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IN A SEA OF CHANGE, AN EBB AND FLOW OF CLIENTS

Buffalo's advertising community can identify with this past month's woolly weather, because its key players are no strangers to a mixture of mild and ill winds.

Just one month into 1999, the area's leading ad firm, Eric Mower & Associates, has already seen one of its key clients, Marine Midland Bank, move its account to competitor Wolf/Buffalo.

Meanwhile, Collins/Travers/Partners is still righting itself after Buffalo's Rich Products took most of its advertising and marketing work out of town last fall to Chicago-based O'Connell, Norton & Partners.

William A. Collins, a principal in the downtown agency, admitted the loss of the Rich business was a major setback, resulting in the layoff of six staffers and elimination of another six vacant positions.

"What happened to us in '98 underscores how tenuous a hold you have in this business," Collins said. "You have to take the bad with the good, because there are no guarantees that the accounts you have today will be around for any period of time."

Mower's Doug Bean is of a similar mind on the topic of accounts won and lost. He sees it as a fact of life in the volatile communications business.

"You hate to see positive relationships, like the one we had with Marine, come to an end, but it's the nature of this business," Bean said. "We're starting 1999 pretty much whole and expect to recover from the loss without any long-term damage."

With the signing of the multimillion-dollar Marine Midland account in hand, Wolf/Buffalo is looking to build on what was a prosperous 1998, said Al Offen, the agency's chief operating officer.

"1998 was a good one for us. We grew our business in the 15 percent range, which was very nice," Bolling said. "At this point in the year, I'd hope we could improve another 10 or 15 percent in '99. It was certainly nice to pick up the new Marine business to start off. Hopefully we'll pick up more on the new business side."

Wolf/Buffalo will work in concert with sister agency Partners & Shevack/Wolf, based in New York City, to assist Marine with its identity change to HSBC, an acronym for Hongkong Shanghai Bank Corp.

Tom Bolling, chief executive officer and executive creative director at Wolf/Buffalo, the market's No. 2 advertising and marketing firm, said while a name change is a daunting marketing task, it's an exciting creative opportunity.

"A brand is ultimately the impression people take away from a product or service," Bolling said. "While HSBC won't be on the tip of everyone's tongue overnight, Marine does so many things so right, its customers will be transferring very positive experiences to the new identity."

A key factor in Marine's selection of the Wolf agencies was the experience and geographic location of Partners & Shevack/Wolf. Bolling is the first to admit that his Buffalo office is reaping big benefits from being part of a communications firm whose talents stretch from Cleveland to Manhattan.

"It was the combination of Wolf/Buffalo and Partners & Shevack/Wolf that won the account. The Buffalo office alone would not have been able to make the same impact or the New York office alone, frankly," Bolling said.

"I think it says a lot for the acquisition choices that Wolf as a company has made, building our overall talents and synergies to serve clients."

The privately held Wolf Group has been on a recent acquisition blitz, adding Partners & Shevack to its stable in June 1998, a merger that doubled the size of its agency network.

The Toronto-based holding company's other recent additions include: Buffalo's Sirianno and Associates, DeGeorge Group of Toronto, and Cleveland's Meldrum & Fewsmith.

Larry Wolf, the company's chairman and chief executive officer, has stated that his goal is to "build the Wolf brand into one of North America's Top 20 integrated marketing communications resources within the next three years."

Bolling said he'd expect Wolf to announce one or two key acquisitions in the coming year to keep the company on track to achieve that ambitious milestone.

The Mower agency, Buffalo's No. 1 communications firm based on annual gross revenues, is also expecting a good year, despite the loss of Marine's business. Helping to fill that gap are new clients: Kohler, the country's leading plumbing fixture manufacturer, and Kodak Polychrome Co., a worldwide manufacturer of graphic arts products.

"We're lucky to have several longstanding clients and then we're able to add new business on top of that," Bean said.

Like Wolf, Mower is able to draw on the collective talents of its staff in four upstate New York cities to attract and serve clients. The agency currently employs 50 workers in Buffalo and about 140 in offices in Syracuse, Rochester and Albany. Mower said the company is considering opening a fifth office in White Plains.

Life at Buffalo's No. 3 ad firm has been less topsy-turvy, according to Joe Crowley, head of Crowley Webb & Associates.

"And I hope it stays that way," Crowley said. "This business is crazy enough without watching your client list spin like a revolving door. Unfortunately, we all go through the experience. It just wasn't our turn."

The veteran ad man, who made eight new hires in 1998 to bring his staff up to 56, is understandably happy about having just wrapped up a fourth consecutive record growth year, signing 11 new accounts. The agency also debuted a New York office and is considering putting down roots in Chicago in response to the growing needs of a key client, contact lens maker Wesley-Jessen.

The firm also expects to expand into the fifth floor of the building it occupies at 268 Main St. in downtown Buffalo to meet its growing space needs.

"I'm just so proud of our people and their talents. They're the ones who should get all the credit for our good fortune," Crowley said.

Growth is also the buzzword at Gelia, Wells and Mohr, which has the largest personnel roster of any area agency, with 85 staffers, up from 72 a year ago. The business, which moved into new quarters in Clarence a year ago to accommodate its rapid growth, credits the computer and telecommunications technology for its good fortune.

"The Internet has been our savior," said partner Jamie Phipps. "We also owe our livelihood to Mac computers, videoconferencing, e-mail, voice mail and FedEx. With those tools we are able to service out-of-town clients as seamlessly as if they were right down the street."

Phipps and his partners recognized early on that with a shrinking pool of local corporate clients, they could tap high-tech avenues to transcend geographic barriers. It's a strategy that continues to pay off for them.

"In '98 our growth was around 30 percent," Phipps said. "We were able to achieve that by having the tools we need to service out-of-town accounts. We have also learned to be brave enough to pitch our services around the country, and that confidence has paid off."

At Collins/Travers/Partners, 1999 will be "a rebuilding year," according to Collins.

"No, we don't have that nice chunk of Rich Products business we had last year at this time, but they are still a significant client for a number of other projects," he said.

The firm also retains key contracts with Independent Health, Cellular One and Gibraltar Steel, and is a finalist to pick up at least two new major clients.

"We're lean and mean and ready to go. With some luck, at this time next year I'll be complaining that I can't hire new staffers fast enough to keep up with the work. That's how this business goes," Collins added.