Bethesda, Maryland is a long way from Madison Avenue. It’s Blair
Witch country, where mustachioed men in conservative suits appear to be
burdened with a dark secret. Perhaps it’s that they’re married to
To get to the world headquarters of Dan Snyder, the young pretender to
the global advertising oligarchy, you leave Washington DC for the
surrounding Virginia woods. After a morning in Washington - in summer
recess, the world’s most boring city - you’re desperate for a big
With the deadpan intonation of a tour guide, our amiable linebacker of a
driver imparts details that set the pulse racing: ’There’s the
That’s the CIA’s campus - you can’t see it of course, but it’s there OK,
hidden from the road. You see those trees up there? That’s where the
Clin’on’s lawyer committed suicide over Whitewater.
’Steve Case’s new house is over there, with a view of the Potomac. Cost
dollars 16 million.’ Case, the founder of America Online and America’s
second-richest man under 40, has just acquired Jackie Kennedy’s old
mansion. ’New money’s buying up the old,’ the driver says, leaving a
pregnant pause. ’This is my last week in this job. Then I’m going to
drive for (Mr Case) full-time.’
With that we sweep into Crawley business park, or is it Milton Keynes?
Three identical, antiseptic office buildings make Canary Wharf seem like
Soho. In the middle building where Snyder is based, I have a deli
sandwich with Donna Nicholson, Partners BDDH’s dynamic and enthusiastic
new-business director, who is my shadow for the trip. It’s 12.30. The
lunch-time rush is nearly over.
’You’re young,’ Snyder says insistently, ’you understand. The world has
changed.’ I believe mistakenly that he is addressing Nicholson. He can’t
mean me. Like Snyder, I’m 34 and married with two young daughters, but I
haven’t built up the world’s 11th-largest marketing services company,
nor have I just bought the Washington Redskins for dollars 850
He’s talking in the nondescript office that is the hub of the Snyder
Communications empire. It’s just like any other functional office in a
business park, only a little larger. And, in his double-breasted suit
and businessman’s spectacles, he could be any other smart, young,
thrusting US executive. ’Personality’ is provided by a framed ’number
seven’ Redskins shirt with Snyder’s name on it.
There’s no getting away from it, being the boss of the Washington
Redskins changed Snyder’s life. The Redskins, and their deadly rivals,
the Dallas Cowboys, are the Liverpool and Manchester United of American
football. In the US, it’s no longer Dan who? It’s Dan, the guy who owns
the Redskins. It sure impressed our driver.
This fulfilment of a childhood fantasy has come at a cost greater even
than the price. Although the Redskins deal was conducted as a personal
deal (Snyder led a private consortium - NFL rules preclude a corporation
from owning a franchise), there has been an uneasy coincidence of the
Redskins purchase and this summer’s pounding of the Snyder share price.
It made observers wonder whether the Midas touch had deserted him after
ten years of apparently inexorable growth. The recent three-way stock
split is the big throw of the dice aimed at resurrecting the company’s
position on Wall Street.
Before the fall, here’s the rise: Snyder, together with his sister,
Michele, now president and chief operating officer, founded the group in
He began in healthcare marketing, but not through healthcare ad agencies
as we have come to understand the term today.
Instead, Snyder provided advertising wallboards in doctors’ surgeries
and on campuses, and sales forces for major drugs companies like Bristol
Myers Squibb selling in the field directly to pharmacists and
The group also provides educational and marketing services to the
healthcare industry, ranging from books to conferences.
The Bounty ’new mother sample pack’ that most new mothers receive in
hospital is an example of the crossover between Snyder’s healthcare
division and his direct marketing operations.
Direct marketing, sales promotion, sampling and database marketing from
clients now constitute some 70 per cent of revenues from ’mainstream’
advertising - whatever that now means. Today, Brann is by far the
world’s largest global direct network.
It wasn’t until March 1998 that Snyder got sexy. That’s when it acquired
Arnold Communications, the Boston-based advertising agency that is best
known for stealing the US Volkswagen account away from the mighty DDB,
and then creating some great work including last year’s relaunch of the
Beetle. Arnold is the fastest-growing ad agency in the US.
The night before meeting Snyder, we’d had dinner in Boston with Ed
Eskandarian, the genial chairman and chief executive of Arnold.
’Advertising isn’t rocket science; I should know, I was a rocket
scientist,’ is a favourite Eskandarianism. It refers to his time spent
working as an engineer for NASA, designing heat shield tiles for the
Since Eskandarian himself acquired Arnold as a dollars 40
million-billing local shop in 1990, he has presided over its growth to
the dollars 1 billion-plus entity that it is today, with more than 1,100
employees and 15 offices in North America. The client list is headed by
Volkswagen, McDonald’s, Fleet Bank, Mobil and Bell Atlantic.
Soon after our visit, Arnold won the dollars 250 million US anti-smoking
The place is on a roll, breaking into the US top 15 and heading for the
top ten. What’s more, unlike many of its older rivals, it is doing so
organically, winning more than 20 accounts since the Snyder deal.
You can see why the combination of Snyder and Arnold was so attractive
to Partners BDDH’s chief executive, Nigel Long, last year. Not only was
Arnold as hot as any current US agency, but the Snyder group’s origins
in non-traditional advertising services appeared to be the right offer
for the times.
What’s more, the Snyder share price was on the march to its April 1999
high of dollars 52. The proposed dollars 27.7 million acquisition of
BDDH seemed like a great idea at the time. Particularly as payment was
in Snyder shares.
Then came the plunge. After months of tempered growth expectations, in
July this year Snyder announced a restructuring aimed at clarifying its
It was to be reborn as Snyder Communications (Arnold and Brann), Ventiv
(healthcare) and circle.com (new-media operations). However, the pounds
23 million restructuring cost was some dollars 10 million more than Wall
Street had anticipated, and the share price took a bath. Snyder lost 25
per cent of its value in one day and found itself trading at dollars 20
It has been a slow climb back. Some US analysts believe the stock was
punished too severely, and expect it to return to perhaps dollars 45 a
share. Certainly, the underlying performance of the group is better than
the recent stock performance.
The obvious, if insensitive, question to ask Snyder is therefore: you
can’t be very happy that your personal wealth has so diminished
’It’s not fun. It’s embarrassing. It’s not something you would say is
positive. But it’s not permanent,’ he says with quiet conviction. ’We’re
not expecting to double our stock in six weeks but in the next six
quarters you’ll see wonderful things take place. We believe that we’ve
had an over-reaction to the break-up of the company. We probably had too
much of a momentum-based shareholder-base. But we make dollars 100
So, were you over-valued?
’I don’t think we were ever over-valued. The stock got ahead of itself
at dollars 50. I’m not sure if you know, but we bought four million
shares back because we think it’s unbelievable value.’
One of the major reasons for the break-up is that Wall Street -
allegedly - never really understood Snyder Communications. Snyder
comments with resignation: ’We’re not that difficult to understand. But
in the three years we’ve been public, a lot of healthcare companies have
come in to the market. They are now in the same space as Snyder
Healthcare. These companies created a wall between healthcare and our
advertising businesses. Wall Street tends to put things into simple
boxes, and pharmaceuticals are not in favour right now.’
Surely the Redskins purchase has some bearing on this confusion?
’The Redskins and our stock price are unrelated,’ he responds, clearly
not for the first time. ’People like to make a coincidence of that. It
sounds very large, and it’s profitable business, but it’s 100 people -
nothing more (Snyder Communications now employs more than 9,000). It’s
more of a passion for me.’
It certainly gives him a profile. Snyder knows he can no longer afford
to be ’Dan who?’ if he is to be taken seriously as a global
Although he claims to have made his major acquisitions (’we’re not
looking for MacManus or Leo Burnett’), he is not entirely convincing on
Some acquisition is on the cards, particularly in New York, but Snyder
is refreshingly matter-of-fact on the subject. ’There’s not a whole lot
out there,’ he says, insisting he is not interested in placing flags on
Why should Snyder remain immune to the global business forces that
suggest there is not much future in being a mid-sized agency
’We may not. We may not,’ he says, smiling. ’But sometimes the little
fish can swallow the big fish.
’I think Arnold can be much bigger. If we continue to do the work we’re
doing, we’ll end up in the top ten very quickly.
I do buy the idea you can’t afford to be too small but I think we’ve got
enough meat and potatoes at Arnold and Partners BDDH. We’re not going to
open up fragmented offices in every country and cause old technology
problems in a new technology world.’
The new world order is a favourite theme: big groups are no longer run
by admen; it’s easier to cross-fertilise from below the line; the ’line’
is irrelevant; specialty and depth of service will be more important
than geography; the big players need to do something about conflict, and
get away from commission.
Snyder feels that most of the major advertising groups are pursuing
similar strategies, but that Snyder Communications is ’coming at it from
a different route’ because of its direct strength.
However, he does not believe that consultants are a threat, but is
interested in adding consultancy services to the group’s offer. ’I’m not
so sure you buy, maybe you build it,’ he says.
Snyder is clearly pleased with his Partners BDDH acquisition, although
despite dramatic growth in the past 18 months, it’s small beer compared
to Arnold. He refers flatteringly several times to Nigel Long, viewing
him as another of the relatively young managers he is so happy to have
’My age? It is an advantage. People see us for what we are, which is
very smart, strategic individuals. We don’t get into the
muckety-muck. This is not about corporate policies and procedures. Look
at IPG and the team there. I think we’re night and day on our
Omnicom is the competitor Snyder most admires because ’they’ve done the
best job of managing the convergence of the marketing world and
understanding their clients’ needs’. He also expresses personal
admiration for Peter Georgescu, the worldwide boss of Young & Rubicam,
but claims not to know too much about Martin Sorrell to whom he’s
One difference is his remuneration package. ’Do you know how much I get
paid? dollars 300,000. That’s it,’ he says with a tone that suggests I
should find such as a sum offensive. ’And stock options. But, I own a
lot of stock which I don’t plan on selling until it’s very, very high
one day.’ And the stock’s the point with Snyder. He’s a businessman,
with no great strategy, but an opportunistic bent. Whether he is here
for the duration or not depends on what that stock does over the next
few months in response to the three-way split.
I couldn’t say I knew Snyder having met him. An anglophile, he was
perfectly charming, polite, responsive and impenetrably middle-American.
He is an ordinary home-loving family man, who loves business and
grid-iron (obviously), but his achievements at such a young age are
I see where he’s coming from - literally - having been to Blair Witch
country. And, he’s not to be under-estimated. His companies really are
performing better than the stock. Arnold is the hottest agency in the
US. But, the stock’s the thing. If it doesn’t perform soon, then the
vultures will circle. But Snyder will come up smelling of roses, one way
He’s an opportunist.
As we leave, Snyder invites us both to the Superbowl in January (wow!)
and delves into a cupboard to hand us two American footballs. ’Hold on a
minute,’ he says. ’I’ll just get them signed.’ I’m gobsmacked. Where had
the Redskin players been lurking during our interview? But he gets out a
marker pen, and autographs the ball himself. ’Thanks for being a
Redskin, Stefano,’ he writes. I take it as a compliment. In Bethesda,
what else could it be?