So Western and Initiative are to merge, finally ending months of nail-chewing speculation and bets on who will emerge as top dog.
Most significant among the changes at Eccleston Square, the Initiative HQ in Victoria that Western will now be squeezing into, is the decision to hand the management of the newly merged operation to Jerry Hill, the former chief of the ITV sales house TSMS, and Roy Jeans, Initiative's popular and capable managing director. There is no place directly in the agency for Mike Tunnicliffe, the managing director of Western. Instead, Tunnicliffe is expected to take on a bridging role between Initiative and the Lowe Group, managing what has always been a sensitive political relationship; the two sides are said to be wary of each other and not the best of corporate friends.
Jeans takes over as chief operating officer of the newly merged agency and Hill joins as chief executive. The agency's big enough for two. The new-look Initiative will boast billings of pounds 478 million, according to 1999 figures. That will slip it neatly into the top ten as the UK's third-largest media agency.
Beneath Hill and Jeans will sit a weighty (in size if not necessarily in top-flight talent) management board. Alongside the existing Initiative board members will now sit Gary Birtles, Western's Mr Vauxhall; Pru Parkinson, responsible for Tesco and (fingers crossed for the outcome of the current centralisation pitch) Weetabix; Tim Allnut, who looks after Airtours and Powergen; Danny Donovan, another Tesco-er; and the broadcast specialist Colm Feeney.
Initiative itself has been much depleted after a spate of timely departures over the summer, but the merged agency will nevertheless boast a 16-strong board and 185 staff. Existing Initiative board members include David Cuff in broadcast, Steve Cleak in international, and Marcus Whewell and Peter Barton, two recent recruits with bags of client experience (at Marks & Spencer and Procter & Gamble respectively).
For Jeans, though, this is about much more than size for size's sake.
'I really believe that as the industry consolidates into four or five clear buying points, great media buying can still make a real difference. But strategy, thinking, economectrics and how you apply research will be the real differentiators. Now we're putting together a whole range of services with our buying heritage at the core.'
The merger will clearly bring consistency in the Interpublic media offering; in every other market Initiative is its media brand. Two UK brands began to make less and less sense. The only remaining stumbling block to a full merger was conflicting car accounts: Initiative held PSA and Western has Vauxhall. But then Initiative lost PSA to BBJ earlier this year and Bob's your merger.
Some observers, though, predict that the merger will bring culture clashes.
One says: 'Initiative is full of nice, laidback people. It's like a firm of accountants. Western are more like second-hand car salesmen, much more aggressive.'
Jeans, not surprisingly, is keen to paint this as one big happy family.
'The culture of the two companies is broadly similar and both sets of clients are very enthusiastic about the opportunities of the merger.'
Clients, he says, are, after all, what's driving this whole deal, though he admits that client servicing is not something Initiative has always been highly skilled at. 'We're really focussing now on putting more resource into the client contact side of our business. There's absolutely nothing wrong with our product. But there's no point having a great product if you don't get the client interface right. That's something we're really going to be working hard at.'
Jeans, who joined Initiative in 1997 from Amra, is a likeable but driven character. Hill is a large personality, known for his ability but also for a hard and uncompromising management style which has put people's backs up on occasion. Adjectives used to describe him include 'bright', 'intellectual' and 'inspirational'. It will be interesting to see if Jeans' quiet determination and Hill's management style will be able to work together to make the new Initiative more than simply a bigger agency.