OPINION: Stuart Elliott in America

There's an annual college basketball tournament in the United States that begins with 64 teams, which play each other until only four are left, the so-called Final Four.

(Of course, it's typical American hyperbole. They actually are not the Final Four in that the tournament doesn't end there; they play each other until only one is left.)

Anyway, as of last week, though there may not be a Final Four in advertising, there certainly is a Big Four, as the Publicis Groupe completed its acquisition of the Bcom3 Group, creating the world's fourth-largest agency company in revenues and billings behind only WPP, Interpublic and Omnicom.

And just as there's little finality in the Final Four, the acquisition marks only the beginning of the tasks ahead for Maurice Levy, the chairman and chief executive of the new and improved Publicis. Levy has accomplished something few if any of his rivals had predicted he would or could: increase the size and scope of Publicis to leapfrog its peers and start closing in on the (former) Big Three.

But Levy cannot rest on his laurels, and anyone who knows him knows there is no chance such a slothful thought crossed his mind as he crossed the "Ts" and dotted the "Is" in signing the papers to close the mega-deal. Now comes what may be the toughest part, even tougher than wooing Bcom3's proud managers such as Roger Haupt to relinquish their independence while at the same time persuading Japan's Dentsu to invest enough yen for a 15 per cent stake in the merged Publicis and two new members on the Publicis supervisory board.

The Herculean work ahead is the combination, amalgamation and rationalisation of the myriad agencies now under the Publicis banner, with 37,000 employees in 228 cities in 109 countries. For instance, until last week, WPP boasted the most worldwide networks devoted to traditional advertising of any agency company - four, with Ogilvy & Mather, Red Cell, J. Walter Thompson and Young & Rubicam. Levy has trumped Sir Martin Sorrell with five, count 'em, five; three are from the old Publicis - Fallon, Publicis and Saatchi & Saatchi - and two are inherited from Bcom3, Leo Burnett and D'Arcy.

Publicis has a full house in customer relationship marketing, too, with five brands there. In healthcare communications, there are three, as there are in public relations and interactive marketing. In media services, there are "only" two operations, Starcom MediaVest and Zenith Optimedia, but each has separate brands. And if matters weren't muddled enough, Zenith Optimedia is co-owned with Cordiant.

How Levy orchestrates the streamlining of the Publicis portfolio will ultimately determine the success or failure of stretching to simultaneously buy out Bcom3 while bringing in Dentsu.

For example, D'Arcy, down on its luck lately after the loss of important clients such as Mars, is widely perceived as one brand that is on its way to oblivion, much as General Motors is closing Oldsmobile in order to strengthen its remaining divisions. D'Arcy may perhaps be combined with Burnett, or merged with Fallon to jump start Pat Fallon's ambitious international expansion plans.

What will happen? Watch this space. Those wishing to closely track how Levy will dispatch all of his duplicate and triplicate service offerings may want to buy the kind of scorecards they sell at basketball tournaments.

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