Where did you go, Earle Palmer Brown?
A decade ago, Earle Palmer Brown Co. was experiencing its golden years as the Washington area's advertising titan. Today it is a memory, a victim of ill-conceived expansion and industry consolidation. To its many alumni in Washington, it is a symbol of the region's shining moment in the advertising industry, now dulled by a lackluster economy.
The Bethesda shop built a national reputation off its roster of nationally and locally known brands, such as the Roy Rogers fast-food chain, Weight Watchers and USAir. It billed clients more than $400 million a year, a staggering amount for the region. The firm's TV and print ads snagged national awards.
More than 400 employees worked in a network of Earle Palmer Brown's offices from Tampa to New York, including the four-story brick headquarters next to a drugstore in Bethesda. The firm became a training ground for local talent and a source of labor for other agencies. Many credit the company with invigorating the area's advertising scene, similar to what the Martin Agency, a large firm with Coca-Cola, United Parcel Service and Hanes among its clients, did for Richmond.
"Even more important is that we have become part of the fabric of the community," Earle Brown, the firm's founder, said in an interview in 1992, the company's 40th anniversary. At that time his son, Jeremy E. "Jeb" Brown, who took over the reins at Earle Palmer Brown from his father, had recently managed the company's expansion of offices through acquisitions up and down the East Coast. That year company officials were busy planning the next 40 years.
But by then, the firm's best years had largely passed, and after 10 more years it would meet its demise. It marked the fall of one of the most storied names in the local advertising market.
Last year, Earle Palmer Brown's remaining operations in New York, Philadelphia and Bethesda ground to a stop. The firm's parent company, New York holding firm Panoramic Communications, put the agency's offices up for sale or closed them as Earle Palmer Brown became hobbled by the slowed economy. Panoramic's largest investor, Swiss firm PubliGroupe, halted further investment, speeding along Panoramic's breakup.
Jeb Brown, who became president and chief executive of Earle Palmer Brown in 1976 and was chief executive of Panoramic until he stepped down in 2001, said PubliGroupe was prompted by the sagging economy to reverse its original plan to expand his company.
"It was a case of the guys who bought the company changed and their vision of what they wanted to do changed," said Brown, who is in his mid-fifties. "They decided they'd rather unwind the company. I was most upset because a lot of very good people ended up losing their jobs, and a lot of very good clients were mistreated."
In a deal with Havas, parent firm of Arnold Worldwide of Boston, Arnold's McLean office bought the assets of Earle Palmer Brown's former flagship Bethesda office and absorbed 30 of its workers, including principals Woody Kay and Charlie Jones.
Earle Palmer Brown established itself as a skilled creative agency able to collect both regional and national business. But it was later hurt by its over-expansion, said Jones, former president of the firm's Bethesda office and now Arnold's chief operating officer in McLean.
"Our economic infrastructure was too damaged by the economy and the over-expansion to pull it off," Jones said. "We were running a good shop in Washington, but our parent structure would not allow us to continue."
To some, the company's dissipation was not an isolated loss -- they say it also spelled the end of an era for the local ad industry in general.
Earle Brown, who continued to visit his flagship agency regularly after his son took over, said the company's dismantling is a sign of tougher economic times for the ad market.
"There have been a lot of people in the business who started with us," the 80-year-old Brown said recently. "It's sort of sad in a way, but everything has its time. The very small agency will survive, but the agencies that are pretty much in the middle are going to have trouble."
Charles J. Brotman, the head of Brotman Winter Fried, one of the District's largest sports and entertainment communications firms, said he was "discovered" by Earle Brown in 1969, when Brown offered him his first marketing account -- the Rosecroft Raceway. The two have remained close friends over the decades.
"Everyone looks up to Earle like he's the Godfather; perhaps he's the Godfather of advertising now," Brotman said. "I think he treated [the agency] like one of his children. He created its birth, and he watched it grow and grow."
Jeb Brown, the eldest of six children, joined the firm in 1974 at his father's request. He had an MBA from Harvard and a few years of experience working with Chicago agency Leo Burnett. Unlike his father, the younger Brown was set on the company's expansion as a multidisciplinary agency offering advertising, public relations, direct marketing and other services. Through mergers and acquisitions, Earle Palmer Brown absorbed high-profile firms in an effort to achieve national stature. In 1991 the company had 13 offices, but it later scaled down to nine and eventually focused on just five locations: Bethesda, Richmond, Philadelphia, New York and Tampa.
In the late 1990s, the firm's fortunes began to crumble as it lost some of its largest clients and went through a steady churn of employees. Some former employees say the turnover stemmed in part from internal disagreement with Jeb Brown's vision, a sharp departure from his father's, who built Earle Palmer Brown as an essentially local firm. The agency's growth had added firms with clashing disciplines and different visions, including some technology-based firms that later collapsed during the dot-com bust. That, coupled with the overall industry's waning health, hit Earle Palmer Brown hard, former agency employees said.
The company's annual billings plummeted 59 percent from $417 million in 1991 to $172 million in 2000, the last year the agency reported its billings to New York's Adweek magazine.
Earle Palmer Brown's tear of acquisitions in the late '80s and early '90s made the company unwieldy, sparking increased turnover among disgruntled employees and possibly hurting new business prospects, said Mark D. Goldstein, who resigned in 1993 as Earle Palmer Brown's Bethesda office president after nearly 19 years with the firm to join Minneapolis agency Fallon McElligott.
"Earle Palmer Brown imploded because it lacked a reason for being," said Goldstein, Fallon's chief marketing director. "It wasn't a great creative agency. It wasn't a great integrated agency. What it was was an assortment of companies brought together with little or no relationship with each other."
Goldstein said he sensed the agency had lost its direction in 1992, when the company made a pitch for an account with BMW and narrowly lost it to another firm.
"One of the big reasons we didn't win is that [BMW] didn't have confidence in the agency's business strategy," Goldstein said. "That made me think that if I wanted to accomplish the things I wanted, then I needed to leave."
But leaving the firm was hard, and watching it disappear was even harder, he said. "I'm very saddened by it," Goldstein said. "It's tough to see a 50-year-old industry brand go away."
Jeb Brown acknowledged that in retrospect, he, along with other Earle Palmer Brown executives, may have made a few missteps, such as acquiring firms grounded in technology, some of which no longer exist. He said the company bought four tech firms; two of them closed, and the others changed focus.
"The technology companies that we owned were hurt like everybody else's," Brown said. "We didn't go into it in an overwhelming way. It wasn't a huge financial commitment. All I can say is it could have been a lot worse."
Brown, a Potomac resident, has four children, from a sixth-grader to a college freshman. He has started a home development venture and remains a partner in Yesawich, Pepperdine, Brown & Russell, an Orlando public relations firm and former Panoramic affiliate.
"I'm involved in the YPB operation in Florida; that way I'm keeping involved in the industry, but I'm not sure that I'm going to try to restart the whole operation again," Jeb Brown said. "The agency business is a very tough business."
His father has left the industry behind. Since officially "retiring" from the firm last year, he writes a weekly column for a Montgomery County newspaper, participates in local university activities and lives in Potomac with his wife and two boxers, Rex and Bessie. He recently quit one of his favorite hobbies, tennis, after suffering a stroke, though he has since recovered.
He still holds his namesake agency in high esteem.
"I was very happy when it was a Washington agency," Brown said.
Ads and Ends
The D.C. Lottery awarded two 12-month media-buying contracts worth $990,000 -- one to Reston-based HR Communications, its current ad design firm, and the other to District advertising agency MDB Communications, which previously created advertising for the lottery for three years, until 1996. . . . Columbia-based Stern Agency was selected to handle advertising for the Hyatt Regency Chesapeake Bay Golf Resort, Spa and Marina in Cambridge, Md. The resort opened last August. . . . The Labor Department hired Bethesda marketing firm Jill Tanenbaum Graphic Design & Advertising to compile photos and stories into a booklet, "Faces of Change," targeting child labor initiatives. . . . Baltimore agency Carton Donofrio Partners won an advertising contract with Thinq Learning Solutions, a Baltimore Internet learning-systems firm. Billings were not disclosed. . . . Registration is being accepted for DCDotComm, a day-long Internet marketing, e-commerce and online media planning conference next Monday at the District's Omni Shoreham Hotel. More than 200 attendees are expected. For information, call 703-683-5561. . . . Baltimore Internet advertising firm Advertising.com added three clients, content Web sites Maps.com and Dictionary.com and advertising agency Margeotes, Fertitta & Partners. . . . Friday is the entry deadline for this year's Addy awards, sponsored by the Advertising Club of Metropolitan Washington. The awards show will be held in April.
Sabrina Jones writes about the local advertising and marketing industry every other Monday in Washington Business. Her e-mail address is email@example.com. Brown's Rise and Fall 1952: Earle Brown, a Long Island native, starts a public relations firm and picks up his first client, Washington's Statler Hotel, now the Capital Hilton. He sets up his office in a hotel room with a part-time assistant. 1960: Brown adds advertising to his company's public relations services, making the agency one of the few in Washington to offer both services under one roof. 1974: Brown's son Jeb, a Harvard MBA who worked a stint at Chicago's Leo Burnett advertising firm, joins Earle Palmer Brown. The senior Brown becomes president of the Rosecroft Raceway and participates in Maryland political campaigns and other civic activities. 1976: Twenty-nine-year-old Jeb Brown becomes EPB's president and chief executive. 1983: AdWeek magazine says EPB is "among the hottest agencies of 1983." 1984: EPB takes a major step in establishing itself as a regional agency, buying Kalish & Rice, one of Philadelphia's largest advertising firms. EPB reports that its billings grew to $84 million; clients include American Security Bank, Safeway and Hechinger Co. 1986: The agency lands one of its largest contracts: USAir. EPB's billings surpass $100 million as it produces campaigns for well-known brands, such as the Roy Rogers fast-food chain. 1987: EPB buys the Burton-Campbell agency in Atlanta. 1989: EPB opens offices in New York, Tampa, and the District. Billings reach about $300 million. 1991: At its peak, the company has 13 offices and annual billings of $400 million. Executive Creative Director Bill Westbrook, the talent behind EPB's most successful campaigns, resigns and joins Richmond's Martin Agency. 1993: Mark D. Goldstein, president of EPB's Bethesda office, leaves. The move caps a string of management defections. 1996: EPB loses its largest client, USAir, which was worth $25 million in annual billings and accounted for a third of the firm's revenue. Other major clients, including the Florida Lottery and Roy Rogers, also switch to other firms. EPB closes its Richmond office after losing the Virginia Lottery's $15 million account. 2000: Under Jeb Brown, EPB forms an umbrella company called Panoramic Communications, which becomes the parent firm of EPB and other marketing businesses. Swiss communications company PubliGroupe later acquires a controlling stake in Panoramic. 2001: Jeb Brown steps down as chief executive of Panoramic as the company begins to dismantle under rising losses. 2002: Panoramic dissolves EPB. The McLean office of Arnold Worldwide absorbs 30 employees from EPB's Bethesda office. SOURCE: Washington Post research, Earle Palmer Brown