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Advertising: Ad firms seek local prominence Ketchum agency once had

Sunday, March 25, 2001

By Teresa F. Lindeman, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Rueful applause broke out at the recent Pittsburgh Advertising Club's awards show when a tiny, black-and-white death notice flashed on the screen.

Titled R.I.P., the award-winning entry marked the loss of the region's venerable Ketchum Advertising.

"On Sept. 1, 1999, Ketchum, age 77, passed from this world. Beloved agency of Heinz, Rubbermaid, Old Frothingslosh, Westinghouse, PPG and others. Loving father of such lines as 'A Manwich is a meal.' And 'Calgon. Take me away.' National independent agency with offices in five countries."

Ironically, the item listed Egan/St. James -- the agency that emerged from two successive sales of Ketchum's advertising operations -- as a survivor. It was intended as a promotional piece.

But Egan/St. James didn't make it either. The entry came from Blattner Brunner Inc., which swallowed its competitor the following summer.

At this point, it's not clear if any advertising agency will gain the prominence that Ketchum once had, both regionally and nationally.

Marc USA replaced Ketchum as the largest shop in town back in the mid-1990s. With $684 million in total billings and $220 million in its local office, it has used an acquisition strategy to establish a presence across the country. Just last year, Marc took out another local name by buying the St. George Group.

Marc also has been successful in a number of account pitches. Its clients include True Value Corp., Rite Aid, UPMC Health Systems and Eat'n Park Restaurants.

It has yet to be acclaimed as the best creative shop in town. Blattner Brunner is making a run for that crown, this year dominating the Addy award show with honors for everything from television ads for Zippo lighters to direct marketing materials for PPG Automotive Glass and newspaper spreads for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.

When former Ketchum Chairman Bill Genge took the stage to be inducted into the ad club's hall of fame, he joked, "Can you imagine how far I would have gone if I'd been with Blattner Brunner?"

Another major local player, Hallmark/Tassone, decided last year that being acquired made sense strategically. Now HMS Hallmark, the agency is a subsidiary of Columbus, Ohio-based HMS Partners which recently bought another Columbus ad group to build its holdings.

More shifting seems likely as district agencies cope with consolidation among their clients as well as changes in technology and marketing.

It's not unusual now to see a large customer assign various aspects of an account to different agencies, said Cheri Gmiter, president of the Pittsburgh Advertising Club and sales manager for KDKA AM. One might handle sales promotion, another do public relations and still another interactive media.

Technology has changed the business in many ways. On the simple side, broadcast commercials are rarely made just for television viewing anymore, said Gmiter. The same spot needs to be done so it can be shown on the Internet, too.

In a more complicated example, cable and online advances now make it easier to place specific ads in front of the appropriate customers. Gmiter noted that instead of targeting, say, males 25 to 54, advertisers can now get their messages in front of 35-year-old men with two children.

While the changes have created more niche markets and specialty shops, competitive forces seem alive and well in the region. The black-draped audience at the Benedum Center for the Performing Arts clustered in company groups, cheering heartily for friends and co-workers. Joe Blattner, for one, got more enthused as his company's awards piled up, throwing up his hands in celebration when Blattner Brunner took the final prize -- Best of Show.

Another Hall of Fame honoree urged the crowd to enjoy the game while they're still in it.

John Waldron, formerly president and creative director of HBM/Creamer, Pittsburgh, delivered an ode to the business that celebrated the long meetings, the unlimited supply of yellow legal pads, the all-night red eyes and the creativity under fire as the battle for an account waged on.

With a nod to the 1979 war movie "Apocalypse Now," Waldron proclaimed, "I love the smell of napalm in the conference room."

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