Views differ on O’Neil’s agency exit

Views differ on O’Neil’s agency exit

Kenny, Jack

Gary O’Neil insists that his departure from his former advertising agency was “extremely amicable,” but it’s clear his new associates at Tracey/Edwards are more eager to gain his services than his former partners are sad to see him go.

The announcement, made a few days before Christmas, that O’Neil had sold his share in the Manchester-based ad agency of O’Neil Griffin Bodi and would be joining Tracey/Edwards marked an abrupt turn in the career of an executive who has been a major player on the New Hampshire advertising scene for nearly three decades.

His departure has resulted in the promotion of creative director and senior vice president Elaine Krause as a new partner in what will now be known as Griffin, Bodi & Krause.

O’Neil began his career with Allyn Associates in the early 1970s and launched his own agency, O’Neil and Associates, in 1975. The other principals changed several times, while the agency won state tourism and lottery contracts in the early ’80s. Pat Griffin joined the firm in 1985 and became a full partner in 1990, O’Neil said.

Mark Bodi, former marketing director for Numerica bank, joined the agency after Numerica and several other New Hampshire banks went under during the bank crisis of 1991. O’Neil’s work in partnership with other agencies introduced him to different advertising strategies, he said.

In New Hampshire, he found the Tracey/Edwards firm was “very heavy on branding strategies, and I thought for the next 10 or 15 years this would be an interesting thing to do.” OGB and Tracey/Edwards announced a merger in 1999, he said but it was soon called off. As O’Neil recalls, it was a case of “too many roosters” disputing “who gets what office, and that kind of thing.”

Merger talks were revived last summer, but were abandoned due to tax complications and differences over the valuation of each business, O’Neil said. “I think in reality, Pat (Griffin) and I thought it was getting too complicated:’ he said. “it was really taxes more than anything.” The latest discussions lasted a couple of months, he said, before another idea supplanted it.

“One idea was Pat buys me out and I do something different, and that was fine,” O’Neil said, “We weren’t at odds at all. More things happen to the good of both companies doing it this way.”

Griffin was not available to be interviewed but Bodi insisted neither he nor Griffin had any “direct discussions” with Tracey/Edwards over a possible merger.

“Those discussions were held by Gary alone and ultimately both Pat and I believed that we wanted to remain an independent firm,” Bodi said. O’Neil and Griffin, he said, “had differing perspectives regarding directions they thought we should take and I agreed emphatically with Pat.”

According to Bodi, the impression was growing that, because O’Neil “was not spending a great amount of time with the firm … he made it clear that his intention was to retire within a short time frame.”

Bodi said O’Neil’s departure comes after a period “over the last several years when he was not a presence in the firm, physically nor creatively.”

O’Neil, who has a second home in Charleston, S.C., had been spending most of his time and efforts out of state, Bodi said. “He was pursuing accounts near his home in South Carolina and for the most part, these efforts were not as successful as he hoped they would be. Perhaps it contributed to his decision to redirect his efforts to Tracey/Edwards.”

Different approach

O’Neil emphatically denied that he has been absent in client relationships, either here or in other states, calling such accusations “ridiculous.”

“I wrote the creative, did the research, wrote the strategy plans and (attended) a majority of the client meetings, with Mary Sartwell, our senior account executive, and, at times, with Elaine Krause, our creative director. I worked closely with the governor on the New Hampshire Works/New Hampshire Job Corps television campaign. I developed an account relationship with Martignetti Liquors of New Hampshire,” he said, rattling off a longer list of accounts that included campaigns for the Devine Millimet law firm, New Hampshire Business Review and The White Mountain School.

By his own reckoning, O’Neil spends about 80 percent of his time living and working in Manchester, while his wife remains at the couple’s South Carolina home for health reasons. Her medical condition requires her to avoid the cold of New England winters, he said.

He maintains a “full working office” at his out-of-state residence and had centinual telephone, fax and e-mail contact with the office in Manchester.

“Considering that our bankers, our accountant and our lawyers all had weekly contact with me, it’s hard to give credence to (Bodi’s) comments.”

O’Neil said he has been friends with Tracey/Edwards principals Kevin Tracey and Haden Edwards for many years and has worked with Edwards on the Manchester Sports Council during the past year. He said he likes their approach to the advertising business, he said.

“They have more of a reach outside of New Hampshire he said, adding that his former colleagues “wanted to do more political/controversial accounts – permitting issues, political candidates, approval of raceways, shopping centers and those kinds of things. I wanted to do more commercial advertising.” But Bodi points to the firm’s wide array of commercial accounts, including American Express Corporation, Lloyd’s of London and Chase Manhattan Bank as well as the state lottery and liquor commission and Catholic Medical Center, “We have been and continue to be by any measure the largest, most successfully integrated communications company in New Hampshire,” Bodi said.

Tracey/Edwards, in business since 1991, includes Bigelow Tea, Fluent Inc., Insight Technology and the Plymouth (Mass.) Savings Bank on its roster of clients.

“Our strategy from Day One was to become a national branding and advertising agency and we’ve become successful,” said Tracey. Bringing in O’Neil — whom he calls “the patriarch of advertising in New Hampshire” — will add to that success. he said.

“They had their view of how they wanted to conduct business and what they saw of the future, and I had a different view,” O’Neil said of his former partners. “With me departing the company, that gave everybody opportunity to pursue their own interests.”

He could not, however, resist pointing out yet another benefit for one of the principals involved.

“Bodi got a better parking place out of this deal,” he said. “His parking place is greatly enhanced. He should be happy.”

Copyright Business Publications Inc. Jan 07, 2005

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