agreed to assimilate its

operations with Publicis. Publicis, with no capability beyond Europe,

allowed FCB to service its business in all other markets.

Within only four months matters began to go seriously awry. Even at the

first official board meeting words were exchanged about the allocation

of costs involving the pooled networks outside France. The tone was set

for the future relationship. 'That was the start of the problems and

they never ceased,' Mason recalls. 'It was a tortured ten years.'

A perpetual undercurrent of what he claims were concerns by FCB clients

about standards of service within the Publicis-controlled European joint

venture didn't help. And when Publicis acquired New York's Bloom agency

four years ago, a move which True North interpreted as turning its ally

into a competitor, it was obvious the point of no return had been


Mason was deeply offended over what he continues to regard as an act of

bad faith. 'Publicis gave us very little justification for what it had

done, saying it was only protecting its interests. It was a flagrant

breach of our agreement and certainly wasn't our idea of a


The bad blood persisted throughout last year's divorce. Levy made little

secret of what he regarded as True North's lack of ambition.

Nevertheless, his audacious attempt to exploit Publicis's position as

True North's largest shareholder to destroy the Bozell deal, and create

a global network of his own by taking over his former partner, hit Mason

and his board like a thunderbolt.

Forced to confront what was effectively a hostile bid, True North began

showing its claws. Institutional investors were lobbied, lawyers drafted

in and the PR machine cranked up. It was a cathartic experience, not

least, says Mason, because it ran counter to True North's publicity-shy

culture. 'We're midwestern in our orientation. It's not in our nature to

seek the headlines.'

But headlines a-plenty there were, as well as an expensive legal battle

which ping-ponged between courts in Illinois and Delaware. Mason won't

divulge what True North paid in lawyers' fees to see off Levy but is

angered by the Frenchman's questioning of the impartiality of the US

legal system.

'Coming from somebody who wants to continue doing business in the US,

they were reckless allegations. The fact is that none of the courts'

decisions were even close.'

Did he ever have the slightest twinge of doubt that Levy could be


'No. His bid was weak and highly conditional. The investment community

never took it seriously. What's more, our senior staff had seen at first

hand the way Publicis operated and many would have left rather than work

for the French.'

Rectitude has played an important part in Mason's upbringing and

manifests itself in a straightforward style that rates him highly with

his managers.

'Bruce is open, honest and approachable,' one remarks. 'He doesn't try

to hide behind corporate secrecy.'

Mason is 58, the eldest of seven children to a middle-class Roman

Catholic family of Scottish extraction. His father headed the sales

force at Quaker Oats.

Having gained a degree in philosophy, he was exposed to the ad business

for the first time at the University of Chicago graduate school of

business - 'I thought the agency business looked like fun'. A job offer

from Burnetts ensued but the draft intervened and he ended a two-year

stint in the US Army as a tank commander based at Colorado and the

Army's training centre in the Mojave desert.

Military service gave him the opportunity to cut his managerial


'I ran a company of 200 men, most of whom were older than me. It was a

superb way to learn how to manage people.'

His advertising philosophy was defined at Burnetts. Leo himself was

still around and Mason has never forgotten the old man's speech to the

agency's annual meeting at which he declared that if the agency ever

fell under the control of 'businesspeople and number crunchers' he would

return from the grave, rip his name off the door and 'throw all the

apples down the garbage shoot'.

'It was a very moving speech which has influenced my own management

style,' Mason declares. 'Leo always put clients first and believed in

the power of the creative idea. It was on those simple tenets that he

grew an agency through the depths of the Depression.'

Will the combined force of True North and Bozell achieve similar


Levy says no and there are those who believe he has a point when he

claims that the combined group remains too US-orientated and lacks

global reach.

Mason will have none of it, accusing Levy of mounting an exercise in

'classic disinformation'. Not only is FCB number one in the US, he

points out, but it has a presence in 69 countries and has top ten status

throughout Latin America and in the Asia Pacific region. What's more, it

has clients of the calibre of S. C. Johnson and Kimberly-Clark to bind

it together.

All that's true, of course, although FCB still has lots to do in Europe

aligning the agencies gained as part of the divorce settlement with its

newly acquired but rather threadbare Wilkens network. Meanwhile, the

immediate task is to build margins which Mason expects to be in the

region of 8 or 9 per cent this year but still significantly short of the

12 per cent target.

Also, Bozell's attractiveness to True North is heavily dependent on

sustaining a close relationship with Chrysler. FCB has already had to

sacrifice the dollars 200 million account of the Ford-owned Mazda in the

US - along with almost 200 jobs on its account team - to avoid conflict

with the larger Chrysler assignments, including Jeep, held by its new


It all begs the question of whether True North will have to buy


Mason says that any further acquisitions are most likely to be selective

and that major takeovers will be opportunistic rather than of


The Bates network, perhaps? 'We'd look at it'. What about turning the

tables on Publicis itself? 'You could never say never but, given the

acrimony between us, I doubt it.'

A more likely target seems to be he UK-based Shandwick International,

the world's largest PR agency, in which True North has a 4 per cent


'Something may come of it in the right circumstances,' Mason says.

Not that his future plans depend heavily on acquisition. Quite the


He surfs the Net with an enthusiasm rare in his generation and is

convinced True North can steal a march on WPP, Omnicom and Interpublic

through its embrace of technology-driven change.

True North has not only been developing a new-media company but has

applied the new technology to itself, with bespoke Internet products

that are being rolled out globally. It is online with text and data as

well as audio and high-resolution video.

Mason believes such developments are hastening the day when agency

networks will mirror global clients that are restructuring with

'hub-and-spoke' systems based in perhaps 20 countries.

'The concept of having a full-service agency everywhere will become

obsolete within two or three years,' he predicts. 'As soon as agencies

are able to collaborate online globally, organisational structure begins

to change. And we're very close to it. The only constraint is linking

the technologies.'

Whether or not Mason will still be there when it happens remains to be

seen. His contract expires when he reaches 60 and although he betrays

all the symptoms of a workaholic - up at 5.30am, rarely home before late

evening - the likelihood is he will leave to indulge his passion for

snowmobiles and helicopters. 'I don't feel I need the job to define who

I am,' he insists.

Certainly, the events of last year show little sign of weighing heavily

on Mason's shoulders. 'I've found them energising. I'm very easily

motivated and I hate to lose.' Just as well, really.

- This interview appeared in March 1998. Bruce Mason has retired.


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