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
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
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
'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
'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
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
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
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.